DeFlip Side #84: Embrace Reason

DS84.mp3

Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

Well, here we find ourselves in the midst of an unprecedented presidential race, a battle for the White House that transcends politics and elbows its way into history, as it will result in either a black president or a female vice president. All of us, Republican and Democrat, should feel privileged to witness such an occasion; it’s a significant milestone for our society, and heralds a shift in America’s standing on the world stage.

Ironically, these exciting prospects for the future have made think a lot about the past, back to another time when politics collided with history, on the eve of an equally pivotal shift of America’s direction, both at home and in the world—a shift spurred by President John F. Kennedy’s drive for the stars:

“No nation which expects to be the leader of other nations can expect to stay behind in this race for space. Those who came before us made certain that this country rode the first waves of the industrial revolution, the first waves of modern invention, and the first wave of nuclear power, and this generation does not intend to founder in the backwash of the coming age of space. We mean to be a part of it—we mean to lead it.”

And lead it we did, from that speech at Rice University in September 1962, all the way to the moon landing in 1969. To be sure, the jet age was riddled with false starts and failed promises—as evidenced by the notable lack of moon bases, jet boots and flying cars—but it was a remarkable era in American accomplishment, due mainly to our nation’s wholesale embrace of science, research and ingenuity, and the limitless possibilities they held for America’s future.

But here we are, 46 years to the month since Kennedy gave that rousing speech; and in the dawn of this new century, America’s faith in science has become disturbingly precarious.

A recent study in the journal Science found that 39 percent of Americans overtly reject the theory of evolution. Let me say that again: 39 percent. The only country with a higher percentage is Turkey, where a full 75 percent of the population rejects the theory of evolution. How can America—the leader of the free world—be second only to Turkey in ignorance in the 21st Century? What happened to make such a large percentage of Americans abandon science and reason?

Well, according to the study, it’s because many Americans don’t really understand biology or genetics—a fact supported by international testing in 2006, where American students ranked poorly in science and did even worse in mathematics. Another contributing factor to our nation’s scientific decline, say researchers, is the literal interpretation of the Bible by a Christian minority that has gotten loud enough and organized enough to politicize science.

As study co-author Jon Miller of Michigan State University put it:

“American Protestantism is more fundamentalist than anybody except perhaps the Islamic fundamentalist, which is why Turkey and we are so close.”

If you’re anything like me, that statement makes your blood run cold. More chilling yet is how close this ignorance is coming to shaping public policy in America. Which brings me back to this year’s presidential race and, more specifically, the McCain/Palin ticket.

Like the rest of the world, I was surprised by McCain’s vice presidential nominee, Alaskan Governor Sarah Palin. But maybe not for the same reasons as everyone else. Since I saw her acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, I can’t get over how much I like her. She’s smart, she’s well-spoken, she’s confident and she’s personable in a way that Hillary Clinton has never been. She’s a shot in the arm to McCain’s stodgy demeanor. Put simply, she’s got it, whatever it is, and I have no doubt that she would be an effective vice president. Her only problem is that she’s probably the biggest threat to science and rational thought this country has ever faced.

Palin has made no secret of her devout belief in Christianity, and it’s wonderful that she so fully lives her faith. What’s not so wonderful is that she wouldn’t mind seeing it taught in our public schools. Back in 2006 when she was running for Governor, she was asked if creationism should be on the science curriculum with evolution. Here’s what she said, as reported in the Anchorage Daily News:

“Teach both. You know, don’t be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important, and it’s so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both. It’s okay to let kids know that there are theories out there. They gain information just by being in a discussion.”

Fair enough, I guess, except for one key fact: one is science; the other isn’t. The theory of evolution is grounded in rigorous scientific investigation and deduction, and is supported by the fossil record to the extent where it is almost indisputable. But rigorous adherence to scientific principal requires that evolution remain a theory since, despite this preponderance of hard evidence, there’s no way for scientists ever to be 100 percent certain, short of building a time-machine.

Creationism, on the other hand, couched in the pseudo so-called science of Intelligent Design, posits that the extreme complexity of life on Earth reveals the guiding hand of a higher intelligence. But it’s a specious argument, coated in a thin patina of sciencey-sounding logic that doesn’t stand up to the scientific method. Advocates like Palin may call it just another competing theory to the origins of life; but by that logic, you might as well teach the Hollow Earth theory in geography class, and that babies are found in cabbage patches in sex-ed.

There’s probably no danger of that, though, since Palin is a bit hazy when it comes to sex-ed. She’s on record saying that she doesn’t mind it taught in schools, so long as it’s not too explicit. Well, any meaningful sex-ed is going to be unavoidably explicit, since it’s bound to deal with penises and vaginas and the intersection of the two. So some clarification from the Governor would be nice on this point.

But Palin has been crystal clear on her stance about one of the byproducts of sex—educated or otherwise: unexpected pregnancy. She is unabashedly anti-abortion, even in cases of incest or rape. Her only exception is if the life of the mother is threatened. This is a radical stance, but it’s one I can respect since she obviously stands behind her convictions.

The problem comes when these convictions get in the way of scientific advancement, specifically in stem cell research. Here’s what Palin had to say about that during a gubernatorial debate in 2006:

“Here again, with a pro-life position—and it’s interesting that so many questions I guess do revolve around that centeredness that I have of respecting life and the potential of every human life—that no, stem cell research that would ultimately end in destruction of life I couldn’t support.”

This statement again signals a steadfast refusal to acknowledge scientific reality. Never mind the countless potential lives that could be improved or saved by stem cell therapies. Where does she think the majority of stem cells would come from? It’s not like a cottage industry of abortion mills will pop up to meet sudden demand. Countless potential fetuses are destroyed every single day at In Vetro fertilization clinics all across the country. It’s a ready supply that could more than meet the demand—and speaking as someone who has gone through the In Vitro process personally, I found stem cell research much preferable to outright destruction.

But what I find least preferable and most disquieting about Palin has nothing to do with science. Again, according to the Anchorage Daily News, while she was mayor of Wasilla she inquired with her local librarian about the procedure for removing books from the library that some citizens might find offensive. She never acted to actually remove any books, but the fact that she even asked tells me all that I need to know.

Still, to Palin’s credit, she has apparently never shoehorned her religious beliefs into actual policy—which is something else that makes me like her, in spite of myself. It proves that you can have a person of deep faith who respects the separation of church and state. But when you come down to it, Sarah Palin will be a literal heartbeat away from the presidency. And if she ever does land in that position, she’s bound to surround herself with people of like Conservative mind, and will likely appoint them to key federal positions, like judgeships. And I doubt that many of them will be as scrupulous as Palin when it comes to imposing their personal beliefs on decisions that will affect all of us, perhaps for generations to come.

So I’m not telling you how to vote. But I implore you to examine what’s at stake and, above all, embrace reason.

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