It’s almost a distant memory now, but there was a time when America and Americans believed in science. Sure, there were disputes about things like evolution and the origin of the universe, but most Americans accepted the fact that scientists were unraveling mysteries and making us more informed about the universe around us.
But that all started to change in the 1980s. Ronald Reagan’s embrace of the religious right and that group’s seizure of the Republican party started the country down a path to where we are now, the rejection of science and the scientific method by a substantial number of Americans.
One of the most outspoken critics of the anti-science trend is astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. On Wednesday Tyson released a four-minute video on Facebook that contains what he says “may be the most important words I have ever spoken.”
Tyson’s video begins with a review of America’s scientific past, and how we rose to be a global economic power thanks to our investments in science. Then he presents a clip of the current vice president of the United States, Mike Pence, when he was a member of Congress, calling for evolution to be taught in schools not as “fact” but as “theory.” Now there are plenty of people who don’t understand that for scientists, a theory virtually the same thing as a fact. That’s partly due to incorrect use of the word “theory” when someone actually means “hypothesis.” It’s understandable when an average Joe makes that mistake. But it’s a different story when words like that come out of the mouth of someone who should know better, and who is in a position to make rejection of science into official policy.
Tyson offers a sobering assessment of the current attitude about science that is coming not only from the masses of Americans who may not have gotten the best education, but from leaders elected by those masses who share their skepticism of the scientific process.
I’m old enough to remember the 60s and the 70s. We had a hot war and a cold war, a civil rights movement, and all this was going on. But I don’t remember any time when people were standing in denial of what science was.
I’m about the same age as Tyson, and he’s right. I don’t remember that either. I know my mother, a devoted church-goer all her life, not being crazy about evolution. But I recall that she was willing to consider the possibility that her god used evolution as his tool for creation.
In many ways we didn’t know as much then as we know now, yet we seemed to know so much more. Our parents dutifully took us down to the local firehall for measles vaccines. Nobody questioned whether getting vaccinated was a good thing, and nobody attacked our parents as “sheeple” for getting it done. When we looked up into the sky we saw the con trails from jets and nobody ever said it was a plot to disperse chemicals into the atmosphere.
One thing Tyson neglects to mention is that we have seen anti-science movements before. The Inquisition, that imprisoned Galileo for the “heresy” of suggesting that the earth revolves around the sun. The Khmer Rouge, led by Pol Pot, who wanted to return Cambodia to the year “zero.” And more recently, the anti-science Islam of The Taliban and ISIS. Not exactly movements most Americans would want to identify with, but in terms of their attitude toward science have a lot in common with some Americans.
Tyson’s message is worth four minutes of your time, even if you already agree with him. Have a look: