Friday, March 9, 2012


March 9, 2012:

The other day, trying to keep up, always a challenge, I read a piece in the New York Review of Books by William Nordhaus on climate change, and here is Paul Krugman, writing today about Republicans and higher education, under the ironic title "Ignorance Is Strength." Republicans doubt the value of higher education, according to Krugman, partly because in the colleges and universities the scientific faculty are all Democrats (which they are, reports Krugman, by a factor of nine to one); and they can see them corrupting the minds of America's young with leftist ideology--like climate change. When in fact we all know from the Bible, which is the only book that anybody really needs, that God put the earth here for mankind to use as we wish, and God being Almighty, we therefore have nothing to fear from the earth. He'll fix everything.

Fifty years ago that would have been a gross mischaracterization of the Republican position on such an issue; then Republicans were as eager to develop nuclear energy, cure cancer, and ride the sciences to the future as Democrats were. Now, it seems, not so much. Now they remind me of the Catholic Church in Galileo's time. No, the Church thundered, the sun revolves around the earth, as do the planets and the stars, and there are 1,029 stars (really; that was the count), they are fixed in the sphere they belong to, as are the planets, each in its sphere, and the moon in its. They put Galileo on trial for his life for demonstrating otherwise, and in 1610, if I have the date right, they forbade the teaching of what we know now to be the truth, on the literal pain of Inquisition: i.e., torture. Galileo sensibly recanted, saving his skin, and ultimately the truth prevailed.

But it takes a long time for the truth to prevail. Copernicus first introduced his theory that the earth revolved around the sun, and not vice versa, in 1543, give or take a year; it took about 150 years before it was generally accepted in astronomical circles, and for some in the Church it was not until the nineteenth century that it became an acceptable fact. Ignorance is always slow to dissipate. In the Middle Ages it was taken as fact that the Garden of Eden was a real place, still existing in the world, and there was a great deal of speculation about where exactly it was to be found; speculation continued into the age of exploration, into the Renaissance, and Columbus was persuaded he had found the site in what we now know to be South America, at the headwaters of the Orinoco. A hundred years later Sir Walter Raleigh bought into this idea, too, and pressed his search for El Dorado into the same area. You still see on TV the occasional documentary about people searching Mt. Ararat in Turkey for the remains of Noah's Ark, even though it is a settled fact that there is not and never has been enough water on the earth to cover it to the altitude it would require to place an ark there. The Garden of Eden, by the way, stood on a mountain high enough to allow it to escape the Flood: that was Doctrine.

And now, climate change. Global warming. If the planet has not shrugged us off by then, as it shrugged off the dinosaurs, we will look back four or five hundred years hence and wonder at the same level of the doctrinaire, the same kind of embrace of ignorance represented now by the Republican Party as was embraced by the Catholic Church four or five hundred years earlier. It is amazing. Fifty years ago, when I was young, I would never have predicted this; Republicans and Democrats alike were science enthusiasts, and when John Glenn orbited the earth, the first American to do so, the whole country rejoiced. Not just Democrats. And what made that orbit possible? The Enlightenment. The scientific revolution that began in the late Renaissance and followed it into modern times. Hundreds of years, in other words, of scientific and technological development that left antique, mythical conceptions of the universe and the earth's place in it far behind.

What happened to that Republican Party? The Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhauer had been for a few years the president of Columbia University, and there was little question about his commitment to knowledge and science. The appallingly ignorant George W. Bush had no idea where Iraq was until he invaded it and had never, if I remember correctly, been to Europe before he ran for president. Increasingly we stand alone in the developed world, not at the head of it but at the rear. Our schools are bad and getting worse; our students are falling farther and farther behind; and a significant percentage of the electorate thinks global warming is an elitist myth. Evidently it will take a real Flood this time to wake them up to reality. Four or five hundred years from now people, if there are still many of them left, will look back and say, "They could have prevented it from happening. What were they thinking? Just how stupid were they?"

There's something about the human mind, something in it that fears knowledge and the change it brings, that clings to old certainties or what it thinks are certainties, that wants everything to stay just as it was in the good old days. It's the same thing that condemned Socrates to drink the hemlock, that locked Galileo in a dungeon and threatened him with the rack, and that now denies the truth of global warming and wants to believe that evolution is "just a theory." And it is this that now dominates one of our two major political parties and seeks the power to return us to much darker times, when knowledge was persecuted and suppressed as a matter of policy and everybody knew his or her place.