In 2002, Jenny Uglow, an English scholar and biographer, wrote The Lunar Men, following the 1760s exploits of a small group of men – the Lunar Society of Birmingham. The book details a slice of the English 18th Century Enlightenment, a period when the intelligentsia of England were discovering the power of science. This is from the book jacket, “Among them were the ambitious toymaker Matthew Boulton and his partner James Watt, of steam-engine fame, the potter Josiah Wedgwood; and the larger-than-life Erasmus Darwin, physician, poet, inventor, and the theorist of evolution (a forerunner of his grandson Charles). Later came Joseph Priestley, fighting radical and discoverer of oxygen…. Blending science, art, and commerce, the Lunar Men built canals, launched balloons; named plants, gases, and minerals; changed the face of England and the china in its drawing rooms; and plotted to revolutionize its soul.” Subtitled “Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World”, The Lunar Men is a testament to the power of curiosity and scientific method. It’s a great read if you are curious about the history of science – about how the amazing tools we use came to be.
I had the privilege to grow up in a family where science and knowledge were core values. My dad worked on the design of our nuclear submarines. My older brother was building radio receivers at 10 or 11 out in the workshop while I squandered Saturday mornings watching Cowboy shows. But enough of it rubbed off on me so that I and several other members of the family have amateur radio licenses. The night before last I talked with my brother 100 miles away over our own rigs – mine hooked up to a jury-rigged dipole antenna strung out in the back yard. What is fascinating is that it works, that we actually know how to do it, and, at least in a descriptive way, can tell you how it works. Because real science is power and because there is only one objective reality – a set of truths that one can discover and use.
Noted astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson recently released a four minute video podcast on the subject “Science in America”. Tyson’s video is a warning to us, a wake up call that too many of us take the science for granted, are smug in our own ignorance even as to what science means or how it works. Hence we have a puzzling juxtaposition. Right-wing Trump supporters believe blatant lies and deny the established science. The head of the EPA denies the science of global-warming, Mr. Pence argues that evolution should be taught as only a “theory”. Those same people benefit every minute from the products of modern science; they tweet on their IPhones, heat their bagels in microwaves, and head out to work in their BMWs. Logically these alternate realities should not coexist. But they do. And now Trump and his allies are dismantling the government protections of the Environmental Protection Agency and the impetus toward renewable resources, all the while publicly pondering whether Nuclear Weapons should be kept on the shelf or might not be so dangerous after all.
In short, we face an existential threat because, not only is the science real, but because ignorance of it, ignorance of what is true, can have consequences. If you haven’t seen it yet, also take a look at this Wally Shawn interview with Noam Chomsky; find the link at my blog My Dinner with Noam. Am I being too intolerant to suggest that willful ignorance deserves public contempt?