It frustrates me bitterly that the works of the Enlightenment are almost forgotten in America’s universities. Science classes ignore them because scientists must focus on the most current understanding of our world. Humanities classes ignore them because the Age of Enlightenment, with its rationality and empiricism, is seen as the oppressor of creative expression.
But we owe so much to this age, which abolished god-appointed kings, established the sciences that so dramatically improved our quality of life, and brought forth the rational radical ideas of equality and human rights. The Enlightenment is the foundation for humanism, and I think everyone should celebrate the myriad brilliant works of the revolutionary minds who contributed to it.
My article Never a Magic Bullet: The Personal and Public Dimensions of Gun Ownership and Gun Violence is appearing in the March/April edition of the Humanist. Much of the article is an appeal for rational, civil discourse on the subject, but I did have one dimension where I have a strong opinion. Not surprisingly, it has to do with scientific integrity:
In 1996, Congress stripped the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control of funding for research that “may be used to advocate or promote gun control.” In 2010 the NRA successfully lobbied to have restrictions placed on the ability of doctors to gather data about patient gun use into the Affordable Health Care for America Act. In 2012 the National Institutes of Health (NIH) was prohibited from spending money “to advocate or promote gun control.” Most egregiously, a 2011 bill signed into law by Florida Gov. Rick Scott made it illegal for doctors in the state to ask patients if they own guns, preventing even pediatricians from asking parents if their guns are stored safely away from children.
The Reason Rally
I remember unexpectedly having that conversation with my mother in law while riding in the car recently:
“What do you mean Sagan isn’t going to be raised Christian?” she asked when we accidentally let slip that he wouldn’t be going to a Christian church.
“There’s lots of possible belief systems out there,” Vicky answered, “and we’re going to let him decide for himself.”
“When he’s old enough, he can read the Bible if he wants,” I said.
“Old enough?” Grandma asked.
“Ummm,” I hesitated and decided to just let it out, “Yeah. When he’s old enough to read stories about daughters getting their father drunk to have sex with him, a husband giving his wife to be raped by a mob and then chopping her up into pieces to mail to his allies, a prophet summoning bears to devour children for teasing him about his male-pattern baldness, fathers sacrificing their virgin daughters to god as thanks for victory in war, mothers entering contracts to eat one another’s’ sons, … You know, when he’s old enough to be exposed to those kinds of stories.”
“Ha. Ha,” Grandma chuckled. “Yeah. I see what you mean.”
It’s so strange that in a world where humans can see to the edge of the Universe, live to a century through modern medicine, access unimaginable volumes of information online, and fly all over the world that I am still put in the awkward position from time to time of having to explain to someone that I don’t believe in any of the mythical invisible entities known as “gods.” It’s also awkward because I don’t walk around all day thinking about the fact that I don’t think about such deities. I don’t identify as a non-theist any more than I identify as a non-Mr. Snuffleupagusist. I identify as a Scientist a person who focuses on our shared empirical understanding of the natural world revealed through experimentation and inductive reasoning.
From time to time I find myself deeply fascinated with the Golden Ratio and its relation to the Fibbonacci set. I even bought a cross-section of a nautilus shell to proudly display in my cabinet of curiosities because they grow along the golden ratio. Then this article clearly illustrated that nautilus shells grow in a logarithmic spiral. Now I’m even prouder of my nautilus cross-section because it tells a story of just how wrong I was about a beautiful hypothesis.
Maize tassel with anthers emerging
In 1968, Dr. Paul Ehrlich predicted a population explosion on planet Earth would result in mass starvation in his book The Population Bomb. While millions die each year of starvation, Dr. Ehrlich’s dire predictions did not come true. Many critics of environmentalism often cite Ehrlich’s failed predictions to attack anyone who raises concerns about environmental sustainability, but most of them gloss over the reason why Ehrlich was wrong which was his failure to account for human innovation. Ehrlich completely failed to factor in the work of Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution, which saved over a billion people from starvation with irrigation infrastructure, hybridized seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides.
Last month, the Earth’s population hit seven billion, raising questions once more about sustainability as millions are threatened with starvation in Africa, conflicts arise over water, and major fish stocks collapse. We are pushing the limits of what the Green Revolution’s science has granted us as far as a sustainable global population. We need a second scientific revolution to increase the global food supply, and our best hope for that revolution is in Genetically Modified (GM) Foods.
Book Festival Poster
“I cannot live without books.” ~ Thomas Jefferson
I had the great joy of attending this year’s National Book Festival on the Washington DC Mall. With over 100 authors in attendance, CSPAN’s BookTv.org covering the event, PBS Kids, Scholastic, and the greatest library on Earth providing educational materials, this was a fun activity for kids and adults, all celebrating the most important cultural invention in human history: the written word.
This is the uncensored version of my Science Fiction VS Fantasy piece I wrote for the Science Creative Quarterly several years ago. I’ve also written much more extensively on this topic in the past. This is the abbreviated version with 10% more snark:
Fanboy: Hey gang! Did you read The Sword of Shanara? The characters traveled hundreds of miles described in excruciating detail for hundreds of pages, until they reached the ultimate battle between good and evil! Cool huh?
Scientist: Whatever. The characters in Red Planet traveled 48 million miles to Mars, while those in 2001 traveled 369 million miles to Jupiter. Characters in Asimov’s Foundation books travel millions of light-years all over the Milky Way galaxy in routine manner. Isn’t it amazing what people can accomplish when they don’t have to walk everywhere? Thank a scientist for your planes, trains, automobiles, and spaceflight whydontcha.
Fanboy: Yeah, but did you see in The Lord of the Rings when Gandalf fought the Balrog all the way down a really deep hole and then all the way back up to the top of a mountain peak!?!?
Scientist: Big whoop. The adventurers in The Core traveled to the very center of the Earth, fighting technological, natural, and human hazards all the way down and all the way back up to the Earth’s crust again. Characters in Fantastic Voyage and Innerspace fought their way all through the human body in microscopic form.
Fanboy: Ooookay… But did you see all those maps having to do with the Wheel of Time books? It’s a huge continent! Pretty epic, huh?
[It is] easy for us to provoke and bait this administration. All that we have to do is to send two mujahidin to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaeda, in order to make the generals race there and cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses … This is in addition to our having experience in using guerrilla warfare and the war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers, as we, alongside the mujahidin, bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat.
~ Osama Bin Laden (2004 Video)
- On September 11, 2001, ten years ago, 2,977 people died at the hands of 19 hijackers
- Over the next 10 years, America spent $360,000,000,000 on Federal homeland security expenditures and $2,600,000,000,000 on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Terrorist Incidents in the United States 1980-2005
- From 2002 to 2005, there were two deaths in America as the result of terrorism.
- From 2002 to 2005, there were 171,994 deaths in America from Automobile accidents (see also here and here).
For thousands of years civilizations have extended social safety nets to its most disadvantaged members in order to ensure a minimal level of wellbeing. The Roman Empire, ancient Judaism, the Chinese Song Dynasty, the Catholic Church, Islam and many many other civilizations have a history of providing social welfare not only out of a humanitarian ethic, but in order to raise the quality of life of all citizens. “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members,” to quote Mahatma Ghandi.
This ethical imperative has come under assault in America from a vocal minority over the decades. From form President Ronald Reagan creating the now near-mythological “Welfare Queen” stereotype that pundits have regularly invoked in one form or another ever since, despite a dearth of evidence that such a person ever existed, to the more recent case of Fox News arguably going off the deep end in its efforts to demonize the poor in America (more examples here). They are decrying what they see as abuse of the social welfare system, and many of them advocate its dissolution altogether.
What would happen if we got rid of social welfare altogether? Got rid of food stamps and other governmental forms of assistance to ensure poor children have proper nutrition, basic education, and health care? Science knows the answer.
Science knows because scientists have studied children born in times of famine, seeing how they compare to children born in other times, and have witnessed and documented the lifetimes of hardship that result. As Lise Eliot, Associate Professor of Neuroscience at The Chicago Medical School of Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine & Science, explains:
The effects of malnutrition have been thoroughly studied in experimental animals, where we have achieved a fairly detailed understanding of the timing and type of nutrients needed for optimal brain development. Unfortunately, plenty of data are also available for human populations. A large proportion of children in the world are undernourished because of famine, poverty, war, and other natural or man-made disasters. It is through studies of such children that we have learned the ways in which inadequate early nutrition can permanently impair brain function. Children who were undemourished as fetuses or infants tend to score lower on IQ tests, perform more poorly in school, have slower language development, exhibit more behavioral problems, and even have difficulties with sensory Integration and fine motor skills, compared with children from the same culture who were adequately nourished. The earlier the malnourishment begins (starting with midpregnancy) and the longer it lasts, the greater will be the resulting problems and the less likely they can be overcome later on. By comparison, adults who undergo even the most extreme starvation do not suffer any intellectual impairment. Thus the brain has a special sensitive period for nutrition in infancy corresponding to the phase of massive synapse growth and axon myelination, both of which require considerable metabolic energy. [emphasis mine]
Joseph Wright’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump
I did everything in my power a few months back to avoid all news about the British Royal Wedding that had so many Americans captivated. It was disheartening to see the American media paying so much attention to the antiquated and irrelevant institution of the Royal Family. It just seemed more than a little hypocritical as totalitarian rulers appointed by god are the antithesis of a country founded on the consent of the governed, a principle for which we had endured a bloody revolution to extricate ourselves from their rule.
Thomas Paine in his pamphlet Common Sense, the document that inspired the Declaration of Independence and provided an outline for the American system of Representative Democracy, put it most eloquently:
But where, says some, is the King of America? I’ll tell you. Friend, he reigns above, and doth not make havoc of mankind like the Royal Brute of Britain. Yet that we may not appear to be defective even in earthly honors, let a day be solemnly set apart for proclaiming the charter; let it be brought forth placed on the divine law, the word of God; let a crown be placed thereon, by which the world may know, that so far as we approve of monarchy, that in America THE LAW IS KING. For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law OUGHT to be King; and there ought to be no other. But lest any ill use should afterwards arise, let the crown at the conclusion of the ceremony, be demolished, and scattered among the people whose right it is. [emphasis mine]
This revolutionary idea on which America was founded was inspired by the Age of Enlightenment, an intellectual movement that spawned so many of the ideas we take for granted today, but also one that we underappreciate or appear to have event forgotten in our academic institutions.