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  • President Perry and the Future of Science, Pt. 2
Sep 2011
Sep. 30, 2011 — “I remember when Sputnik was launched,” Dr. Gallagher said. “I remember what a transformational effect this had on education.” In the wake of the Soviet Union’s introduction of the first artificial satellite, he continued, people across the United States came to realize just how important science and math were to our children’s education. We, as a nation, refocused on these subjects. The federal government took on a leadership role in promoting them.

Neal Gallagher is a retired professor and dean of engineering who now teaches at the Lawton Chiles Preparatory School, where students are encouraged to explore those areas of intellectual growth in which they are most interested. I recently spoke with him about the anti-science rhetoric common among the current batch of candidates for the Republican nomination, and about its potential ramifications with respect to the United States’ status as a leader in science and technology innovation.

“I look at what people are saying and I wonder if this is the same country I grew up in,” he said. “I have a hard time reconciling some of the things that I hear from our prominent political figures with our need, as a nation, to compete in terms of innovation. I think the effect will be profound and significant.”

The political figures haven’t just come up with this on their own, of course. The rhetoric we’re hearing from them both reflects and is reflected in the attitudes of people across the US. And here, as in the political arena, it’s not simply a matter of folks downplaying the importance of science and math; in many cases they are openly hostile toward the subjects.

Why is this? To some extent, we can attribute it to the “politics of resentment,” which is in full swing these days. This suggests that large swaths of the US – many of those who identify with the Tea Party movement, for example – take exception to “urban elites” and others in the Northeast and on the West Coast who they feel look down upon folks in the rest of the country, viewing them as little more than bumpkins.

This can lead to a mistrust of institutions they associate with those urban elites. Especially in the past 11 or 12 years – since the rise of George W. Bush, whose unique brand of populism-cum-anti-intellectualism was widely celebrated – education has joined the ranks of the suspect. And things like science and math, almost entirely the domain of “elitist” academics, are now often dismissed as unnecessary in the real world. Science, in particular, has taken its share of hits as certain scientific theories – evolution, for example – are construed as contradicting conservative Christian thought, which informs people’s worldviews throughout much of the country.

Politicians are often more than happy to stoke this resentment, to create an even greater divide between the various segments of American society – even if it means occasionally mischaracterizing the views of their opponents, dismissing the recommendations of the vast majority of experts in a given field, or perpetuating debunked claims about those experts.

And if you call out those politicians in the name of reason and rationality, you only fan the flames of resentment. Matt Taibbi wrote about this in June in a Rolling Stone profile of Michelle Bachmann. While he doesn’t do anyone any favors with his sneering portrayal of Bachmann supporters, he gets to the core of how politicians can benefit from their inherent mistrust of “urban elites” and others.

“When you laugh at Michele Bachmann for going on MSNBC and blurting out that the moon is made of red communist cheese, these people don’t learn that she is wrong,” he wrote. “What they learn is that you’re a ****, that they hate you more than ever, and that they’re even more determined now to support anyone who promises not to laugh at their own visions and fantasies.”

Returning to my original question, I asked Dr. Gallagher what he thought might happen if a Michelle Bachmann or a Rick Perry were elected president, bringing to the Oval Office the mistrust of science found among many of their supporters.

“I see the National Science Foundation and the Department of Education getting hammered,” he said, with outreach efforts supported by these agencies facing significant cuts. NASA could also be affected, as “a lot of people already don’t think NASA is worth it.” Ultimately, this would impact our ability to innovate in the areas of science and technology. This in turn could impact our quality of life – as well as that of generations to come – as our ability to innovate is directly tied to our economic well-being.

Of course, we’re already on this path; our ability to innovate is already diminished, for a variety of reasons beyond political posturing. If we’re to turn ourselves around, we’ll need to identify and address each of these. 

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