Monday, 21 November 2011

Science – The New Tower of Babel?

The Biblical story of the Tower of Babel shows God confusing his people with a multitude of languages to stop their physical ascent to heaven. We now have the people of gods confusing belief with rationality, hope with truth, progress with stagnation, and predominantly doing so with misunderstanding, very often one based in language – be it the language of intentional deceit, or the language of the pursuit of knowledge.

We see it in the beliefs of the presidential candidates, in their mouthing of platitudes, the observance of form, not function, their convenient Christianity hiding several inconvenient truths. We see it in the debate about ‘Faith Schools’ in the UK. We see it in the Creation “Science” rhetoric of Intelligent Design and the desire of its proponents to either have it, or at least the “controversy”, taught in classrooms. The controversy being that such things as evolution are “just theories” – showing a profound misunderstanding of the colloquial and scientific uses of the word.

Another word that is massively mischaracterised is ‘belief’. A sceptic or rational thinker would say "I believe" and imply ‘on the basis of available information I have concluded’, whereas someone who is more inclined to intuition would say "I believe" and mean ‘on the basis of my gut feeling I feel’. This schism can be somewhat represented as physical well-being vs. spiritual well-being or, in reverse order, church and state.

In line with the gradual erosion of the separation of church and state in the US, starting with the inclusion of ‘In God We Trust’ on the legal tender over the 19th and 20th centuries. Now it is necessary for candidates to profess Christianity to have a hope of reaching the White House. This profession of Christianity runs the gamut from the conveniently Christian – and therefore liars – to the genuinely Christian – and therefore predominantly demonstrably delusional (who are also sometimes fully cognisant liars). Of the two I’d actually rather have a competent liar and political player (tautology?) than a science denier. And this has to be the ultimate cognitive dissonance... the ultimate devil and the deep-blue decision – one that no one should ever have to make, but one that the United States, particularly, makes every election.

An enlightened society must allow people to believe what they want, that is an adjunct to freedom of speech, but we cannot allow people into positions of supreme political power whose beliefs make them demonstrably unfit for office. This is an uneasy equilibrium to reach.

How do we balance the rights of freedom of speech, recognising that this speech can be used to express the most ridiculous beliefs, with the needs of civilisation to have competent people in charge? We have a hard enough time achieving this in the sphere of politics when only contesting on the basis of political ideology, let-alone religion. We have candidates lying about their faith to get in, or at least not dissuading the electorate that they are not 'of faith', and we have people who wear their faiths on their sleeves (or around their necks) – but is that the issue?

It seems that political savvy and relative popularity are the prerequisites of political office - competency is a very distant second, and very hard to measure. That said, a basic grounding in science, statistics, and economics should be common to all candidates. That is not an anti-religious sentiment, as it is quite possible to be religious and scientifically and mathematically literate. What it is not possible to be is so religiously trained as to be illogical and irrational – to place personal belief before evidence-based critical thinking – and a sensible person to have in office.

A state sponsored prayer for rain, for example, is politically savvy, but a massive waste of taxpayers money and devoid of any rational basis. The single element that might be considered positive is bringing a large group of people together and the comfort that this gives to them – but comfort doesn’t bring rain or stop forest fires - and it doesn't bring comfort to non-Christians.

Just as the jury isn’t truly a representation of a defendant’s peer group so much as a representation of a cross-section of their society, so too, should political hopefuls be an educated cross-section of the electorate. And this is something that can be tested for. How can we call ourselves an enlightened society if our leaders are unenlightened? Knowledge and belief are not mutually exclusive, but basic knowledge must serve as a baseline for political candidacy.

Governance from ignorance is an absolute and unequivocal recipe for disaster and the language of discourse needs to be clear and unambiguous. If we repair the education and rationality of the political arena maybe, just maybe, the quality of political representation will improve and, more specifically, the value of education and scientific literacy will be raised, removing the babble from the classroom.