By Sanford (Sandy) Morganstein
Where would we be without The Enlightenment? The Enlightenment generally refers to Western civilization’s continuing exit from the “Dark Ages.” It follows on The Renaissance (“rebirth” in French). It is the reinforcement of Science.
I say reinforcement rather than “birth of Science” purposefully…to avoid cultural chauvinism. Elements of the scientific method appear in Aristotle and ancient Indian materialism.
If you think “science” is rocket ships, test tubes, laboratories…well…kind of. Science is a system of thought; a system of thought that leads to technological changes that generally enhance our existences; a system of thought that requires verification of hypotheses. Indeed, Science, this system of thought, leads not only to a better quality of life, but to longer life spans. This latter realization is crucially important in an anti-Enlightenment time.
And we are, indeed, in an anti-Enlightenment time…which is why we even need a March for Science. Science and enlightened thinking are under attack when the fruits of such thinking interfere with powerful interests. And, it didn’t start just now. Galileo was under house arrest. Einstein’s important theories were attacked as being “Jewish Science.” Alan Turing was subjected to chemical castration. If you want to find more examples (I hope you don’t) look up Rhazes or Servetus or Oldenburg. The list goes on.
The attacks on science are not just about budget cuts that may or may not happen. The attacks sow discord, accuse honest brokers of duplicity and confuse the citizenry.
If we don’t stand up for rational thinking and evidence based reasoning we risk putting a brake on human development.
Conservative Republican David Brooks wrote in the NY Times, “Today’s anti-Enlightenment movements believe less in calm persuasion and evidence-based inquiry than in purity of will. They try to win debates through blunt force and silencing unacceptable speech.”
Examples of anti-Enlightenment thinking abound. Oh yes, there will always be “flat-Earthers.” And Anthropogenic Climate Change (ACC)? In many cases the political distortions put into play are done by forces trying to make a megabuck. Yes, models for climate change are not 100% accurate. But neither is Newton’s law of gravitation. Nonetheless, Newton’s laws serve extraordinarily well. Don’t fall for the sophistry that because the model doesn’t predict everything the models are wrong. Like Newton’s law of gravity, climate models serve extraordinarily well.
When blunt force tries to distort truth, the benefits that accrue from Science diminish.
In a different part of his essay, Brooks writes, “[anti-Enlightenment movements] don’t see history as a gradual march toward cooperation. They see history as cataclysmic cycles—a zero-sum endeavor marked by conflict. Nations trying to screw other nations, races inherently trying to oppress other races.”
Brooks ends his essay with, “We live in a time when many people have lost faith in the Enlightenment habits and institutions. I wonder if there is a group of leaders who will rise up and unabashedly defend this project, or even realize that it is this fundamental thing that is now under attack.”
The upcoming March for Science is part of a general attempt to reclaim critical thinking and about allowing Science to continue to serve mankind.
Sanford (Sandy) Morganstein has a MS in Astrophysics from the University of Chicago and a BS in Physics from MIT. As an undergraduate, he was inducted into Sigma Xi, an international honorary community of scientists and engineers. Mr. Morganstein has served in both the private and public sectors. He has been awarded more than 35 patents including pioneering patents related to voice mail and similar voice telecommunications technology.
Sandy is a volunteer at the Adler Planetarium and at C2ST.