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The Question of Science in an Election Year

 A few years ago, while visiting a friend who lived and worked in a Chicago suburb, I browsed a locally-syndicated bookstore. I noted walls and walls of shelves devoted to cookery, American history, religion, and sports but could not locate the science section. I did find a small collection of glossy, coffee-table books on nature and remote places, but where were the science texts: writings by Barlow, Darwin, Gould, Margulis, McKibben, Wilson, and other naturalists and science writers? Where were the field-guides to birds, wildflowers, and rocks? Where were the conservation textbooks and scientific periodicals?

 I stopped a staff member who turned out to be the store owner to inquire about the science section. Focused on another project, she gave me directions gruffly to the coffee-table books. I responded, “No, I saw those. I’m looking for your bestselling books on science and nature.”

 “That is our science section, sir,” the manager stated plainly and then stared at me. Perplexed, but not meaning to insult, I reacted by exclaiming, “You’re kidding! Nothing beyond the glossy stuff? Nothing beyond cooking, religion, and sports? Don’t your patrons like science?” The manager responded curtly, “If you were a regular customer, I might be interested in your opinion.” She turned her back, walked away, and left me standing in the aisle with my lower jaw on the floor. Shame on both of us for our dismissive and injudicious comments.

 Nonetheless, this encounter taught me a lesson about “middle America.” I’m not an ivory tower academic nor a multi-syllabic science snob, but I do think it essential for “middle America,” especially voting “middle America” in the 21st century, to know a thing or two about science. What about human-accelerated climate change? What about human-caused species extinction? What about human overpopulation? What do responsible citizens know about these issues? These questions – and numerous others – touch, ultimately, on our own survival and on our fulfillment as individuals and as an animal species that dominates the planet presently with its ravenous appetite for natural resources. As voters, we have a national responsibility to know about the basics of science in society.

 E.O. Wilson and others have argued for decades that we humans seem hard-wired for religion, but not for science. In other words, we may have a “god gene” but don’t seem to have a similar “science gene” to help us understand natural phenomena. The ubiquity and durability of religious beliefs suggests a propensity toward the supernatural.

 We can see this working throughout our history as a late-comer species. What causes thunder and lightning? God (or gods). What causes earthquakes and volcanic eruptions? God (or gods). What causes leprosy and schizophrenia? God (or gods). Not electronic discharge in the upper atmosphere, not plate tectonics, not pathogens or brain chemistry: God (or gods). That “god gene,” if it exists, may have constituted a kind of social glue still working today to unify our cultural order under some kind of ubiquitous pattern selection.

 Since microbiology or geology, or science in general, is a relatively new field of study, and humankind has been wondering about thunder and earthquakes for millennia, it seems logical that a scientific perspective has not had time to become embedded in our genetic fabric; and the latter – perhaps tucked into our childlike awe in the presence of nature – is part of our cloth as an animal species.

 Why is all this important? Here in the United States, we have a national election in early November with all sorts of local, regional, and countrywide issues to be decided by the electorate. Included in the discussion are pieces of legislation “in the works” to bring creationism, climate-change denial, and other non-science perspectives into public science classrooms and laboratories across the nation. The reasons for this nagging, ill-informed dissent – a deliberate disavowal of science despite our marvelous scientific “wins” in molecular biology, conservation, space science, medicine, and a host of other pertinent disciplines – is humanity’s easy proclivity toward those matters hard-wired into our nature.

 In reflection, it doesn’t surprise me that the bookstore outside Chicago was filled with volumes about cooking, religion, and sports. These subjects reflect ancient behaviors in the human saga. Now, however, we require another set of approaches to complement these old ways and to help us survive in the 21st century with our staggering population of 7.1 billion people: the scientific enterprise. Let’s elect representatives who can deliberate intelligently about the natural world and move us away from the non-science rubbish of politicians and other community “leaders” who know not a thing at all about the wonder and value of science.

 H. Bruce Rinker, Ph.D.

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  1. just read this article and was so surprised at myself…I visit book stores, both new and used all the times and never gave a thought to looking for Science Books..or cook books…just plain fiction…what a change of mind I will be having…
    I have thought about Global warming and how some scientists say it’s so and others say no…It’s supposed to be a cycle that the earth goes through every so many years…
    You are so right…we need our President, Vice President and Congress and other representatives to be science minded and not set in the old time way

  2. While I have great respect for Mr. Rinker and most of his articles, I must disagree with this one. When man tries to promote science over GOD, there has been and will be consequences to pay. Without God science or man would never exist. In closing I would like to say “give
    science and scientists credit due, but never try to put it above the Almighty”!

  3. Thank you for so effectively addressing an issue of major concern in upcoming elections and for the U.S. population in general. Your fluid article really showed how the stifling of scientific advancement is both baffling and harmful.

    The day-to-day misguided statements from acquaintances I encounter are one thing, but when I read or hear them coming from people who are or want to run this country, I become truly distraught. We have climate change denial (so much so that it’s illegal to use the term “climate change” in North Carolina?!), young Earth theory/Creationism, and desperately flawed views of female anatomy–hello, Todd Akin?–to contend with daily. Scientific discovery and curiosity seems to be losing favor, while those lacking education and/or critical thinking skills are feeling more brave and, Sagan save us, vocal. I feel as though we are backpeddling to the Middle Ages, when an inquiring mind was a handicap or even a death sentence. All I can hope is that the brazen statements made by these public figures will cause enough eyebrows to rise that it will cause people to move away from the crazy instead of courting it. Otherwise, I fear for our future.

    I appreciate your efforts in speaking out against scientific illiteracy, and will continue to fight the same battle as you. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this important topic.

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