Friday, September 09, 2011

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Back to school. Oh, and Republicans.

Well, it’s my first day back teaching, and I have the usual back-to-school thrill that accompanies that. With an extra edge this morning: while having my coffee, I’ve been watching some clips from the Republican candidates’ debate, and for some reason it has me thinking about the importance of having an education.

Seriously. I thought Sarah Palin represented the nadir of know-nothingness in American politics when she first made the stage three years ago, but sometimes it seems the current crop of Republican presidential hopefuls are vying to outdo the grizzly queen. Michele Bachman in particular appeared to be working from the Palin template, but she’s even scarier—unlike the feckless Palin, she embodies an effective and focused ignorance, as highlighted in Ryan Lizza’s recent profile of her in the New Yorker.

And then Rick Perry threw his hat in the ring. Here’s Jonathan Chait’s spot-on comment about his performance in the debate: “Perry treats questions as interruptions. What scientists do you trust on climate change? I don’t want to risk the economy. Are you taking a radical position on social security? We can have reasons or we can have results.”

We can have reasons or we can have results? Seriously? What dim bulb on his staff crafted that particular genius sound bite?

But my favourite of his pithy answers was a comment on his climate change skepticism: “Galileo got outvoted for a spell.” Yes, yes he did. But here’s the thing, and here’s why listening to Perry made me think about the importance of education. Galileo frequently gets cited by climate change skeptics and advocates of creationism and intelligent design, which is a neat little rhetorical gambit: “All you ‘scientists’ think you have the answers, but really you’re just as mired in groupthink as those who persecuted Galileo.” This is of course particularly galling when it comes from creationists, but let’s consider two reasons why bringing up Heavy G in these contexts is inane.

  1. Galileo’s single most lasting contribution to the discipline of science was not his astronomical theories, for which he was persecuted, but was in fact the invention of the discipline of science. Galileo pioneered what we now call the “scientific method,” the process of observation, hypothesis, experimentation, conclusion (usually with a whole lot of revised hypotheses and more experimentation in the middle) that is the standard practice in labs the world over. It is, in fact, how we have arrived at the theories of evolution and climate change. So to hold up Galileo as your patron saint when advocating against either is particularly inane.
  2. Far be it for me to defend the Catholic Church, but Galileo didn’t do much to help his case when summoned to Rome to account for his heliocentric theories. He knew from observation that the solar system was sun-centered, but he didn’t have the model or the math to back it up. When ordered to prove that the earth spun on its axis, he ended up producing a half-baked justification based on the tides that, forgive the pun, simply held no water. And the Pope’s people responded predictably. The great irony was that there was ironclad mathematical proof that had been around for some time in the form of Johanne Kepler’s Astronomia Nova … proof Galileo would not use because his egomania would not permit him to cede the stage to another genius. Which just goes to show what happens when even a great scientific mind departs from the wisdom of his own scientific method. 

Three years ago I was writing with great enthusiasm on this blog about Obama’s candidacy, and then his election—largely based on the perception that the know-nothingness and willful ignorance of the Bush years looked finally to be coming to an end. I have since then known countless disappointments with this president, but my greatest despair comes with the fact that the American right has doubled down on what Al Gore called the assault on reason.

It inspires two thoughts: first, I am happy to be a Canadian. Second, I go to my first classes today with renewed purpose. Perhaps I’ll drop a comment or two about Galileo.