Wednesday, November 28, 2012

(Originally posted by Pat on 3/22/2010)

The United States government very much seems to like declaring "war" on things. Poverty, drugs, terrorism... strangely we don't often seem to declare war on actual nations. Instead we "send in peacekeepers" or "engage in police actions" or deploy "security contractors". If we're using policy to eliminate some uncontroversially undesirable abstraction, it's "war"; if we are actually deploying men with guns to foreign countries, it's... something other than war.
Actually, we never officially declared "war" upon science, but nonetheless it was clear from the decisions made under the Bush administration that science was at best a low priority and at worst actually in opposition to the Right's agenda.
Fortunately, this is no longer the case. As you may know, John Holdren, Obama's chief science advisor, came to speak at the UMich campus earlier today. He spoke to the whole campus in the Wege lecture, and before that he spoke specifically to a few classes, including my environmental psychology class. (By far the best lecture we've had in that class, but I digress.) Holdren made it very clear that the War on Science has ended, that environmental policy, climate change, and science education are now high priorities in Obama's administration.
This can only be good news for secularism, and indeed it supports the hypothesis that Obama really is a secularist leader (perhaps even an atheist leader), merely one who is politically savvy enough to realize that declaring this openly would be very dangerous in contemporary American society. He was the first President to ever explicitly mention "non-believers" as an important minority, and people were offended by this; though nominally Christian he hardly ever attends church; and now, he declares that evolution and climate change are undeniable facts and science education is a top priority. (On the other hand, he did nothing to cut down the "faith-based initiatives" Bush enacted, so it's hard to say.)
Holdren's speeches were thorough and enlightening---if anything, too much so. Both in my class and in the larger event he went through so many facts and figures so quickly it was difficult to follow what he was saying. The gist of it was this: Obama thinks science is important, and he's willing to back it up with lots of government funding and support. Where most politicians give lip service to "the importance of education for our future", Obama actually dramatically increased funding for education (particularly in so called "STEM" subjects, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) and cut funding from other areas.
I wasn't thrilled to see increases in the budget for Department of Defense R&D (already by far the largest military R&D budget of any country in history), but since Obama did cut the pointless F-22 program even against Republican protests, perhaps this  new funding really is going towards technologies that will be genuinely useful for national defense. Better drone aircraft? Stronger, lighter body armor? More reliable explosives detection equipment? Most of these projects are top secret, so from the outside we can only speculate.
Holdren also made a point of the fact that these new science education initiatives will focus on scientific methodology rather than scientific facts. This would be great, if true; but we've heard this sort of thing before, and rarely does it work out that way. Most science classes involving memorizing long lists of facts, because that's the easiest way to make a consistent and testable science curriculum. And honestly, that might be all right; in a nation in which 40% of people think the world is 10,000 years old and 16% think global warming is a hoax, a large dose of scientific facts might be entirely worthwhile.
Apparently Obama's goal is to "race to the top", return the US to the top of the list of nations with the highest scientific literacy. I must admit that this sort of relative goal strikes me as odd; what difference does it make if we're number 1 or number 7? The important thing for me is the absolute goal of making 100 % of Americans understand the basic facts of science that will be critical for  survival in he 21st century. I don't care if Norway does better on calculus tests; what worries me is that 40% of our fellow citizens have basically zero understanding of geology, biology, and astronomy.
Another concern for me is the fact that so many people are afraid of math. It is said that every equation in a book halves its sales. Though clearly a vague estimate (If it were strictly true then my first book, which mostly consisted of hundreds of equations and sold about 300 copies, would have sold enough copies to fill the known universe had it been entirely blank.), this is nonetheless worrisome. Why do people fear math? Why do they run in terror from algebra of all things, when in fact algebra is one of the few things in this world that is undeniably correct and indisputably useful? This fear of algebra makes it impossible to have a reasonable discussion of not only science but also economic policy, since making sense of fiscal and monetary decisions can only be done through algebraic arguments.  I can only hope that this administration's new focus upon science education includes a dedication to eliminating people's fear of math.
As when Obama was first elected, I am in a state of cautious hope. Hope because the words are sound and the visions are good; cautious because we have been deceived before, and because many great visions have been destroyed by the compromises of realpolitik.
All I can say for now is this: We'll see.

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