Tuesday, June 9, 2009

How “Dumb” Are We?

Evolutionary theory is not just a scientific theory but also a cultural phenomenon. American historian Peter Baldwin analyzes the stereotype of the United States as a ‘nation of God-fearing Darwin-haters’ in contrast to an enlightened and secular Europe. Baldwin concludes that this stereotype is largely inaccurate. While he concedes that Americans are less likely to trust science over religion in comparison to some European countries – a trend that extends to belief in mechanistic evolution – he deflates the notion that Europe as a cohesive whole is less religious and more scientific. In fact, some European nations, notably those with large Catholic populations, are comparable to or more religious than America. A smaller percentage of Americans consider themselves religious than the percentage of Portuguese or Italians; fewer profess belief in God than the Irish and Portuguese. Britain – which triumphantly proclaims its separation of church and state – nevertheless reserves several seats in its upper legislative body for members of the clergy. While Baldwin concedes that religion is, on the whole, more dominant in the United States than in Europe, this tendency can be explained away by economics. American churches are better financed than their European counterparts and thus better equipped to fulfill their members’ multifarious needs. Even proponents of creationism/intelligent design, often used to illustrate the strength of the American anti-science movement, he claims, are forced to make concessions to scientific methodology and articulate themselves in terms of scientific theory. Besides, he chastises, Europeans have their own anti-scientific parochialisms, notably their rejection of genetically-modified foods and vaccinations.

While Baldwin offers a compelling defense of American attitudes towards science, his triumphant conclusion is premature. Baldwin undeniably cherry-picks his statistics. Obviously the United States will compare better – perhaps even favorably – with countries like Ireland and Italy, which are steeped in centuries of tradition. That we are as anti-scientific as the most religious – or, from the scientific perspective, backwards – regions of Europe is not a reason to celebrate American progressivism, but a reason to criticize those regions as equally regressive. Additionally, Baldwin’s claim that the creationism/intelligent design movement appeals to science because of the public respect afforded science misses the point. Of course Americans support ‘science’ much in the same way they support ‘truth’ or ‘goodness’. The problem is not that they do not place a value on science, but that they do not understand what scientific beliefs entail. This is the reason why creationism/intelligent design gain so much traction in the popular imagination despite their dubious scientific credentials. But perhaps this criticism of Baldwin is overly harsh. He is, after all, offering a defense of America to a European audience. If his aim is to present a case for American scientific beliefs, then he has failed. If however, he merely intends to challenge Europe’s ongoing infatuation with itself at the expense of its Transatlantic cousin, then perhaps his article has some merit. Either way, it is worth the read.

In addition to an analysis of America’s scientific beliefs, Baldwin’s article also extends to other common social criticisms of the United States including welfare, health care, etc.

Ben Picozzi

No comments: