This thing called life

Paul Broun, a politician who says science is all lies, and how religion denies critical thought

This week we learned that a member of the Science, Space and Technology committee in the United States House of Representatives does not believe in science. Paul Broun, a Republican from Georgia, probably earned the post on the committee because he is scientifically trained; he has a B.S. in Chemistry from the University of Georgia. However, during a recent speech to a church group he said, “All that stuff I was taught about evolution, embryology, Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell.”

Paul Broun was speaking to a church function, so his remarks were well received on the night, but within days of the remarks going public, over 40,000 people signed a petition seeking to remove him from the committee. I guess that many people do not want to have someone on the Science, Space and Technology committee who does not believe in the basics of scientific process and critical thought.

If a powerful politician thinks that key scientific theories are lies designed to keep us from embracing certain religious truths, then there is no opportunity for thoughtful debate and evidence based policy. Indeed, when Paul Broun said that the earth is less than 9000 years old, he was expressing an opinion that was not well argued (not argued at all) and does not deserve to be taken seriously. A recent post on this site explained the danger of allowing everyone to have ill-informed opinions.

In the same vein, just few months ago, the Texas Public School system decided not to teach higher order thinking or critical thinking skills, because they “have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.” This is another blow for science and thoughtful discourse, but possibly even more frightening, because it supports the idea of denying young people the benefit of an education. If they are not allowed to learn the difference between thinking and doing what they are told, then we are creating a generation of disempowered, helpless idiots.

Unfortunately, they may grow up to become powerful politicians themselves. Paul Broun is not alone in his ignorance of science. Many other members of the Science, Space and Technology committee have made statements that indicate anti-scientific views or deep misunderstandings of science, as pointed out by Wired.

But the thing that is really disturbing about both these cases is not the muddy thinking or the lack of evidence based arguments. The point of Representative Broun’s comments and the decision by the Texas School system is that religious views are more important than common sense. This is particularly true when politicians feel that waving the Bible around will secure votes in a conservative electorate, or when a community that lacks religious diversity can get a group of educators to agree on what ideology would be best for our children.

Ironically, both of these views are being trumped by yesterday’s news that the fastest growing religion in the USA is no religion at all. Apparently, the number of people who are not affiliated with any church group has increased 25% in the last five years, and this is more prevalent among people under 30. These “nones” are becoming a political force in their own right, worthy of pandering to if you are campaigning for office.

Apparently, the “nones” are not all atheists. Many espouse a belief in God or a desire for spirituality, but they do not want to be associated with the church of their parents or a religion that expects them to act like idiots. Probably they are not willing to believe that science consists of lies from the pit of hell. Hopefully they are capable of critical thinking, and are looking for leaders with some skills in this area.

This is an exciting time to be a human being. We’ve got the old way of thinking, the religious fundamentalists, driving a section of the Republican party and many political parties across the world. These groups may be motivated by a fear of hell and are united in a disdain for secular humanism and critical thought. Like Paul Broun, these people still think that the Bible (or Koran, or Talmud) – books written thousands of years ago – should drive public policy in the 21st century.

Fortunately, there are new ways of thinking coming to the fore at this time. Religious affiliation is not as important to young people, who share their ideas and opinions more widely than any other generation. Online friendships allow people from different cultural backgrounds to gain new perspectives and take a wider view, and political movements are jumping across national borders and shaking the globe.

In a changing world, the ability to frame an argument and base it on evidence is a powerful skill. Unfortunately, religious traditions also have power, especially to politicians who use religion to justify their own positions and ideas.

Paul Broun may have been elected in part because his religious views reflect those of many members of his electorate. Unfortunately, his scientific views could harm his constituents, particularly if decisions about science policy are made without the application of evidence based thinking.

This is a great opportunity to point out again that not everyone is entitled to their opinion.