Galileo in Kansas - "intelligent design" and the renaissance of ignorance

I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.
- Galileo Galilei (1564 - 1642)

Galileo might find the political mood in 21st century America strangely familiar.

The Renaissance astronomer was famously convicted of heresy by the Inquisition and placed under house arrest for rest of his life. His crime? Maintaining that the Earth was not the centre of the universe. Science seems similarly assailed 400 years later.

The evangelical Rev. Robertson suggested last week that the town of Dover, Pennsylvania might expect divine retribution for voting out their entire school board who supported the neo-medieval notion of “intelligent design”.

"I'd like to say to the good citizens of Dover: if there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God… you just voted God out of your city. And if that's the case, don't ask for His help because he might not be there,” Robertson said on his daily television show.

There is little doubt that America is a strange place, and Mr. Robertson is one of its weirder fixtures. He called feminism a “socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians.” He has also opined for the abolition of Halloween and the assassination of Hugo Chavez.

But is he fringe? Hardly. His TV show claims to have an audience of over one million world-wide, translated into over 70 languages. As far as US public opinion, a recent poll found that 53% of Americans believe that humans were created “exactly as the Bible describes". Lets not kid ourselves – the States is weird.

Last week, the state of Kansas adopted new science standards to not only allow the teaching of intelligent design as science, but to subtly redefine the word “science” in the classroom to potentially include the supernatural.

This throwback to the infamous Scopes Monkey trial was accomplished under the pretext of a scientific controversy about the theory of evolution - perhaps the most robust scientific theory in history. So offended were real scientists about this ruse that they declined to even make submissions to the kangaroo court in Kansas –perhaps to the delight of their opponents.

Duly elected school boards should of course be allowed to teach students whatever the hell they want, but they should not truss up intelligent design as science, let alone redefine the word to accommodate their own superstitions. High school is confusing enough.

This is just the latest example of how the troubling assault on rational thought in George Bush’s America is becoming ever more mainstream. There have been even more alarming examples where brute political force was used to in an attempt to shoehorn scientific reality into a predetermined worldview.

This summer, the Republican controlled congress launched a far-reaching inquiry into the careers of three prominent US climate scientists. In a bizarre throwback to days of McCarthy, these scientists were required to provide details on their entire careers dating back decades, including all publications, sources of funding, whereabouts of raw data, and computer source codes.

Their presumed transgression? Holding scientific opinions on climate change that were at odds with the uniquely “conservative” view that unlimited burning of fossil fuels poses no threat to the planet.

Career politicians demanding to scrutinize raw scientific data is like Paris Hilton demanding to take the controls of her Lear jet. It’s not just stupid, but dangerous.

This dubious investigation is being led by Joe Barton, chairman of the House of Representatives committee on energy and commerce, and a Texas Republican long associated with the fossil fuel lobby. In his eleven years in this position, Mr. Barton has the distinction of opposing every single piece of legislation designed to combat global climate change.

Even Republican Sherwood Boehlert, the chairman of the house science committee wrote to "express my strenuous objections to what I see as the misguided and illegitimate investigation…to intimidate scientists rather than learn from them."

Controlling “truth” is of course an ancient political ploy favored by despots throughout history. Having the opportunity to objectively explore this beautiful world is a luxury that has not always been possible, or prudent.

Which brings us back to Galileo. The father of astronomy and icon of the Renaissance was also a devout Catholic. Sacrifices by him and others like him allowed rational thought and spiritual belief to peacefully coexist for over 400 years - for perhaps the first time in human history,

Is the US taking a detour towards the Dark Ages? Lets hope the Renaissance does not have to be fought for all over again.

Mitch Anderson is a freelance writer living in Vancouver. This piece ran nowhere.

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