Monday, December 20, 2010

The Age of Enlightenment

New evidence from Gallup shows that 40% of Americans believe God created humans 10,000 years ago. Another poll illustrates the relationship between what news you watch and your propensity to believe ideas that are demonstrably false. How susceptible humans are to believing what we're told instead of what we can see with our own eyes. And if this is the situation in America, one of the world's most powerful, educated, and prosperous countries, imagine how long it will take to undo 60 years of propaganda in North Korea.

This is an important reminder how fragile our progress is and how quickly our civilization can be wiped out. New  ways of understanding our world are not permanently solidified in our popular thinking as soon as they have been discovered. We dangle in a loose web of rationality over the gaping maw of the unknown. Should this web be broken, we will once again be surrounded by an incomprehensible universe in the blink of our species' eye. (Not that we've got it all figured out now mind you, but progress is progress.) A second dark age is just a shout away.

What is most confounding about our slow inching toward ignorance is that so little effort is given to reaching out to the blind with cold, hard facts. Those of us who accept the strong scientific evidence on which our theories of evolution and global warming rest, seem to lack the energy or interest in demonstrating this evidence to those who don't believe. Even the rationals have bought into the idea that our positions have more to do with faith than with fact and it is in this folly that the seeds of our undoing are sown.

Faith and fact are the twin pillars of our understanding of this reality. They must coexist but they should not overlap. Fact can explain much but where its descriptive ability fails, it must be filled in with faith. In a way, the two combine to form a geopolitical map of our universe. As the territories claimed by one are lost to the other, overlap and conflict will occur.

In the branch of physics, there are the contested territories of the Big Bang and the Gulf of Gravity along with smaller conflicts in the regions of the Speed of Light and various related sci-fi tropes. In the theater of biology, most of the fighting is on the Plains of Evolution with smaller skirmishes in the Archipelago of Cells, particularly among the Islands of Stem and the Sperm-Egg Strait. Across the theaters of both chemistry and biology, violence plays out along the Environmental Coast.

Too much territory is being given up to faith where facts should be digging in. While it would be nice to destroy those mouthpieces of ignorance, Fox News and various extremists, this would be an ineffective way to win the war. Rather, the facts need only be paraded again and again until their clarifying light wins out. The truth will set us free eventually. No matter how far back into the dark ages we may slip, the human mind will always be swayed by fact as long as the fact is available. We are caught in a shouting match between the ignorant and the educated. It is time for the educated to shout louder.

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