03/14/2012 06:17 pm ET Updated May 14, 2012

The Need to Fight Ignorance on the Left and Right

The confusion that reigns in the "marketplace of ideas" is as great as it's ever been. To say that the Republicans candidates for president exploit this state of confusion for their own benefit is a gross understatement. (Indeed, they provoke it by spreading vicious lies. In this sense, "confusion" is too nice a word.)

Nonetheless, to lay the entire blame for confusion wholly on Republicans is not only not fair, but inaccurate. Liberal Democrats are confused on many the same issues as well.

Perhaps the biggest part of the blame has to rest with the American people themselves, e.g., our incredible ignorance concerning basic issues, our general unwillingness to become better informed, coupled with the delusional belief that that we are already well informed, etc. There are of course the other perennial whipping boys that account for our appalling ignorance: the poor state of American education, the "media," blah, blah, blah.

Nonetheless, I stand by my primary contention that Republicans lead in exploiting confusion and spreading lies. For instance, on March 13, Rick Santorum told attendees at the Gulf Coast Energy Summit in Biloxi, Mississippi, that climate change is "a liberal myth." He went on to say, "The dangers of carbon dioxide? Tell that to a plant, how dangerous carbon dioxide is."

Let me tackle just a few of the many thorny issues on which there is so much confusion.

A primary issue is the oft-repeated assertion, mostly by conservatives and fundamentalists, that evolution is just a "theory." It is not a "scientific 'fact' or 'law'." Therefore, alternative views such as creationism as to how humans first arose are just as "legitimate and valid." They certainly deserve equal time in school curricula.

The same is true of global warming. The fact that not all scientists agree that humans are the primary cause as to why the Earth has been becoming warmer proves for many that global warming is not a "valid explanation."

Most people don't understand the difference between a scientific "law" and a "theory." Generally speaking, everything in science is a theory. To call something a "theory" is a sign of great respect, i.e., something is taken so seriously by the scientific community that it is accorded an honorific term that is reserved for only the most important ideas.

In general, "scientific laws" -- e.g., Newton's Law of Gravitation, why balls when tossed into the air fall to the Earth -- are merely descriptions of some phenomena. A "theory" on the other hand is an explanation of why a phenomenon behaves the way(s) it does, i.e., why balls fall to Earth.

To call something a "theory" does not mean that it is merely a run-of-the-mill explanation. For something to be a theory means that the scientific community has repeatedly tested it empirically and conceptually such that it accords with the best facts and ideas available at the time. This doesn't mean that as new facts and ideas become available that older theories such as Newton's are not replaced by better theories such as Einstein's. It also doesn't mean that to be a theory something has already passed stringent empirical tests, but just that it is very promising. In other words, it's a "provisional theory."

Science is one of the few fields of inquiry where the continual testing of provisional as well as accepted ideas, plus their overthrow, is a fundamental part of the enterprise -- not that all scientists necessarily love this aspect of science when it comes to demolishing their pet ideas. Evolution and global warming have passed, and continue to pass, highly stringent tests. Indeed, the tests have become more severe over time. This too is a fundamental part of science.

In this sense, even though the theories of evolution and global warming are always subject to modification and replacement, they are not "provisional." Yes, there will always be doubters even in science, but until they come up with equally compelling theories that can be tested empirically, they will not be taken seriously. And, they shouldn't.

This is precisely why creationism is not science. It's not even good philosophy.

I obviously can't go into all the details here, but suffice it to say that creationism is a self-sealing, closed belief system. It is closed because its beliefs are its own evidence for its beliefs. No independent evidence has been offered that would either serve to affirm or refute it. Thus, to say that creationism is circular is putting it mildly. In short, to believe in creationism is to be in a state of mind "beyond refutation," and refutation is one of the chief hallmarks of science. This is why no reputable scientist takes it seriously. As Wolfgang Pauli, one of most famous scientists of all times, once put it in responding to an idea, "[It is] so bad [that] it is not even wrong."

Metaphysics is undoubtedly the most confusing and thorniest issue of all. Briefly, metaphysics is the study of the most basic assumptions and ideas that we have to posit, i.e., assume, in order to be able to have experience in the first place, let alone make sense of anything in the second. For instance, science wouldn't even be able to get off the ground unless it first assumed that the world and universe were basically orderly and intelligible. One doesn't "see" orderliness when one looks through a microscope or telescope. All one sees are shapes. The mind then turns them into intelligible patterns and ideas. The mind thus presupposes orderliness and intelligibility in order to be able to engage in the act of "seeing."

The preceding paragraph is a prime example of metaphysical reasoning. It shows what we must presuppose in order to engage in the act of seeing and hence knowledge itself.

I obviously don't expect conservative and fundamentalists to get this, for most liberals and scientists don't "get it" as well. Most people don't know that historically the ideas of the orderliness and intelligibility of the universe come from religion, not from philosophy or science. Science owes far more to religion than it realizes.

But far worse, when science argues that "it has no need of philosophy," it has just staked out a philosophical position without its realization. For another, when it argues that "natural laws are sufficient to explain everything," it has also uttered a metaphysical proposition without its knowledge or awareness.

If we are justified in getting angry with conservatives and fundamentalists for their basic lack of knowledge -- and at times, intelligence itself -- we ought to be just as angry with liberals when they pretend to be informed and smarter with respect to certain subjects when they are not. We need to fight ignorance equally on the right and left.

Our dependency on science grows daily. Indeed, we are more dependent on it than ever before. But so is our dependency on philosophy. The great difference is that we where we generally recognize and celebrate science, we do not give philosophy anywhere near the recognition it deserves.

But science and philosophy both have their limitations. Science can't explain why we live in a universe that has evolution as a prime mechanism, i.e., ordering principle. Philosophy can't explain it either, but at least it knows that it can't. This is precisely where religion steps in because it knows that humankind cannot live with much uncertainty. The anxiety of not knowing is too much to bear.

Liberals in particular have yet to really understand that there are many good reasons for believing in religion. What kind? That's another discussion, especially those that embrace science and philosophy.

Ian I. Mitroff is a crisis expert and an Adjunct Professor at UC Berkeley. His most recent book is Swans, Swine, and Swindlers: Coping with the Growing Threat of Mega Crises and Mega Messes, Stanford, 2011. He is the co-author of the forthcoming book with Murat Alpaslan, A Prefect Mess: Why Everything Is A Mess And How To Cope With It, University of Pennsylvania Press. His PhD is in Engineering Science and the Philosophy of Social Systems Science from UC Berkeley.

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