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Seth Shostak Headshot

Science From Hell

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Here's an idea you probably haven't considered. Astronomer Edwin Hubble, who first discovered the expansion of the universe, was part of a devilish plan. Measurements of nearby galaxies suggesting that the cosmos began with an explosive event -- what we now call the Big Bang -- were a conspiracy to ensure that you don't yearn for spiritual salvation.

What?

No, really. This is the claim of Paul Broun, a Republican representative from Georgia. According to the Associated Press, the Congressman recently made a banquet speech in which he said "All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. And it's lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior."

The skeptical representative went on to say that the Earth is less than 10 thousand years old, and was formed in six days. A lot of planetary scientists are clearly barking up the wrong tree.

Well, the approval rating of Congress is an anemic 10 percent these days, and these bizarre statements might just be another reason to be unhappy with those representing your interests under the Capitol dome. But here's the zinger: Broun sits on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

No doubt this reassures you about the chances that this country will continue to be in the forefront of groundbreaking research.

It's enough to make you alternately laugh and cry. But this daffy performance speaks to a problem even larger than Broun's dreadful ignorance. Why is this gentleman in Congress at all?

Does the Georgia electorate think that Broun simply has a right to his opinions, and -- since much of science's teachings are merely "theory" -- you can't fault him for harkening to the beat of a different drum?

Well, that rationalization has a faintly Jeffersonian ring to it. Unfettered speech, freedom of religion, and structures ensuring that government won't inevitably dictate what's right and wrong all hit a resonance with Americans.

So yes, you're entitled to believe what you want -- including the existence of leprechauns and the Wicked Witch of the East. But since the Renaissance, a concept called "progress" has been baked into our society. Progress -- founded on an accumulation of knowledge through experience (and in the case of science, through experiment). To build on the past, rather than endlessly relive it. That's what separates us from the beasts.

Examples are legion, and most familiar in medicine, which today is very much entwined with the principles of evolution and embryology that Broun finds so heretical. A particularly lucid demonstration of how evolution interacts with pharmaceutical research is the effort to maintain an arsenal of effective antibiotics to stave off lethal infections.

But rather than become embroiled in specific rebuttals to goofy indictments of major intellectual ideas, I ask again the larger question: Why is science's blood pressure in this country so low that someone with Broun's opinions could be considered suitable to guide our research priorities?

It's not just a "rural Georgia" problem, and it's not just a problem with the literal interpretation of biblical texts favored by fundamentalists. The problem is cultural and it's deep. America's popular heroes have seldom been its great thinkers, and even less its scientists. The success of TV's Big Bang Theory, which seems to give the lie to this claim, is more the exception that proves the rule. Typically, only about 2 percent of the American populace tunes in to PBS's Nova series -- the most successful science show on the tube. Survivor and X Factor get twice the ratings.

Everyone talks about science literacy, and how it's essential if we wish to remain an important player on the world stage. And yes, moving the needle is hard. But one thing we don't need is a crazy fox in the chicken coop.