Evening is arriving earlier every day now, and so last night I curled up with financial theorist William J. Bernstein‘s 2004 book, “The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World Was Created.” This passage startled me, though it shouldn’t have:
The development of celestial mechanics (the study of celestial motion), which culminated in the publication of Newton’s Principia Mathematica in 1687 and the stunning confirmation of its predictions heralded a momentous shift in Western thought. The new science was also one of the seminal events in the genesis of modern prosperity.
If one constant defines the modern West, it is the relentless march of scientific progress. It is hard to fathom that there was ever a time during which the observational, experimental, and theoretical study of the natural world was not welcomed. Yet, such was the state of intellectual affairs before the seventeenth century.
Until four hundred years ago, the natural world was a terrifying master and humanity the helpless victim of forces it could not comprehend: disease, drought, flood, earthquake, and fire. Even benign astronomical events, such as comets and eclipses, were frightening occurrences, fraught with superstitious and religious import.
It startled me because I couldn’t help contrasting it with the recent behavior of the US’s leading presidential candidates.
In response to raging wildfires brought about by historic droughts in his home state, Texas governor Rick Perry called for days of prayer. Meanwhile, Congressional representative Michelle Bachmann characterized the East Coast earthquake and Hurricane Irene as a coded message from God. For the record, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with prayer or believing in God, but wildfires, earthquakes, and hurricanes are explained by the physical sciences.
Yet science seems to no longer hold pride of place for us. It seems to me that something has gone structurally and fundamentally awry when US acceptance of plain scientific consensus is this far out of kilter: only 14 percent of Americans believe that even 4 out of 5 climate scientists think the earth is warming. In fact, all climate scientists think that, and about 98 percent of them say the warming is in part attributable to human activities.
If Bernstein’s thesis is right—that western prosperity is built in part on the foundation of the scientific method—then the fact that US leaders are now consciously distorting science for political ends cannot signal good things for our continued well-being.