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Commentary Detail

Scientific Inquiry and the Radical Right
Commentary by: Mark Shook
Aired September 19, 2012

God has a sense of humor. You cannot convince me otherwise. Do not even try.

When I was fourteen, I decided that becoming a veterinarian was my goal in life. When I was fifteen I had a near disastrous encounter with organic chemistry. (A “C” is not an acceptable grade for anyone hoping to gain entrance into a school of veterinary medicine.) My goal in life suddenly turned away from the sciences and toward the humanities. A few years later I had secured my place at the seminary and simply had to find something to do during the six months between earning a Bachelor’s degree and the start of the seminary program. I interviewed with a public school system and was offered a job substitute teaching.
“Great! What will I be teaching?” I asked the assistant superintendant.
“Science in a Jr. High School.”
“How is that even possible?”
“Well, your transcript shows that you have a minor in Natural Science.”

That is when I heard divine laughter for the first time. I ended up teaching basic physics. The laughter got louder. I had never taken a single physics class in my life.

I bring all of this ancient history up because, in the course of my brief science-teaching career, I came to appreciate the possibilities and the limitations of scientific inquiry. A clear understanding of how scientific inquiry works has enriched all of my teaching, especially early modern philosophy. My latest philosophical quest is to seek to understand the reasons for the radical right’s undisguised hostility of toward science.

Open scientific inquiry is the enemy of the radical right today. It is the enemy of all authoritarian faith communities. In the 20th century, it was the enemy of all totalitarian regimes. In the 16th Century it was largely responsible for the break-up of Western Christianity. Just when faith in the power of a benevolent God in charge of a universe with humanity at the center was solidly in place, Copernicus and Gallileo arrived to provide a completely different understanding of astronomy. Did Copernicus and Gallileo hear the laughter of God amidst the music of the heavenly spheres?

All of the enemies of open scientific inquiry share at least three things in common. First, and perhaps most importantly, the enemies of open scientific inquiry cannot tolerate any alternative to their complete and total control over reality. Do I really need to connect this to Congressman Todd Akin’s understanding of human reproduction and Global warming?

Science provides, at least in theory, a method for arriving at a level of truth far more objective and quantifiable. The method is not perfect and can be distorted. However, unlike the orthodox authoritarian mind set, scientific inquiry is ultimately open to new data and facts. It is far more nimble at correcting its mistakes than any orthodoxy ever was.

Secondly, the enemies of open scientific inquiry will always adopt the benefits of the very science they dispute, so long as it can be used to enhance their power and control. When scientific studies do go their way, they are the first to beat their opponents over the head with the results of the very methodology they despise.

And thirdly, the enemies of open scientific inquiry have no sense of humor. They seek to put God in a box. They keep attempting to limit the power of God to their stunted and clouded vision of reality. They have so much difficulty accepting the amazing discoveries of science, their only recourse is to deny they ever happened in the first place. Landing a man on the moon never happened. It all took place in a television studio in Houston, Texas.

Our region is gaining a great reputation as a first class center of basic scientific research and bio-science. How ironic it would be for us and our nation, if our elected representatives were among those who are terrified by the specter of objective scientific truth and seek out instead, the comfort provided by uncritical faith. I can hear the heavenly laughter now.

(The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of St. Louis Public Radio.)

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Mark Shook

Mark Shook


Mark Shook is Rabbi Emeritus at Temple Israel.

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