A recent issue of Time Magazine, dedicated to exploring the trends of our time ("What's Next?" October 24, 2005), presents a panel discussion featuring some very bright people.
At one point in the discussion, Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point, Blink) says: "Does the debate over evolution matter? Isn't it really a nondebate?"
To which David Brooks (New York Times columnist) shortly adds: "I think the debate is unimportant for [the reason that] 40% of people in the country don't believe in the theory of evolution, and yet we seem to march on regardless."
And while the disbelief in evolution may not be directly connected with that march toward disaster, there is a deeper connection to explore. For while there may be no big problem with this rejection of one science's most important and thoroughly substantiated ideas, the habit of thought that permits such rejection has played a major role in endangering American society.
It's another case of needing to connect the dots to see the figure buried beneath the surface picture.
It's an idea one usually hears from conservatives-- that we hear that virtues need to be practiced consistently, that what one does in one area of life will impact that life more generally. It is they who tell us, for example, that what we do in our imaginative lives -e.g. what movies and TV shows we choose to consume""will affect the sensibilities we bring to life more generally.
But the habit of practicing intellectual integrity in arriving at one's beliefs is just as important.
Thus, we are now in a tailspin as a civilization because, among other things:
** Our leaders took us into a war based not only on lies, but also on their arrogant assumption that they already knew all they needed to know. So they pushed away good counsel and information from experts, charging ahead not only into a war of their own choosing but also into a disaster of their own making.
** Two-thirds of those who supported their recent re-election held several crucial beliefs about that war whose falsehood had been determined by commissions of inquiry and widely announced in the mainstream press. They chose instead to believe what their authorities (including dishonest news media they trusted) told them, and what was emotionally more satisfying to believe.
** As a nation we spend the most on health care, but have nearly the worst health statistics, of any industrial democracy. And this waste proceeds because we as a society cannot bring ourselves to ask basic empirical questions, like: does the experience of other countries offer evidence that there's a better way than ours to organize a health care system?
** As the earth's climate system descends toward possible disruption and ecological chaos, our current leaders have isolated the United States from the global society with their refusal to acknowledge and confront the problem. A surprisingly large proportion of the American people -a group, I would wager, highly correlated with the rejection of the theory of evolution-- chooses not to believe the overwhelming consensus among scientists regarding climate change. And as a polity we've been incapable of honestly addressing such questions as: what can we do to fulfill our obligations to the future while minimizing the sacrifice we must make in the present?
This list could go on and on.
Whether or not it matters, in itself, if people refuse to accept the basic validity of the theory of evolution -and I expect that it does matter""what surely does matter is a failure to develop the moral discipline of pursuing the truth honestly.
It matters whether people follow their authorities blindly or they develop the critical capabilities to think for themselves. Perhaps it's fine to give the Bible unquestioning credence, but unquestioning trust in the declarations of political authorities can be dangerous.
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