Friday, October 06, 2006

When Politics Drives Science, and Vice Versa, with a Splash of Religion

June 16th's episode of NPR's "Talk of the Nation" was terribly interesting (you can listen to it here you can listen to it here).

The authors of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science and The Republican War on Science had something of a debate on the issues surrounding the pursuit of science (and education) in this country.

The scientific community hasn't been this politicized for a LONG time (I'm reminded of the trial of Galileo, the outcry against Darwin--the Monkey Trial of the 20th Century, and then again over Intelligent Design, in Dover, PA).

I've taught for a number of years, and have encountered students who've objected to course material on religious grounds. At a public college, no less.

While I personally detest any fundamentalist stance that seeks to squelch the free exchange of ideas, I felt that the most ethical thing to do in that situation was to make concessions for the student in question (we worked together to design a suitable alternate assignment--a compromise sacrificing neither this student's education, nor religious conviction).

However, I know this must be happening more and more often--and not only in the South. Have any of you encountered this issue? How'd you deal with it?

I can understand a religious-minded education at private institutions. That's why they were originally created, anyway. But history is full of examples where this has gone too far. Science in the Muslim World, for example, has NEVER recovered from the rise of fundamentalism at about the time of the European Renaissance. The Moorish city of Cordoba had running water...when most of Europe was reeling from the Black Plague. Just a few hundred years later, the situation was very different.

Scholars such as Richard Florida, in his books, The Rise of the Creative Class, and The Flight of the Creative Class, have documented the effect that an open society has on education/technology/scholarship. Basically, research has shown that the brightest people go where they will find the most tolerant atmospheres in which to work and live (areas/nations that are most open to new ideas). And the businesses/industries which require such skilled and talented workers will follow their lead (i.e. Silicon Valley, Austin, Seattle, Boston, New York, the Denver-Boulder area, etc.). Many of the companies located in these places simply COULDN'T operate as well elsewhere. They require a highly skilled--and highly creative--workforce.

Now, the U.S. is seeing a rise in religious fundamentalism (though this is nothing new, it IS taking on a new strength), in tandem with that of the Middle East.

Are we in danger of a second Dark Ages, as the best and brightest move to Europe, Canada, or Asia?

The number of international students at U.S. universities has gone steadily downward since 2001. At the same time, European, Asian, and Canadian universities have ramped up development and are starting to woo scholars from around the world (basically, playing our own game...and winning).

So, are we beginning to see signs of an American Brain-Drain--or at least of a significant "migration" elsewhere? If scientists and other creative types begin to feel unwelcome (in an area, region, or nation), they'll leave. They can easily find positions elsewhere. The competition for talent among universities and businesses is fierce, and is growing all the time.

For me, religious conviction and education are NOT mutually exclusive. Our own university system is an ancestor of the Medieval period--the Cathedral, and Palace Schools of Charlemagne and Alfred the Great.

But to today's new breed of fundamentalists, it seems that a full consideration of an opposing point of view is anathema to the fundamentalist stance. Perhaps I did that student a disservice....

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