Recently I have written multiple articles about the scientific illiteracy of American politicians.    Even members of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology display an ignorance of science that should make a high school student blush.
After reading my essays a perceptive reader posed the follow questions: 1) How do we decide if a person holds “unscientific” beliefs? 2) What about someone who denies evolution or specific aspects of modern cosmology? 3) Should there be a science test for this job [member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology]? 4) Could any of the members of the committee pass a realistically broad and deep science exam? To these questions I would like to add my own: 5)How are issues of scientific literacy among politicians relevant to transhumanism? Let me answer each of these questions in turn.
1) How do we decide if a person holds “unscientific” beliefs? In the simplest and most obvious case a person holds unscientific views if they deny a received view of modern science for non-scientific reasons. If someone denies atomic theory for an invisible gremlin theory of matter, or evolutionary theory for an invisible god theory, then that person holds an unscientific view. In the case of biological evolution this has been affirmed over and over by the courts after listening to experts testify as to the nature of science—creationism, creation science and intelligent design are not scientific hypotheses.
To illustrate this point, suppose I say that bread rises in an oven because of the oven’s color. This claim is clearly false, but it is a testable scientific hypothesis—one that could quickly be falsified by placing bread with yeast into different colored ovens. However if I say that bread rises because there are invisible gremlins inside the bread that cause the bread to rise by jumping when it is heated, then I have not advanced a scientific hypothesis because no experiment can falsify this belief—no matter the outcome of any experiment the believer can always claim that invisible gremlins did it. (I am relying on Popper’s theory of falsification here, fully cognizant of the fact that it is a complex issue in philosophy of science to show exactly what makes something a scientific hypothesis. But here falsification clearly shows why some hypothesis aren’t scientific.)
There are also more complicated cases, as when someone denies the received scientific wisdom for a scientific reason. What are we to make of such daring hypotheses? We treat them like any other scientific hypotheses. For what scientists do “is to try to answer fundamental questions by crafting comprehensive and reasonably explanatory hypothesis suggested by the data, and leave it to their own later work, or that of others, to try to verify or falsify it.”1 And who decides what is a scientific reason? Scientists do. It is their expertise that allows them to differentiate a scientific from a pseudo-scientific hypothesis, although there are issues on the fringes of science in which it is difficult to determine what is and is not a reasonable scientific hypothesis. There are many debatable ideas in science, countless unsettled areas which are for the moment unsettled. In such cases we must wait for further evidence.
2) What about someone that denies evolution or specific aspects of modern cosmology? Much rejection of the received scientific wisdom in our society today is a response to propaganda dispensed by those motivated by profit. It in the interest of tobacco and oil companies to deny the scientific consensus about the deadly consequences of their products. Other reasons for rejecting science include: cognitive errors, scientific illiteracy, fear of authority, and fear of government. In the specific cases of evolution or big bang theory such opposition is easy to understand. People reject ideas that seemingly contradict the preconceived world views. As William James so aptly put it: “As a rule we disbelieve all the facts and theories for which we have no use.”
To better understand this consider the curious case of the intelligent design movement, which tries to make their opposition to evolutionary biology appear scientific even though the motivations are clearly religious. Intelligent design is pseudo-science masquerading as science, but that doesn’t stop blatantly immoral, theocratic organizations like theDiscovery Institute from trying to have their religious views taught in American public school science classes! Clearly such opposition is ideologically motivated and has nothing to do with the science, about which there is a unanimous consensus. Should scientifically illiterate, anti-sciences ideologues sit in positions of on committees charged with setting public science policy or choosing public school science curriculums? Of course not! That would be like a religiously illiterate, atheist being Pope.
3) Should there be a science test for this job [member of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology]? and 4) Could any of the members of the committee pass a realistically broad and deep science exam? To the first question we answer: YES, YES, YES. To the second question we answer, probably NO, NO, NO.
Not only should the members of this committee have to pass a basic scientific literacy test to be members of said committee, but so should anyone holding political office anywhere. The notion that scientifically illiterate political leaders should be in positions to make important decisions is abhorrent. The idea that holders of political power should be among the most intellectually excellent goes back to at least Plato in the west and Confucius in the East. That one must pass a test to practice law, medicine, nursing, education and many other professions yet anyone, regardless of their level of ignorance, can hold important political positions is a travesty. Plato believe that one could only have a good life in a good society, which itself depended on knowledgable rulers who had passed a long series of tests. The imperial exams in ancient China played a similar role, assuring that those who held political power were masters of Confucian political texts. (The result was one of the longest eras of peace and prosperity ever known on the planet.)
5) How are issues of scientific literacy among politicians relevant for transhumanism? I recently wrote about my support for the newly formed Transhumanist Political Party. Clearly progress toward a transhumanist world depends on political action informed by an understanding of science and technology. Opposition to transhumanism is strong enough given the general human tendency toward stasis, but such opposition is multiplied if the more open-minded and dynamic among us are uniformed. Think of how opposition to stem cell research and therapeutic cloning is driven, not only by legitimate worries and rejection of the novel, but by scientific ignorance. (No there won’t be multiple copies of people running around.) Similarly opposition to robotics, artificial intelligence, intelligence augmentation, and nanotechnology is largely driven by irrational fears.
The transhumanist movement is stifled and compromised by an uninformed public, and the situation is exacerbated by scientifically ignorant policy makers. However, while it is self-evident that we would all live in a better society if government officials were more generally educated, such a political change is almost certainly not feasible. Perhaps then the best hope for transhumanism lies, not with governmental support, but with the efforts of privates corporations like Google and private organizations like the Singularity Institute and others.
In the end illiteracy of any kind, but especially scientific and technological, impedes a movement based on using science and technology to overcome all human limitations. The movement needs to be more cognizant of these impediments.
John G. Messerly, Ph.D taught for many years in both the philosophy and computer science departments at the University of Texas at Austin. His most recent book is The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Scientific, and Transhumanist Perspectives. He blogs daily on issues of futurism and the meaning of life at reasonandmeaning.com