May 26, 2016

It’s 2016 and, at last check, the Earth still revolves around the Sun, just as Galileo argued nearly 400 years ago. In the 17th century, it was a bold thing to say publicly - and he paid the price. The Catholic church condemned him and he lived out the last eight years of his life under house arrest (the church has since apologized).

Galileo’s story is one of the most famous examples of the so-called “war on science,” a fight that writer Shawn Otto says continues to this day.

“Science goes to nature and it’s developed this method of creating knowledge about nature. It’s not our ideas, it’s nature’s ideas,” Otto says. “And sometimes that disrupts vested interests and their view of the world or what they want us to believe about the world.”

As with a lot of issues today, the battle lines are often drawn along political lines. Democrats are seen as more likely to trust science, while Republicans more frequently question it.

But it wasn’t always like that. “If you go back 100 years, it was the Democrats that were mostly anti-science,” Otto says. William Jennings Bryan, who ran for President as a Democrat, is perhaps most famous today for arguing against the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution in schools.

Otto says the roles reversed in the 1960s and 1970s, spurred in part by environmental concerns expressed by Rachel Carson in Silent Spring. The Republican party began to align with industry and religion on hot-button issues. “There was a shift that sort of happened… with old industry and old religion on one side and scientists and environmentalists on the other,” Otto says. “And a lot of it had to do with the split over environmental and biological sciences.”

That split hasn’t healed in the last 40 years. And technology has sometimes made it worse.

The internet can (theoretically) expose us to new ideas, but Otto says people can also “seek confirming ideologies and ideological positions instead of being exposed to varying ideas.”

So how do we bridge the divide? Otto argues that we need to do a better job of communicating science-based ideas. In fact, he says, there could be big consequences if we don’t.

“We’re in for a really rocky ride, I think, unless we can find a new way of incorporating rapidly advancing knowledge into our public policy process. Democracy is facing its biggest threat yet because of this.”

science, politics, pri, Kara Miller, WGBH

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