This is a submission for the upcoming issue of Secular World.
“I am convinced that the act of thinking logically cannot possibly be natural to the human mind. If it were, then mathematics would be everybody’s easiest course at school and our species would not have taken several millennia to figure out the scientific method.”
― Neil deGrasse Tyson, The Sky Is Not the Limit: Adventures of an Urban Astrophysicist
‘Freedom’ is a word that is on everyone’s lips these days or so it seems. From the stomach-turning image of the Q-Anon Shaman yelling “Freedom!” into his microphone as seditious group of terrorists stormed the US Capitol to right-wing pundits on TV screaming about how being asked to perform basic hygienic rituals to stem the spread of a deadly pathogen is a full-frontal assault on our freedoms, it seems that everywhere we turn we are told that our freedoms are being taken from us. This, coupled with the ever-present admonition that things have never been worse and are on the verge of chaos, makes it seem that violent action is what is needed and, indeed, we have seen these calls translate into action. We have seen the scourge of fascism march openly in the streets of the United States, chanting “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us” ending with a madman driving his car into pedestrians, ostensibly to “own the libs” and killing one of them while others, using metal pipes, beat a black man senseless in a parking garage. To any thinking person watching these events it would seem that a wave of madness has swept over society and, it could be persuasively argued, they would not be wrong in concluding this.
The freedom that is at stake, however, is not the freedom to believe that the Earth is flat or that vaccines cause autism, rather, it is the freedom to know both ourselves and the universe in which we find ourselves, rather it is the freedom that most do not realize they have yet swim in every day of their lives. It is the freedom to know ourselves and the world in which we live and that freedom comes directly from the inquiries of science. Science is under attack, ironically, by those whose lives are completely beholden to science in the very areas they attack. Take, for instance, the vaccine deniers: They pontificate about the dangers of vaccines while blissfully immune from the deadly diseases that have plagued mankind because they are fully vaccinated. A list of vaccines and the diseases which they prevent can be found here. I would extort the reader to pull up this list and be amazed at the amount of human suffering that has been eliminated by the science on that chart. To be free of those scourges hints at the freedom that is taken for granted. What is that freedom?
For the longest time, our species fought and struggled to stay alive. If you were lucky to survive childbirth and youth, you became a hunter or a gatherer depending on the gametes your DNA bestowed you with. At the mercy of disease, predators, weather, we spent our 30-40 years in pain, fear and suffering, helpless against the assault of the world around us. Fast-forward to the current day where we are flying drones on Mars, using mRNA technology to fight new diseases having already eradicated some and able to prevent many more, having all the libraries of the world and all their knowledge at our fingertips, the list goes on and on. What gave us this ability to first insulate ourselves and then to explore the world? Science did and by giving us all these technologies freed us from the life of a hunter gatherer and allowed us the freedom to choose. Freedom to choose how we spend our lives, how best to care for each other, who we are and how we got here, and the understanding that all we see was not made for us six thousand years ago by some vindictive and cruel god to who we are beholden in our every thought, word and deed. It is the freedom to live the life we choose, without the fears that had been constant companions to our species. This is what science gives us.
Today, we have a concerted effort to attack both science as a discipline and the people who practice it. There is a remedy for this and that is for our educational institutions to institute a K- 12 Critical Thinking curriculum in all public schools in the United States. This will have an immediate effect. High School seniors, even with just one year of Critical Thinking training, will have the essential skills to begin to parse what they hear and what they read. Imagine an electorate which asks “How do you know this to be true?” This is precisely the fruit that a Critical Thinking curriculum will give forth. As each successive class graduates, each will contain more sound thinkers more and more immunized to shoddy thinking and more and more comfortable with thinking in a scientific manner.
“Critical thinking is the alphabet and grammar of science.“
In a policy piece for Scientific American, Jim Daley wrote, “Since taking office on January 20, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have signaled a clear commitment to science and pledged sweeping initiatives to reestablish and elevate its role in the federal government.” The full article can be found here. All the proposals thus far by the Biden administration to get us back on track with science should evoke a sign of relief from any thinking person. More is needed, however, and the curriculum in our schools should also reflect this commitment to science by investing in both the methodologies (science classes) and the foundation of rationality and the scientific method, Critical Thinking.