Respected physicist Neil deGrasse Tyson gave a very grave status update for the United States recently. He made the following claim while delivering a warning alongside his claim:
“America is already kind of fading… there’s no future [for a country that ignores science].”
Is Tyson simply a disgruntled scientist complaining about the position the Trump administration has taken with regard to climate change or is he on to something here? Let’s look at history. That is, after all, one of our greatest teaching resources.
Muhammad ibn Zakariya Razi: Simply known as Rhazes, he was a pioneer in medicine in the Baghdad of the late 9th and early 10th centuries. He followed the rational and logic methods of Hippocrates and penned a comprehensive medical tome, Continens Liber. The book made him famous but not for the reasons he had probably hoped for.
A Muslim priest, offended by his work, ordered him beaten with the work’s manuscript. The abuse was so severe he was blinded which put an end to his illustrious medical career.
Was religious motivated persecution of Baghdad’s science community the beginning of its end? During the Abbasid caliphate, also called Baghdad’s “Golden Age”, the Islamic theocracy was churning out the world’s greatest scholars, mathematicians and scientists of that time. But as Sunni ruled Baghdad was achieving glory, Shiite Muslims were slowly simmering in their religious rivalries. Rhazes was one of the first casualties of this in-fighting.
The battle of religious ideology supremacy would lead to a weakening that made Baghdad vulnerable to Mongol aggression which eventually destroyed the city a couple of centuries later. But the short-sighted Shiite’s could not see this coming. They were so intent in destroying their rivals, the Sunnis, that they did not consider the consequences of their actions.
You see, the crazy thing is that the origins for the religious rivalry had nothing to do with science. It was all about the rights of succession for religious leaders, whether they be elected (Sunni belief) or a descendant of Mohammed (Shiite belief). Since patronizing the scientific community was a source of strength for the Sunni faction, the Shiite’s strategy for supremacy was to destroy the Sunni’s source of strength, the scientific community. But by persecuting the science community, the Shiite’s also brought about the entire destruction of Baghdad’s empire.
Michael Servetus: This Spanish physician’s work included a book that promoted a reformation of the Christian religion that was dominated by the Catholic Church during his lifetime in mid 16th century Spain. This earned him the label heretic. He fled his native country to avoid imprisonment and torture, the hallmarks of the Spanish Inquisition. He arrived in what he thought would be a more tolerant nation, Protestant dominated Switzerland.
However, it wasn’t just Christian Catholics who wanted to see him dead. John Calvin, who himself was a reformer of Christianity as a founding father of the Protestant Reformation, considered this medical scientist such a threat to the power of the church that he ordered the arrest of Servetus.
You see, although Europeans were being terrorized by Christian leaders of the Spanish Inquisition, Nordic peoples were equally terrorized by the Protestant Inquisition that was going strong in Switzerland. Eventually Servetus was captured and tortured. Religious leaders crafted quite a public spectacle, burning him at the stake with Lake Geneva as the backdrop. Stoking the fire? Copies of his book.
So, if the 16th century is noted by historians as the era of Spain’s Spanish Inquisition, what happened in the next century? Did persecution of scientists make the nation greater or worse? Historians describe the 17th century as an era of Spain’s decline. So, yeah, kill off your scientists and expect your country to fail.
The gringa could go on and on recounting the many scientists throughout history who have endured periods of purposeful persecution from governments of religious extremism that eventually led to the destruction of a nation. The dear reader can do their own homework on the life and times of scientists and their respective countries. Why not start with these:
- Galileo of 17th century Italy
- Henry Oldenburg of 17th century England
- Antoine-Laurent Lovoisier of 18th century France
- Gerhard Domagk of 19th century Germany
So what should be expected as the anti-intellectual, religious extremists of the Republican party transform the US? Well, right now we are at the brink of what will become known as the cliff this great nation falls off of. Anti-intellectualism will inevitably lead to a less informed democracy. A nation of people who believe false science are incapable of solving the problems that will plague them, whether it be pollution, disease or social conflict. Without the right information, all decisions are the wrong decisions.
What happens then? If religious extremism prevents an embrace of the truth, then when solutions fail blame must be cast. The US can expect, then, a rash of scapegoat classes to be created and systematically persecuted for all the ills in society.
As other nations cultivate their own science communities, eventually one will emerge as the leader, filling in the vacuum the US leaves behind as it abandons real science. We already see this happening with the nations supporting the Paris Climate Agreement. This will result in the US losing its competitive edge in the consumer markets dominated by science and technology. And what can we expect that to do? Affect the US economy disastrously.
So, as the US denigrates, denies and persecutes science, it is stabbing innovation and hope for the future right in the back. The Trump administration may be the catalyst for a destruction the nation cannot recover from. Consider what can happen in 4 short years of no innovation or inspiration. Scientists who cannot pursue their passions, have their work published, implement their methods and are maligned for what their research indicates will go elsewhere. And once settled in a new home that welcomes and supports them, it is highly unlikely they will ever come back.
An exodus of talent will make America’s science community a veritable wasteland not just of scientific talent but of the backers who fund their work. Investors will then put their money where it will be used in the research and development of tomorrow’s technologies that will sell big.
The Trump administration is initiating a chain reaction of scientific abandonment that is not just ideological. Scientists who want to be empowered to fulfill their potential will go elsewhere, hand-in-hand with those who have the money to make their dreams come true. In the next few years the landscape of science and technology will change. Other nations will be developing the cures for AIDS and cancer. A new Silicon Valley will emerge as California’s own becomes a ghost town. Tyson is right.