New McCarthyism: Fear of Science and the War on Rationality

As more and more of the world looks to knowledge, education and science as the routes out of poverty and conflict, parts of America seems to be slipping back toward the Dark Ages, when fear of knowledge and science led to an impoverishment of civilization that had lasting effects for centuries.

I’ve recently returned from two weeks in northern Europe, and a series of scientific water meetings and discussions with people from over 130 countries. They read the news from the United States with incredulity. America is still seen as the place to come for aspiring students and scientists around the world. Our public universities, despite assaults on budgets, independence and knowledge, still struggle to maintain their excellence. But my friends and colleagues from overseas are increasingly shocked, as are many of us in the U.S., by the expanding efforts of home-grown extremists to undermine rational discourse, eliminate the use of fact and science in policymaking, and shut down public debate over the vital issues of our times through hate, vitriol, and ad hominem attacks.

Looking through the eyes of my overseas colleagues, what do we see?

We see a debate over providing health care to every American that is based -- not on facts or civilized discourse -- but on screaming mobs shutting down public discussions and the use of straw man arguments to promote fear among the public and policymakers. Yet every major country of Europe provides basic health care for its population.

We see President Obama appoint one of the nation’s best scientists in the areas of energy, environment, and national security -- Dr. John Holdren -- to be his Science Advisor, and then have right-wing mouthpieces like Glenn Beck spread ad hominem lies about him because of their fear that facts and actual science may once again inform presidential action. This should be a recognizable tactic to us -- lying about a person to diminish their effectiveness. In fact, these extremists want to undermine the forward-looking policies that would prevent the very draconian measures they say they deplore.

We see unambiguous evidence that climate change is already affecting human health and the global economy -- evidence often collected by world-leading American scientists and scientific institutions -- while public opinion polls show that the American people continue to be misled about the risks facing us by conservative pundits who ignore, misunderstand, or intentionally misuse that science to mislead the public into fear of change. Yet we already see huge economic and environmental opportunities in adapting to the reality of climate change.

Fear is an effective tool -- as hate groups and extremists know. It is no accident that repressive regimes of all kinds -- fascists, the Nazis, Stalin, religious states, madrasses -- use tools of hatred, anti-intellectualism, and fear to control knowledge, universities, and intellectuals. Fear grows best when sown in fields of ignorance, while science, rationality, and education are the greatest weapons modern societies have against irrational fear. No wonder Beck and his ilk have intellectuals in their sights; so do the leaders of Iran, and Burma, and the Taliban, and North Korea, for similar reasons.

What does this have to do with water -- the ostensible focus of my blog? Nothing and everything. I try to focus on numbers here and what they mean for international and local water issues. Yet water policy, or any policy, must also be based on rationality,facts, and civil discourse. Similarly, solving any bad water contamination problem requires one of two approaches: don’t let the contamination into our water supply in the first place, or apply the right filters to clean it up when it does. The same rule applies to those who would pollute our public discourse with hate and noise: don’t let their vitriol into our media supply or filter it out before it can poison our democracy.

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