Do right-wingers want to make us more stupid?

Thursday, April 6, 2006


Written by Scott Piatkowski

There’s a joke dating from the early part of the Mike Harris era that goes something like this: “Harris is starving the education system so that people will be dumb enough to vote for him again.” I chuckled a bit when I first heard the joke but, ultimately, I thought that it was just another throwaway putdown.

In retrospect, I’m wondering if the comic (whose name escapes) might have been on to something. I’ve seen more and more evidence emerging that right-wingers really seem to want people to be stupid (not only so that people will vote for them, but also so they’ll simply disengage from the political process).

In the United States, the right’s campaign to eradicate knowledge is being led by advocates of so-called “intelligent design”. They want schools to stop teaching science and teach the Bible instead, but they’ve learned to couch their arguments in non-religious terms. George W. Bush has stated that creationism – oops, I mean “intelligent design” – should be taught alongside science (of course, this is the same man who pointed out that “Rarely is the question asked: is our children learning?”).

Some schools that still do teach science have put stickers in their textbooks claiming that “evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things” and that students should look at “other theories” as well. So far, most courts and state legislatures have ruled against requirements that intelligent design be mentioned in biology classes, but trends in both judicial appointments and elections suggest that this could change in the future.

Once you dismiss Darwin and start teaching students that the planet is only 6,000 years old, why not go after other thinkers who contradicted the Bible. Surely, Copernicus needs to be revisited, since the idea that the planets orbit the sun is “only a theory”. Galileo may have been exonerated by the church centuries after his death, but why can’t he be condemned all over again? While we’re at it, let’s question gravity, thermodynamics and anything else that doesn’t match certain people’s religious beliefs. Who cares if other countries are rapidly surpassing the U.S. in research and innovation, as long as no one has to explain to their children why Biblical depictions of events don’t mesh with what science tells us.

Fortunately, scientists are fighting back. For example, last December, the journal Science proclaimed new evidence supporting evolution “the breakthrough of 2005” The journal's editors wrote that “Amid this outpouring of results, 2005 stands out as a banner year for uncovering the intricacies of how evolution actually proceeds… Ironically, also this year, some segments of American society fought to dilute the teaching of even the basic facts of evolution.”

You don’t have to be a religious fundamentalist to be in favour of the suppression of scientific knowledge. Think about the debate over global warming and other ongoing environmental catastrophes. During the 2004 Presidential campaign, an internal memo circulated to local Republicans described how the Bush administration would deal with issues of environmental degradation by simply pretending it’s not happening. The memo read, in part: “From the heated debate on global warming to the hot air on forests; from the muddled talk on our nation's waters to the convolution on air pollution, we are fighting a battle of fact against fiction on the environment – Republicans can't stress enough that extremists are screaming "Doomsday!" when the environment is actually seeing a new and better day.”

“You're talking about a president who says that the jury is out on evolution, so what possible evidence would you need to muster to prove the existence of global warming?” commented environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. “We've got polar ice caps melting, glaciers disappearing all over the world, ocean levels rising, coral reefs dying. But these people are flat-earthers.”

Rumour has it that Ontario Progressive Conservative leader John Tory is a more moderate kind of conservative (he even makes a point of correcting people who leave out the word “progressive” when referring to his party’s name). That didn’t stop him from grandstanding regarding $150,000 in government funding for scientific research that he claimed was suspect. Researchers at Laurentian University are studying how environmental changes (such as global warming) are having an impact on the survival of the flying squirrels that live in Algonquin Park (their population has been declining). “Only these guys are so addicted to spending that they would search high and low to find someone who's studying the sex life [sic] of a flying squirrel. People have to ask... Is the public interest being served by the expenditure of this money?”

Now, I’m not an expert in this particular field, but I’m absolutely certain that John Tory (or, for that matter, Dalton McGuinty) isn’t either. That’s why I’m perfectly willing to leave questions about which studies receive provincial or federal funding (and this one is getting both) to independent adjudicators. Political considerations, such as whether the Leader of the Opposition or the Premier understands the nature of the research, should not play a role. And, opportunities to score cheap political points should not be allowed to stand in the way of the pursuit of knowledge or the protection of a species. That is, assuming that the politician in question is actually in favour of the pursuit of knowledge.
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  1. Posted by: Jesse on Apr 6, 2006 @ 3:26pm

    To suggest that the official opposition should back off from questioning where govt funds are going is ludicrous. So is the notion that only 'independent adjudicators' should be allowed to determine the legitimacy of various academic pursuits.

    I really hate it when people make the kinds of arguments you are making, because I think they contribute to a culture of academic elitism that is all too rampant these days. It alienates the public at large, and generally enhances the sense that academia 'isn't relevant'.

    The government, and its opposition, SHOULD question where public funds go. And its reprsentatives should not have to be experts to do so. Suggesting that people need a certain academic pedigree to decide how the PUBLIC's money is best spent is a pretty high and mighty opinion, which I for one refuse to share.

  2. Posted by: Jesse on Apr 6, 2006 @ 3:30pm

    I might add that had the experts in question been the Fraser Institute or some other right-wing think-tank, you'd probably be making the opposite claim.

    (Or maybe you suppoted those 'independent adjudicators' when they wrote up reports supporting the Harris regime's spending policies?.....yeah, I didn't think so.)

  3. Posted by: Kyle on Apr 11, 2006 @ 11:00am

    Jesse points out an even biggest concern about the current growing class of conservatives in North America - that being their attempt to discredit academia and intellectualism.

    For what it's worth, the majority of prominent schools of politics, law and social studies are left-leaning (both in Canada and the U.S). There are obvious exceptions (for example, McGill and Chicago), but the rule generally sticks. The right seems to see this as an afront to its dominance, even though there are no pressures forcing post-secondary institutions to lean to the left while there are obvious pressures (corporate sponsorship being one) pushing a lean to the right.

  4. Posted by: Jesse on Apr 12, 2006 @ 1:12am

    So the left is more intelligent, is what you are arguing?

    If so, you're equally guilty of academic elitism. Not to mention left elitism.

    Trying to argue this out on a left/right spectrum is stupid, and arguably beside the point. I don't really care who the opposition is - right, left, you name it. They have a right to question where money goes (and equally, where it doesn't go). A right that is grounded in the priniciple of representation, not in the goals of some fictitious conservative conspiracy, as you are making out.

    What you're saying is petty, groundless, and ultimately not worth debating.

  5. Posted by: Kyle on Apr 12, 2006 @ 9:22am

    Perhaps my argument wasn't clear. I wasn't talking about the allocation of government funds to scientific projects.

    My comments were about the consistent efforts of the North American right to dismiss so-called "intellectualism" and attack left-leaning schools of social and political studies. There is no conservative conspiracy, you're right. But you'll rarely hear shouts against "academic elitism" from the left.

    I'm not sure where you got the left being smarter thing. There are brilliant scholars on all parts of the political spectrum. Once again, all I'm saying is that the right in Canada and the U.S. is far more weary of academia. One reason for this defensive posture is that the majority of predominent schools focusing on social and political studies are left-leaning. That doesn't mean conservatives can't be academics and excellent conservative schools of political thought don't exist - I simply mean to say that there are more left or liberal ones.

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