Among the many challenges facing the American Constitutional Republic in the 21st century is the rapid rise of arrogant ignorance. Few people exemplify this better than Georgia 10th District Representative, Paul Broun. He is a physician who serves on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. With his medical training, one might assume he would be a worthwhile and capable member of this committee. One would be wrong as Mr. Broun made clear during a speech Sept. 27, 2012, at a sportsman’s banquet at Liberty Baptist Church in Hartwell. In this speech, Representative Broun declared:
“I’ve come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of hell. And it’s lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior.”
He then went on to say that he believes the Earth is about 9,000 years old and that it was made in six days. Such beliefs are held by Christian fundamentalists who purport to believe the creation accounts in the Bible are literally true. It seems clear Mr. Broun’s critical faculties are in decline and he is positioned to lead the slide back into superstition and darkness.
Mr. Broun who is now running for the Senate summarily dismissed the sciences of biology, embryology, astrophysics, and geology in one spasm of splendid candor or shameless pandering depending on his level of sincerity.
Contrary to what Mr. Broun seems to think – belief is not enough. Every person on earth has an abundance of belief about myriad topics. Many of these beliefs are contradictory to beliefs held by others with just as much fervor. For example, Mr. Broun appears to believe “God’s word is true,” and that the Bible is God’s word. To believe means one to has confidence in the truth, the existence, or the reliability of something, but lacks absolute proof that one is right in doing so. One’s beliefs are a matter of how one feels, not of what one knows. Knowledge, in contrast, is acquaintance with facts, truths, or principles, as gained from study or investigation. Mr. Broun believes the earth is “but about 9,000 years old.” This merely expresses his feeling; it conveys no information whatsoever about the age of the earth! Mr. Broun thinks biology, embryology, astrophysics, and geology are “lies from the pit of Hell.” This simply states his belief! It is devoid of information and conveys no knowledge or even the implication of knowledge.
On the basis of this rampant ignorance and credulity, Mr. Broun feels capable of sitting on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and deserving of a seat in the Senate. “The Committee on Science, Space, and Technology has jurisdiction over all energy research, development, and demonstration, astronautical research and development, civil aviation research and development; environmental research and development; marine research; commercial application of energy technology; National Institute of Standards and Technology, standardization of weights and measures and the metric system; National Aeronautics and Space Administration; National Science Foundation; National Weather Service; outer space, including exploration and control thereof; science scholarships; scientific research, development, and demonstration, and projects therefor.” What possible competence can a committee with jurisdiction over such matters as listed have with members who believe the earth is “about 9,000 years old and that it was made in six days?” Representative Broun also denies climate change and claims it is a hoax. What intelligent perspective can he bring to energy research, environmental research, and the commercial application of energy technology?
Contrary to Broun’s Bible based belief, Earth was formed by the colliding and coming together of massive space objects called planetesimals. The force of the impacts would have melted rock, leaving Earth molten for hundreds of thousands of years. Richard Carlson, a geochemist at the Carnegie Institution who has studied some of Earth’s oldest rocks, says:
“Nine thousand years after the last giant impact — there likely were several big impacts during the growth of the planet — the surface of Earth, to a considerable depth, likely was molten rock.”
Scientific research about the age of the planet reveals, Earth formed 4.54 billion years ago, not 9,000 years ago, and that the process took far longer than six days.
Like roughly 45% of Americans according to some polls, Broun wishes to challenge and supplant a theory with a story. In this, he and his co-believers reveal they have no understanding of that a theory is “a coherent group of tested general propositions, commonly regarded as correct, that can be used as principles of explanation and prediction for a class of phenomena.” A story, in contrast, is “a narrative that relates the details of some real or imaginary event.” Theories must be grounded in evidence; stories consider evidence optional. The Biblical account of creation is a story and nothing more. One can believe it instead of the scientific accounts, but one cannot claim to be informed or rational when doing so. We need to grasp the ideas that  theories are derived from data,  theories have to explain the data, and  theories make testable predictions. Everyone can invent stories and creationism is one such a story. There crucial differences between creationism and evolution are the accumulated evidence and the testable predictions.
In our personal lives, we determine what we believe and disdain. Each of us is the master of our own assent. We must understand, however, that belief is neither the parent nor guarantor of truth. If we are credulous in regard to unfounded propositions, our beliefs are delusions. Any choices and decisions made on the base of erroneous, mistaken, preposterous beliefs are correct by sheer accident. If we confine this intellectual recklessness to our own lives, it damages us for the most part. When we carry credulity and superstition into our public roles, however, we endanger our compatriots and our country.
As Neil deGrasse Tyson observes:
“One of the biggest problems with the world today is that we have large groups of people who will accept whatever they hear on the grapevine, just because it suits their worldview—not because it is actually true or because they have evidence to support it. The really striking thing is that it would not take much effort to establish validity in most of these cases… but people prefer reassurance to research.”
Adult Americans have a responsibility to seek the truth and demand that governance and policy be based on the best available information regularly updated. Once credulity and superstition [a belief or set of beliefs, not based on reason or knowledge, but in or of the ominous significance of a particular thing, circumstance, occurrence, proceeding, or the like.] take hold, they spread like virulent viruses. Adult Americans have a duty to inoculate themselves and their children against such maladies. They have a duty to remove political leaders who have fallen prey to these infections. Once before in Western history, superstition, willful ignorance, and arrogant credulity reigned. This period has been called the Dark Ages and it was marked by frequent warfare, famine, disease, barbarity, and a virtual disappearance of urban life. If we are negligent about the nature of political discourse and indifferent to those holding political power, it can happen again and it can happen here. As Carl Sagan says, “Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.” We and those we elect abandon that way of thinking to our real and present peril.