American scientific ingenuity shackled by the religious right


ATLANTA - Whatever happened to good old American know-how? What became of those twin emblems of our national character - ingenuity and resourcefulness?

The nation could use a bit of those right now. Even as global petroleum reserves peak, we have no national program for developing alternative energy sources, NASA's shuttle program has been suspended indefinitely for fear of another disaster, and other nations are outstripping us in vital genetic research.

The Pentagon is so desperate to attract a new generation of scientists and engineers that it is sending midcareer researchers to screenwriting school, hoping they'll write movies depicting scientists as flashy heroes. But that won't help much if President Bush is going to declare war on science.

Just last week, the president poked a sharp stick in the eye of modern biology, telling reporters that high schools should teach "intelligent design." This view challenges evolution by inserting a divine force into scientific theories about the origins of life.

According to The Washington Post, Mr. Bush, in an Oval Office meeting with a group of Texas reporters Aug. 1, said, "Both sides ought to be properly taught ... so people can understand what the debate is about."

Like so many Americans who misunderstand scientific consensus, the president seems to think there are two valid scientific views about evolution. There are not. There is a side that teaches science - that which can be tested and retested against the evidence at hand. And there is the side that favors teaching religion in high school biology classes.

Mr. Bush also reiterated his opposition to broadening federal funding for stem-cell research, despite growing Republican support for funding for less-restrictive research. This nation used to be exuberant about scientific achievement, confident about our ability to solve any technological challenge, comfortable with the possibilities of scientific research.

When the Soviets stunned the world with the launch of Sputnik in 1957, the United States rushed to the barricades with money for science labs and math classrooms. There was no conflict among mainstream Christians about promoting scientific advancement.

But that was then. Now, this country is led by a cult of religious fundamentalists who wish to impose their narrow thinking on the rest of us. The dogma advanced by Mr. Bush and his ilk disputes more than a century of scientific thought that relies on the foundations of Darwin's theories. It discounts the pain of countless sick and handicapped citizens who might benefit from advances in stem cell research. It ignores the growing scientific prowess of other nations, including China and South Korea.

Never mind that millions of Christians, including me, are quite comfortable with the teaching of evolution, since it attempts to neither confirm nor deny the existence of a Creator. Never mind that countless believers support broadening research on donated embryos that would otherwise be destroyed. The absolutes of a narrow minority rule the day.

If the great story of the last century was the conflict among various political ideologies - communism, fascism and democracy - the great narrative of this century will be the changes wrought by astonishing scientific breakthroughs. What seemed science fiction just yesterday will become an overnight reality: cures for Alzheimer's and spinal cord ruptures, the development of advanced robots and nanotechnology, an incredible lengthening of the human life span.

The United States stood in the vanguard of the fight against communism and fascism, ensuring that democracy survived the last century and would flourish in the next. But in the race for scientific hegemony, we've tied a white lab coat to a stick and are waving it at Asia: We surrender.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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