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Science Fights Back. : Is It Winning? The Answer Is Not in the Stars

February 11, 1996|Michael D'Antonio | Michael D'Antonio's last article for the magazine looked at anonymity in cyberspace

In the battle for the American mind, a colonial-style office building nestled in ivy-covered Princeton, N.J., is a fortress. Inside, behind a white door with a brass nameplate, the National Association of Scholars functions like a command and control center. And Rita Zurcher, the research director for the NAS, serves as a front-line officer, defending science and reason against paranoia, superstition, ignorance and politics.

"The entire scientific endeavor is under attack from both the Right and the Left," Zurcher explains as she rifles through a stack of reports, news clippings and academic papers. A middle-aged woman with graying blond hair and blue eyes, Zurcher's soft voice takes on a hard edge as she contemplates her amorphous foe. "They promote the image of the scientist as evil and talk about myths and conspiracy theories as if they help us understand the world. Someone has to stand up and say this is not only wrong, but dangerous."

Zurcher's opponents include truly dangerous extremists such as the murderously anti-technology Unabomber and citizen militia members who see conspiracy everywhere. But in the main, she is worried about more subtle threats: New Age religion, alternative medicine, religious fundamentalism, left-wing academics. A flurry of recent books and academic papers have described these ideas as part of a large social phenomenon--modern man's flight from reason. Last summer, 200 scientists, doctors and philosophers gathered in New York City to discuss the crisis. Many at the conference called for a counterrevolution. "It's time to get nasty--to launch a crusade against quackery," declared one biochemist.

As part of this crusade, the National Association of Scholars has launched both a newsletter and a quarterly journal dedicated to the defense of science. The NAS also sponsors conferences such as the one held last summer at the New York Academy of Sciences. The academy will soon publish a book on the decline of reason. The National Center for Science Education has begun to challenge the spread of Bible-inspired "creation science" into public schools around the nation. And the National Council Against Health Fraud has begun to take on alternative medicine in courtrooms and other forums around the country.

To a casual observer, the alarm now rippling through certain corners of science and the academy may seem premature, even hysterical. The decline of reason isn't the subject of radio talk shows and political debates. It doesn't keep many of us up at night. But a close examination suggests that this problem is real. Environmental disasters have made many Americans wary of technology. Medicine's limitations--in fighting cancer, AIDS and other diseases--have dimmed the promise of science. And a general disenchantment with authorities of all types has made millions of people receptive to ideas that were once beyond the pale.

The effects of all this skepticism are serious. They range from the murders linked to the Unabomber to the huge popularity of faith healers and unproven cures (Americans now spend $13 billion a year on alternative medicine). Last summer, a national conference for state officials was canceled when too many delegations pulled out in the erroneous belief that it was part of a "one world government" conspiracy. And all across the country, irrational notions about science, history and the paranormal are being taught in many big city schools.

The decline of math and science education--the pillars of rational thought--can be quantified in irrefutable terms, argues Zurcher. According to a study by the NAS, science and math composed almost 16% of a typical college graduate's training in 1914. Today science and math make up less than 6% of a student's work. "Math and science literacy are a real problem," says Zurcher, "and facts have become something to be avoided, something students are to be protected from. Of course, the truth is, there are ways of understanding the world that are superior and there are people who are simply smarter and better equipped to solve problems.

"We should defend the idea that there are elites. That's what students should strive to be."

*

Harsh as they may sound, these attacks on certain forms of education are mild compared with the loud complaints made by the critics of alternative medicine. Opponents of therapies that lack the seal of official approval are outraged by the growing popularity of medicines, diets and hands-on techniques that they define as quackery. About one-third of all Americans use alternative treatments. Alternative medicine practitioners are the object of especially harsh criticism from those sounding the end-of-reason alarm.

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