August 12th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man


I'm struggling to maintain interest long enough to finish Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy. It's not that I think he's wrong (most of the time) or that his points are uninteresting, it's just so redundant and so poorly written. But one of the key points of his argument that I was going to get around to talking about anyway is that it is a 100% reliable sign of an empire about to fall that puritanical religion becomes a national obsession, and that proselytizing within the empire and missionary endeavors to the fringes of the empire and beyond become consuming matters. Phillips doesn't claim to prove which is cause and which is effect. It could be that successful empires feel that they have the luxury to divert scientific, economic, and military energies to something that was important to many or most of their people before-hand. It could be, though (and this is what I strongly suspect that Phillips believes), that part of how empires lose the economic and scientific edge that funded and fueled their rise to global dominance is that they become obsessed with religion, and demonize any economic or scientific activity that puritanical religious leaders find threatening. And if so, as most of the science-oriented blogs have been saying this week since the following graph appeared in the journal Science, America is deeply screwed. "Adults were asked to respond to the statement: 'Human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals.' The percentage of respondents who believed this to be true is marked in blue; those who believed it to be false, in red; and those who were not sure, in yellow."

America comes in only one bump above dead last, at what looks to be around 40%, the lowest of any industrialized nation in the world. Razib over at the blog Gene Expression makes an interesting point about the country that came in dead last. Turkey is basing their argument that they're ready to enter the European Union, that they're culturally compatible enough with Europe to merge into that coalition, in large part on their claim that (as was true even back in the Ottoman Empire days) Turkey is the most tolerant and secular nation in the entire Islamic world. But at less than 25% of their population in the survey accepting the scientific view of human origins, they come in far, far below even the lowest state in the EU, former Ottoman conquest Greece at roughly 55%. All of the economic powerhouses of Europe score well into the 70s%, and Razib argues in his column that that's just simply not good enough.

The true, fundamental argument in Phillips' book is that since the 16th century, at least, empires are supplanted by later empires because they are wedded to an older technology, contemptuous of (and therefore slow to exploit) a better newer technology, and hamstrung in any attempt to catch up with their rising rivals by huge debts run up due to what appears to be an inevitable drift towards replacing manufacturing and scientific economic activities (the signs of a healthy nation or empire) with financial services, imports, and the expense of funding major missionary efforts, all activities that encourage rising debt and discourage sober attitudes towards debt. In the first third of his book, in between boring diversions into the usual conspiracy theories, he goes out of his way to show that the sun did set on the self-proclaimed "empire on which the sun never sets" because England, wedded to coal, was slow to exploit the petroleum technologies that America mastered, technologies that themselves literally fueled the American Century. And if a new technology, whether energy conservation technologies, renewable energies, or something else altogether becomes the rising technology that is fundamental to global dominance the 21st century, an America in which a substantial percentage of Americans' attitude towards science can be summed up in the bumper sticker that says, "God said it, I believe it, and that settles it," isn't very likely to produce the scientists, engineers, and visionary entrepreneurs it would take to capitalize on that new technology.

And it may well be that you can see more substantial evidence of this in something else that's doing the rounds of the science blogs this week. Washington University physics professor Jonathan Katz has posted on his web page a widely-circulated open letter to all American undergraduates: "Don't Become a Scientist!" Why on earth would someone who makes his living training new Ph.D.'s in physics tell undergraduates not to follow him into his line of work? Because America no longer employs enough scientists to absorb, to provide even entry level jobs to, even half of the scientists that graduate from our universities already. That there are so few employment opportunities for scientists in America looks to me like scary evidence that fundamentalist America is, in fact, a post-scientific America. And that bodes very, very ill for us.
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