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An Alien Ate my Laundry: The Decline of Reason in the Age of Science

By James C. Garland

The woman in the photograph held out a tattered shirt. Behind her, the remains of her sheets and pillowcases hung in disarray on a clothesline. Her face was flushed with irritation. "AN ALIEN ATE MY LAUNDRY!" the headline declared in huge block letters. It was a simple statement of fact, but I wanted to see the evidence. I am, after all, a scientist.

One doesn't expect reasoned discourse while splashing around in the shallow waters of supermarket tabloids. But even so, I was unprepared for the "scientific proof" of this amazing extraterrestrial encounter. What evidence was considered sufficiently plausible by the editors to warrant front-page coverage? Blurry snapshots of the outer space visitor taken by a next door neighbor? Scorch marks left on the lady's lawn by an interplanetary space drive?

Square holes. Our lady's laundry had been drying on the line, and when she came to collect it, she found her sheets and pillowcases riddled with bite-sized square holes. How did she know it was a space alien who had assaulted her clothesline? Well, obviously no earthly creature had a square mouth. But what about those tiny scraps of cloth scattered about the yard? Couldn't the kid across the street have done the deed with a pair of scissors? Not a chance. To her mind, the scraps of cloth merely signified that our outer-space visitor had not found his earthly snack to his liking and had upchucked it all over the back yard.

Looking at her picture, I couldn't escape the conclusion that this woman lived in a strange universe of UFOs, energy-focusing crystals and psychic mind readers. In her world, a laundry-eating extraterrestrial seemed as natural as a supermarket laser scanner. Why did she find it so difficult to differentiate between the real and the unreal?

In primitive cultures, human beings live and die at the mercy of familiar but unexplained forces - weather, disease, natural disasters - and in this context unexplained phenomena tend to be attributed to deities or spirits. The underlying concept behind magic is that supernatural powers can be invoked selectively by certain individuals to suspend the laws of nature.

One would think that the need for magic would be diminished in the scientific age. Today, we understand the forces that control the weather, how viruses are spread, and how crops grow. With such a secure base of knowledge, couldn't we reasonably assume that human beings might no longer turn to magic to explain the unknown?

I believe the opposite is true: that in response to science, our culture is turning to magic and superstition as a way of bringing order into a world that seems increasingly mysterious. I further believe that this embrace of the irrational is not a harmless indulgence of the imagination, but a growing deterioration in the ability of the general populace to think critically and to distinguish between fantasy and reality.

Science historian Gerald Holton (Harvard University) notes that more than half of the American population today believes astrology is grounded in scientific principles. More than half believes in the daily occurrence of miracles. Any New Age bookstore can provide abundant evidence of public interest in clairvoyants, faith healers, astrologers, and parascientific notions of energy halos, mystical pyramids, and extrasensory perception.

There is a vast perceptual gap between the illusions and the reality of science. To most persons living in our country, science and the technology it spawns have become virtually indistinguishable from magic. Science has come to be seen as so powerful that one need not even acknowledge the existence of laws of nature. If we are not yet able to travel into the future, or reverse the aging process, or make ourselves invisible, it is just a matter of extra research to make all these miracles come to pass. In effect, science has become intertwined with magic, and like the traditional magic of sorcerers and witch doctors, "science magic" undermines the ability of its believers to distinguish the real from the fantastic.

To some extent we have been victimized by our own successes. The pace of scientific and technological advance in this century has been so rapid that society seems almost to reel under a siege of new products and processes. Almost everyone has at times felt overwhelmed by novelty, by a sense that the texture of life has grown too complicated for our own good. This feeling is aggravated by a popular culture whose unapologetic enthusiasm for science magic reinforces the idea that the world is governed by mystical forces.

The entertainment industry spends hundreds of millions of dollars yearly promoting warp drives, matter transporters, parallel universes, robots made of liquid metal, and time travel. I worry about the cumulative impact of such entertainment on people too unsophisticated to understand they are not watching a plausible vision of futuristic technology, but merely a fanciful pastiche of misconceptions based on the present-day words of science.

There is no question that our schools fail to provide the needed counterbalance. The reasons are well-known: a methodology that emphasizes memorization of facts and labels, a fragmented science curriculum that skims over important concepts, overworked and under-educated science teachers, too-large classes, textbooks that emphasize flashy graphics over substance, and perhaps most importantly, an endemic failure to motivate students to stretch their brains and to take pleasure in the rewards of clear-headed thinking.

A major study, Science for All Americans, commissioned by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and published in 1992 by Oxford University Press, summarized the recommendations of distinguished panels of more than 400 individuals for improving national science literacy. These recommendations hold as their basic premise the idea that less is more: that American schools should narrow their scope, illuminating key principles and ideas and habits of mind, that the cultivation of the intellect requires more of laser beam's focus and less of a floodlight's sweep. It is a sensible agenda.

However, that the solutions are known does not make the problems less daunting. One does not easily kick-start into a motion a decentralized educational network of 80,000 schools and 50 million pupils. The problem will not be solved if it is only the educators and scientists who wave their arms in despair. The mandate to reform on such a grand scale requires broad national resolve. The greatest obstacle may be to persuade a society in which science illiteracy is endemic that something is actually wrong. How does one convince a person who has not learned to read of the value of books?

The case for science literacy is often framed in the context of workplace needs. The familiar argument is that success in a competitive international arena requires a steady supply of skilled scientists, engineers and technicians, and that our schools are not doing enough to meet this demand. I don't find this argument persuasive. Our scientists are acknowledged to be among the best in the world, and if our engineers and technical people are not quite so highly acclaimed, they are still the envy of most nations.

My concern lies not with the tip of the scientific iceberg, but with the submerged 90 percent. I fear we may have seriously underestimated the consequences for our culture of a scientifically illiterate population. Lacking an understanding of the physical world, we easily fall prey to hucksters, charlatans and those who promise easy solutions to complex problems. We abrogate our social responsibility to self-styled experts. We waste our dollars - and sometimes our lives - on useless medicines. We allow our political leaders to embark on costly, ill-fated schemes cooked up by special interest groups. We ignore real dangers to our planet because we cannot understand the warnings.

The power to understand is our most precious possession. The power resides partly in our genes, evolved over the millennia by the random forces of natural selection. But the power is also part of our intellectual heritage, a gift bestowed upon us by Aristotle, Galileo, Descartes, Einstein and thousands of other women and men throughout the centuries who have sought to elicit order from the confusion of their universe.

Today we reap the benefits of their labors. But as citizens of history's most privileged society, we ultimately hold this gift in trust, to be passed on to our children so that they will not only share in our prosperity, but will experience their full humanity. Our ancestors have made is possible for us to understand the complexities of our world, to appreciate the delicate beauty of the laws of nature and the elegant symmetries of the heavens. We owe it to them and to the generations who will follow us to preserve this fragile heritage.

James C. Garland is the president of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Note: Portions of text drawn from addresses given by the author to the Kit-Kat Club of Columbus, Ohio and the Faculty Assembly of Miami University.

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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin