A nice win for the smart folk

My career as an engineer began in the same year that Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority, the same year that the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention began; my professional working life has been exactly coincident with the rise of the Evangelical Right and its sustained assault against reason, knowledge, expertise.

Today, we live in a country where a significant proportion of the population — whose parents paid for the decisive test of the validity of the atomic model at Hiroshima, and then paid to put a man on the moon — doubts that science knows what it is talking about when it discusses evolution and attributes climate change to human activity.

Oh, and that same proportion of Americans put a man in the Oval Office who routinely disparages the findings of our national intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and tells garish lies day after day, apparently counting on those same people to believe him. It’s not unpatriotic to wonder if America has reached a sort of tipping point, to wonder if the country can recover from the ignorance and malice that are now in the saddle.

So Monday was a red-letter day for my Sputnik generation of students, we who can remember when a good education was an honorable goal, not insufferable elitism. On Monday, InSight landed on Mars.

Launched on May 5th of this year, InSight is a robotic lander designed to study the interior of Mars, and the bald fact that it made it to Mars and landed safely is a triumph of reason and science.

After all, the lander had to thread its way through a lot of moving parts. Earth was moving when InSight was launched, and so was Mars, and so were all the other planets in our solar system. And as they moved, their gravitational attraction tugged Insight this way and that. For six months, InSight kept its course through inexhaustible darkness — and landed where intended.

Consider the physics and mathematics of plotting such a course, and the materials engineering needed to protect the instruments in space, and the communications technology needed to control InSight, and the technology needed to power it all.

Contrast the minds of the men and women who authored this remarkable achievement with the mind of some bellowing fool who shouts that everything went wrong when a talking snake tricked a gullible woman into stealing a bad piece of fruit.

And what, by the way, is practically the first thing InSight did upon landing? It took a selfie, just as any of us do when we arrive someplace we’ve never been.

The universe operates according to physical laws that are knowable. What is more, there is not a scintilla of evidence in favor of believing there is an alternative reality that operates according to a divine whim, and which is populated by good and bad, vaguely gaseous phantasms. We don’t yet know all of the laws that govern the universe, but we are entitled to have confidence that methodical observation and careful thought will continue to discern them. After all, just look at what has been achieved since that apple bonked Isaac Newton on the head!

Thinking, reasoning minds have defeated scores of once commonplace killers, and found ways to improve life. We once lived in caves and feared wolves, and now we live in homes more comfortable than Versailles and feel aggrieved if the WiFi goes out.

Virtually everything you see as you read this is the work of science and engineering, from the computer screen in front of your eyeballs to the chair you’re sitting in. And all of it, every bit, is endangered by the systematic disparagement of reason practiced by the Far- and Evangelical Right and the lunatic they’ve installed in the White House.

They are wrong, and we must never submit to them. Reason and its primacy in the progress of humanity must be defended no matter the cost.

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