Captain Wang, Not Captain Kirk, Will Boldly Go

It looks likely that there will never be a Captain Kirk who boldly goes where no one has gone before. Nor will there be a Captain Mohammed. If humankind does one day send a starship to explore galactic deep space, it will most likely be commanded by Captain Wang.

We take it for granted that a Captain Kirk will be in command of a starship Enterprise when humans make the exploratory leap into deep space. Captain Kirk is our popular vision of the ultimate American--curious about what lies beyond that last frontier, itching with the adventurous instinct to find out what lies beyond. He looks at the night sky, ablaze with stars, and wonders "What is out there?" He wonders--and he asks "What is it?", "How did it get there?", "When did it begin?" "Why is it the way it is?"

He is determined to find out.

Except it looks increasingly as if there will not be a nascent Captain Kirk coming up through American public schools. The U.S. already lags the developed world in understanding of science and mathematics in public education. As right-wing conservatism and its handmaidens of religious evangelism and anti-intellectualism gain more influence over public education, speculation, inquisitiveness, the urge to know--the foundations upon which science is built--will be further suffocated by religious dogmatism that can never tolerate the fair light of reason.

We have only to look at the Islamic world to see what will become of us. For a few golden centuries between 800 AD and 1100 AD, the spirit of inquiry glowed bright in the Islamic world. Islamic scholars--motivated at first by translations of philosophy, mathmetics and science texts from ancient Greece--were the world's foremost investigators of science, astronomy, medicine, mathematics. The West turned to the Islamic world for knowledge--knowledge that contributed in no small way to the rekindling of science and reason in the West.

Then it all collapsed in the Islamic world. Invasions and other turmoil roiled Islamic societies. Islam turned inward and looked to the Koran for all of its answers. Science died. The urge to know has not appeared in Islam for a thousand years. Young Islamic men and women come to the West to pursue careers in science and medicine because the Islamic world offers no such opportunities. That's why there will be no Captain Mohammed in command of the starship Enterprise.

What is happening to the spirit of inquiry and science education in the United States? Former U.S. Representative Bart Gordon of Tennessee, recent chair of the House Science Committee, said he was happy to retire after 26 years in the House. Among his reasons to be happy in retirement was the rising tide of anti-science anti-intellectualism in public life. A specific example--disbelief and active opposition to the concept of climate change, not on the basis of objective data but because climate change is opposed as another invention of an intellectual scientific elite.

The anti-intellectual, anti-science, right-wing conservative evangelistic lobby works at all levels from Congress to local school boards and classrooms to inhibit the teaching of science and intellectual exploration and foster the teaching of religion-based creationism that has an answer for everything, no questions needed--or encouraged:

--Biology--how to account for the diversity of life on Earth? God only knows, no questions needed. In fact, no questions encouraged; messianic dogma does not fare well under objective inquiry.

--Geology--how to account for the types and ancient ages of the rocks under our feet? God only knows, no questions needed or encouraged.

--Anthropology--how to explain the great adventure of humankind becoming human? God only knows, no questions needed, or encouraged.

Creationism may sometimes by disguised as some milder form of dogma--e.g., "intelligent design"--but the intention is always to suffocate inquiry and foster unquestioning "faith" and belief in dogmatic teachings.

China has recognized that humankind has no future dissociated from science. Science teaching is on afterburner in Chinese education. Chinese leadership worries about this, of course, because freedom of inquiry in science can dangerously foster freedom of inquiry in politics and government. They have shown they are willing to take the chance because there is no future without science.

That's why it will be Captain Wang in command of the starship Enterprise. Where will the could-have-been Captain Kirk be found? Stocking shelves at Walmart.

Leave a comment