The US isn't winning the science Olympics either
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Sir Isaac Newton, that one-man knowledge explosion of the 17th century, would hardly have been surprised, though, to discover that this 20th-century fusillade of discovery and invention has provoked an opposite reaction. It might be called the anti-knowledge explosion. That's where Jimmy Swaggart (and that very different fundamentalist, Imam Khomeini) enters the scene. Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Baker, until they fell victim of the sensual hubris that has been the downfall of so many fictional and real evangelists in America, appealed to millions of Americans who had been left out of the fruits of the knowledge explosion. The Ayatollah appealed likewise to a large segment of Iranians. He and his fellow imams gave voice to all the Iranians and other Mideastern underclasses who had been left behind in the modernization and westernization plans by which the Shah sought to establish a new Persian empire.Skip to next paragraph
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There seem to be at least two reasons for the strength and persistence of this anti-knowledge reaction. First, as just indicated, a considerable portion of mankind is being left outside with its nose pressed to the window as the power to understand and use the new technical knowledge is distributed. Second, the knowledge explosion itself has been lopsidedly a phenomenon of the sciences (and quasi-sciences like political science, social science, psychology) rather than of the value studies.
The pure searchers for basic knowledge have seldom ignored moral and ethical questions raised by their work. But many of the packagers and sellers of that work have acted as if morality lay on the other side of a great divide - hazy and inexact where their ``hard'' subjects are practical and relevant. They have paid little more than chapped lip-service to moral issues.
This attitude has simply confirmed, for followers of the so-called fundamentalists, a suspicion that the purveyors of the knowledge explosion have little concern for morality.
In the political sphere, populism runs a parallel course. Large numbers of those left behind by technological change fear what they see as ant-like Asian societies. Theirs is like the reaction of many people to the overdramatized threat of ``killer bees.'' Demagogues woo them by painting a picture of the low-wage, long-hour, team-organized Korean or Japanese society as if it were Sparta reborn with technical know-how.
No such killer-bee societies exist in reality. The American answer to Asian success should start with a serious, long-term shift of resources and attention to science education - broad based enough to sweep up those who are now being left out. The US has shuddered at too many alarms since the Sputnik crisis of 1957, without responding in a sustained way.
Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.