The horrific events at Virginia Tech fill every decent human being with a profound sense of sorrow and a feeling of frustration: What can we do about it? When is it all going to end, if ever?
I found myself searching history for answers from the point of view of a scientist.
The history of suppression of knowledge
There have always been authoritarians, religious fanatics, the State, charlatans—conspiring to deprive us of the truth so as to perpetuate their hold on power and lucre.
This phenomenon reaches as far back as biblical times; we read about the first set of “spies” Moses sent to scout the land of Canaan. They gave him a truthful report about the harshness of the land and the misery of its inhabitants, a message he did not like. So what did Moses do? He executed them! Turns out they were right—just take a look at the Middle East today. What if he listened to the truth and made beeline to Saudi Arabia, for instance?
Not to be outdone, the Catholic Church had a very effective tool of suppressing the truth—the stake. Poor Galileo, he was given a “choice” of recanting his heretical scientific findings or burn—not in hell, but right here on earth.
Since then, organized religions—Jewish, Christian and Moslem—have fought a rearguard action to stop the inexorable march of enlightenment. Think of it: Would you believe nowadays that the sun revolves around the earth? Or that the earth is flat? Or that the world was created about 5,600 years ago? Yet, how many people, over the course of history, have been branded as heretics, apostates, and a variety of other epithets for daring to question, for demanding the truth? How many of them gave their lives for believing the evidence that debunked the Church’s junk science?
Fast forward to 1933-1945, when the Nazi propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels, founded the “science” of the Big Lie. The (evil) genius of his observation was that the bigger the lie, the more believable it was; now, just a few decades later, it forms the basis for commercial and state propaganda.
- Consider the tobacco industry’s tactic of funding junk science, of bullying honest scientists, all in the name of mammon.
- Consider an administration that bullies its EPA scientists for trying to tell the truth about air pollution, of an Interior Department that fires its scientists for telling the truth about degradation of the environment, or NASA muzzling its scientists from speaking and publishing data on global warming. NASA scientists have to get clearance from a political hack for every scholarly paper they present at a scientific meeting; it brings back sad memories of colleagues from the Soviet Empire and China who had to get clearance from a political commissar for papers they presented.
And now: Consider the gun lobby!
The very same tactics:
- Fund bogus, junk science.
- Intimidate scientists who are doing first-class science—not just verbally, not just by impugning their scientific credentials and honesty—but with hate mail campaigns, threats of physical harm, and worse.
- Co-opt our political representatives to the point that one of their chief propagandists brags in the Washington Post that if GW Bush is elected, “We’ll have … a president where we work out of their office.”
- Muzzle every source of independent, dispassionate inquiry: The CDC (Center for Disease Control), the premier institute for epidemiological research, had to abandon research on the epidemic of gun violence in the U.S. under threat of severe budget cuts.
So what is so hopeful about it?
What is hopeful to me is the historical perspective. I believe that the gun lobby will go the way of the tobacco lobby. I believe that honest and courageous scientists will not be deterred from shedding real light on the problem, intimidation or not. I believe that one day, the nation will wake up to the Big Lie perpetrated on it and will throw the bums out. I fervently hope that the day when the people stand up and say “enough is enough”, is not far off.
We will then be able to deal with this self-inflicted scourge of gun violence with intelligence and creativity, just as we dealt with other national problems in our history.