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Skepticism and Salvation

When my son Seth was 17, his father, elder sister and I and an adult friend stopped at a restaurant in New Philadelphia for dinner. As the waitress went around the table taking orders for drinks, Seth ordered a martini. The waitress, observing his youth, asked "Are any of these people your parents?" Seth never missed a beat: "All of these people," he said with an expansive gesture, "are my parents."

Teenagers are quick to grasp the "Takes-a-Village" hypothesis. Seth is now a parent, confronting, along with all parents, the reciprocal proposition: All children are our children.

On this eve of a new year, on a planet beset with tragic predicaments of human provenance, what should we show our children about the world they live in? More importantly, what should we tell them about the society they live in? How do we teach them to be true to their personal conscience and conscious of humanity of others? How to we give them both freedom and responsibility? How do we encourage them to be both idealists and skeptics? How do we teach them that open-ended, decentralized non-authoritarian systems like democracy and science are our best hope of bringing order to a disorderly and increasingly deadly world?

In his 1993 book, Kindly Inquisitors, Jonathan Rauch explores the evolutionary nature of science and democracy, and the threat of fundamentalism -- i.e. non- skeptical principles -- to society, science, and to democracy itself. He observes that for making decisions of public policy from scientific knowledge there must be a rule against authority: No one gets the final say.

Rauch also observes that science and democracy are not machines for producing answers, they are self-maintaining ecologies in which people manage change and foster progress for all members of society.

Democracy is the only system yet devised that allows all members to participate in ordering and administering the society they live in, and in fixing things when they go wrong. It works well because we are born fixers -- evolution has seen to it that good fixers survive and thrive. Democracy expects all of us to share our knowledge and resources, our hopes and beliefs and our questions and doubts, to test out all hypotheses -- both scientific and political -- and participate in decision-making.

Science is our system of accounting for reality. It unfolds through a social process of comparing data, based on the very genius that makes us human, makes us intelligent, and gives us free will: our individual ability to say "What happens if ....?" -- to generate hypotheses and test them in the real world.

Among competing hypotheses about ideology, religion, economic theories, political systems and a thousand flavors of hype and spin, can we agree enough about how the world works to keep from killing one another, exploiting one another? Can we recognize all humans as equally deserving of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness? Must we always have someone to despise? blacks, jews, gays, communists, liberals, Islamo-fascists, atheists?


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Almost any system of accounting for reality or making public policy will go -- somewhere -- but not necessarily where we all want it to go. Many will go to dead ends, others to deleterious or deadly ones.

In the last five years we have allowed one overgrown child's hypothesis about our nation's role in world affairs bring hellfire to Iraq; we have permitted that child, who is not inquisitive, to establish a new Inquisition: anyone can be imprisoned and tortured for what others believe he thinks or knows, but neither the accusation nor the victim's beliefs can be open to public scrutiny.

As never before, our American politics needs science and skepticism, idealism and critical thinking. But ours, not that of a President, party, or any other authority.

The most hopeful sign at the start of 2007 is that nearly 40% of American voters are registered as independents. They describe themselves as valuing original and independent thought, and they generally believe that Republicans and Democrats do not think for themselves but only follow party lines. Independents also tend to be skeptics and to doubt that any party, ideology or authority can provide fixes to all problems.

All of us are parents, and we owe it to our children to show them how to be good parents to the world. As world citizens we must make sure that all children can grow up in a world free of bombs and deadly weapons, have clean water and air, good food and shelter, immunizations and medical care, and basic literacy.

As American citizens we have some specific tasks necessary to make science and democracy work: remove Bush and Cheney from office; take our military out of Iraq; stop all torture, release all political prisoners; close Guantanamo and secret prisons; bring Iraq's neighbors into negotiations on ending the conflict; end development, manufacture and stockpiling of nuclear weapons; control international trade in deadly weapons.

All children are our children. Humanity will self-destruct if we don't teach our children how to be parents to the whole human family, and how to be independent idealists and skeptics. Science will betray us and societies will miscarry if don't show our children how to operate the open-ended, decentralized, non-authoritarian, constantly unfolding systems of democracy and science.

Caroline Arnold

Caroline Arnold retired in 1997 after 12 years on the staff of US Senator John Glenn. She previously served three terms on the Kent (Ohio) Board of Education. In retirement she is active with the Kent Environmental Council and sits on the board of Family & Community Services of Portage County. Her Letters From Washington has been published as an e-Book by the Knowledge Bank of the Ohio State University Library.  E-mail:

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