How Long Can Americans Remain Ignorant and Free?

How Long Can Americans Remain Ignorant and Free?
W.L. Ormsby/Library of Congress via AP
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Founding Father Thomas Jefferson called freedom the "firstborn daughter of science." Freedom stems from science.

Indeed, Jefferson treated science with such reverance that he commissioned portraits of three great scientific thinkers: Francis Bacon, who argued that scientific knowledge arises from inductive reasoning and careful, skeptical observation; Issac Newton, who formulated the laws of motion and gravitation; and John Locke, the prominent empiricist who stated "whatever I write, as soon as I discover it not to be true, my hand shall be the forwardest to throw it into the fire." Their portraits hung prominently in Jefferson's office at the State Department throughout his tenure as Secretary of State.

Jefferson's fellow Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and James Madison, were similarly enamored with science, and together, they wove its methodological reasoning into the Constitution, itself.

But they knew that the scientific underpinnings of America's founding document would not be enough to keep the country together. Politicians and citizens alike would need to remain dedicated stewards of reason and critical thinking.

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free," Jefferson later wrote, "it expects what never was and never will be."

Yet, today, Americans and the politicians who represent them are increasingly disconnected from facts and reality. This willful or unintentional ignorance ranges from the relatively mundane – about half of Americans think that gentically modified foods are bad for their health (they aren't) – to the dangerous – around 3 in 10 Americans think that that 2020 election was illegitimate (it wasn't).

You can find a great many other issues for which Americans on the Left and Right prefer biased, fallacious feelings over evidence-based facts: gun control, climate change, vaccines, diversity training, etc. And as these preferences have grown more dogmatic, exacerbated by social media echo chambers, so, too has our politics.

Make no mistake, Americans are already paying for our collective ignorance with our freedom. When we ignore climate change, we lose the freedom to live where we want. When we ignore the overwhelming evidence for vaccines, we lose the freedom to gather without fear of a deadly virus. When we ignore each other, we lose our freedom by slipping into dark, ideological prisons of our own devising.

In his final televised interview, science communicator Carl Sagan recalled Jefferson's wisdom. "It's a thing that Jefferson lay great stress on. It wasn't enough, he said, to enshrine some rights in the Constitution and the Bill or Rights, the people had to be educated and they have to practice their skepticism and their education," he says. "Otherwise, we don't run the government, the government runs us."

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