Space shuttles, computer software and laser light shows aside, Americans have a peculiar resistance to scientific pursuit. A survey conducted by Jon D. Miller, director of the Public Opinion Laboratory at Northern Illinois University, revealed, for instance, that 94 per cent of the respondents could not define the word “molecule,” that 92 per cent hadn’t the faintest idea of how a telephone works and that less than one-third could supply a sensible meaning for “radiation.” Another report showed that our best biology students placed last among contemporaries in foreign lands and that our junior Einsteins were near the bottom of the list in chemistry and physics, as well. Thousands of American schoolchildren don’t so much as bother taking science courses—why ponder the periodic table when you could be vegging out with a video of Police Academy ml—and there seems to be no prospect for improvement in the near term. “The number of people graduating from high school who have no chemistry, no physics, no algebra is getting to be high enough that it should be a national embarrassment,” gasped poor Jon D. Miller.
What Miller overlooks is that Americans do not indulge themselves in embarrassment, just as they refuse to be deterred merely by ignorance. Information tends to overwhelm us—all those bothersome details—and, as a result, we prefer to forge ahead in carefree oblivion. How else to explain the national appetite for illusion, for all that boasts a high gloss, whooshes from a spray can or is deep-fat fried? Not surprisingly, Miller found that while his countrymen are basically illiterate in matters of fission, fusion and exponential equations, they do not hesitate for a moment when called upon to provide insights into the daunting world around them.
Accordingly, Miller’s subjects reported that rocket launches affect the weather (44 per cent), that Earth has been visited by strangers from outer space (43 per cent), and that certain numbers bring luck (also 43 per cent, bingo!). As to the theory of evolution— nearly half of those polled said don’t be ridiculous, nothing so extraordinary as a U.S. citizen could be related to a baboon.
When science is ignored, antiscience is sure to flourish. Deny evolution and you have little choice but to assume
that our progenitors were sculpted of clay and spent their days doing crude research in anatomy. Lucky numbers may be fun, but when was the last time you hit the lottery? Outer space? Rocket launches? Miller is correct. We ought to be embarrassed, and more so because we’re not.
Still, foolishness is the right of every citizen. If we want to ignore scientific principle and proclaim, as do certain sects, that health and safety are related to cosmic vibrations, far out. If it is our pleasure to stuff dollars into envelopes and bankroll some fervent television preacher who promises a cure for our ills, let the path to the post office be cleared. If we prefer to believe that the world bends at a right angle somewhere off the coast of California, it’s a free country.
Discomfiting it was, nonetheless, to learn that influential Americans routinely confuse fact and fiction, as well.
The populace is free to embrace the trendiest forms of voodoo, but the White House, too, has fallen under a spell
The populace is free to abandon reason and embrace the trendiest forms of voodoo, but one may feel a certain sense of alarm upon learning that the White House, too, has fallen under a spell. There, according to former chief of staff Donald T. Regan, the person in authority places considerable faith in the alignment of stars and phases of the moon. Nancy Reagan, he said, consults an astrologer.
Nancy, of course, makes the White House hum these days, her husband having long since assumed the role of Toastmaster General. President Reagan is more than adequate for publicspeaking assignments and ribbon cuttings so long as someone hands him the proper end of the scissors, but, as has been clear for some time, his movements are guided by the vigilant and ever-cautious Nancy.
The problem is, Regan says, Nancy has her own first lady. When briefing books, intelligence reports, news accounts, satellite pictures, expert advice and cabinet-level consultations are not sufficient guides to determining the President’s schedule, Nancy Reagan
seeks help from above—that is, she gets on the hotline to San Francisco and seances with her favorite astrologer, Joan Quigley.
Quigley, a hotel heiress, became such a factor in determining the President’s schedule that Donald Regan finally devised a color-coded calendar—green for days when, in Quigley’s opinion, the President might appear in public, yellow for “iffy” occasions and red to denote that the President was not to be disturbed. When President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev were ready to sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, Quigley was consulted about a propitious date, Regan said, and the San Francisco soothsayer also was asked to conjure a horoscope providing glimpses into the Soviet leader’s character.
Regan said that the boss’s wife became intrigued with Quigley upon learning that the astrologer had warned “something bad” would occur on March 30, 1981—the day the President was wounded in an assassination attempt. Subsequently, Nancy Reagan turned to Quigley, who, soon enough, became the ex officio keeper of the presidential datebook. According to Regan, the astrologer determined, for instance, that January, 1987—the whole month—was pulsing with negative vibes. “This,” said Regan, “had the effect of immobilizing the President. His schedule was in a state of chaos.”
Surely this behavior would be uproarious if happening next doorscrewy old John and Mary Jones cancelling summer vacation because the heavens were out of whack—but we are dealing here with the leader of the free world and her husband. The next time the President cancels an appointment, people will assume that Joan Quigley was exercising her authority again—passing the word to Nancy that Ron best stay in bed until the aura around Jupiter diminished.
Jon Miller, the researcher from Illinois, says that “people who are suspicious” find the world a “very threatening and confusing place.” Perhaps his analysis explains the peculiar activities in the White House. Perhaps Nancy Reagan simply is another frightened soul seeking order among chaos. If astrology is her means, so be it. Henceforth, though, all residents of the White House should be required to take qualifying exams in science.
Fred Bruning is a writer with Newsday in New York.
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