Scientific literacy made the American Revolution

Ben Franklin

As you and your friends and family get set for the Independence Day celebrations here in the South Valley, I hope you’ll take a moment to think about the great American experiment we are a part of today. The word “experiment” to describe our republic is a fitting one. Many of the leaders who founded our nation were scientifically astute and understood the principles of carrying out tests to prove or disprove revolutionary ideas – including political ideas.
Let’s take a look at some of the Founding Fathers and their zeal for science. Foremost is Benjamin Franklin. His research unlocking the secrets of electricity would have easily earned him a Nobel Prize in physics if that honor had been given out in the 18th century. Franklin also was keen on studying the science behind optics, weather, climate and ocean currents. And he understood that basic research in the sciences should not simply be a way to satisfy human curiosity. Science should serve human progress, he believed. That belief led him to invent applications such as the lightning rod, the urinary catheter, the odometer, the Franklin stove, the harmonica and bifocals.
From astronomy to zoology, Thomas Jefferson zealously studied the various fields of science. He understood Newtonian physics well, and this knowledge shaped his mind to see the laws of cause and effect in the world of nature as well as in human nature. Jefferson’s scientific view of the world is reflected in the structure and language of the Declaration of Independence. In that document’s Preamble, deductive reasoning makes the case for independence from British monarchy. This revolutionary premise is backed by a series of well-reasoned supporting evidence in the grievances listed against King George III’s tyranny.
John Adams and James Madison were also scientifically literate. While at Harvard, Adams studied astronomy and physics. His home library contained one of the largest collections of science books in the colonies. And he was a founding member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences located in Boston. Madison, the chief engineer of the Constitution, was an amateur scientist and mathematician. The Federalist Papers, which he had a hand at writing, reflect Madison’s love of Euclidian geometry and Isaac Newton’s Principia, the revolutionary physics book that describes the mechanics of the universe. In fact, the Constitution itself can be viewed as a kind of Newtonian blueprint for a logic-based form of national administration. The Constitution’s design creates a self-regulating “machine” built on a platform of three subsystems – the executive, legislative and judicial branches of federal government. Each subsystem regulates the other two through checks and balances on the processing of power.
America’s Founding Fathers were men of their time, men of the Enlightenment. They understood that modern science – the science of Newton and Francis Bacon – created a revolutionary new way to view the world. Science requires a kind of rebelliousness of thought, a mental defiance against conventional beliefs (including religious dogma) that gives scientists the freedom to imagine how the laws of nature might work. That rebelliousness needs to be combined with discipline of mind to prove or disprove a hypothesis by gathering empirical evidence through scientific testing and measurement.
So it is with the American experiment. America’s constitutional government was never a perfect machine to manage human affairs. The Founding Fathers understood that every now and then, the American people would have to “tweak” the gears of government if it failed to measure up to the testing of historic events. That’s why they programmed into the United States Constitution the means to include amendments.
Science has served the American republic well. No doubt, the Founding Fathers would be highly impressed with the technological advances we enjoy today. In its 236 years, our nation has grown strong because science led to innovations that spawned commerce and enterprise. Much of this science was achieved from federal research projects – including work done on the Internet, aircraft and computers. Science also made America history’s greatest military power. Without basic research in the sciences, we would not have the defense system we have today.
Perhaps mixed with their pride, the Founding Fathers would look at our American society and feel sad at the growing scientific illiteracy among our people. Even many of today’s political leaders, the men and women entrusted with continuing the American experiment, lack a basic understanding of science. That ignorance is dangerous for our republic’s future because many important political decisions – such as climate change policy and health care regulations – require a level of scientific literacy.
This Fourth of July, consider the American experiment. Let’s strengthen our nation and widen our mental horizons by better appreciating the splendor of science.

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