Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Thomas Jefferson's birthday

Thomas Jefferson may well have been the president that most strongly supported scholarship in general and science in particular. He was just as proud of being the founder of the University of Virginia as of being the third president. The Lewis and Clark expedition, which Jefferson organized and funded as president, was primarily a scientific expedition to explore, rather than a military expedition to conquer, the Louisiana Purchase. He kept copious notes of a scientific nature (though science in its modern form did not yet exist), and his reputation as an inventor is or should be well known to everyone.

When President Kennedy hosted Nobel laureates at the White House, he said that event was the greatest concentration of brain power that there had ever been in the White House, except when Jefferson dined there alone. But it is not just that Jefferson was smart. There were lots of other smart people involved in the founding of our nation. But he had a zeal for getting new and reliable information upon which to base human activities, especially farming, which was and is the basis of the world economy. He had trouble letting go of precious theories—he probably never quite believed that mammoths really had become extinct, and was hoping the Lewis and Clark expedition would find some—but was more open to new information than nearly anyone else then or now. It was this attitude of openness that led scholars, decades after Jefferson’s death, to finally accept evolutionary science. Jefferson did not accept evolution, because during his lifetime the evidence for it was not very good.

Conservatives do not like Jefferson. I believe that this is partly due to the fact that, to conservatives, it is not important what you know, but just what you believe. Conservatives generally think that you should impose your beliefs on the facts, rather than letting the facts lead you to your beliefs. They fear new information and, in many cases, attempt to suppress it. They also strongly resent the fact that Jefferson did not believe in conventional Christian theology, although he was by no means what we would today call an agnostic or atheist. This is the principal reason that the Texas Board of Education attempted to expunge much of the information about Jefferson from the educational standards in high schools. Conservatives are threatened by Thomas Jefferson and people like him.

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