The culture wars are back, and the stakes have never been higher.

The front lines have shifted in 20-plus years: from art galleries and hip-hop lyrics to the nation’s textbooks, classrooms and public policy debates. What was once a skirmish about changing standards of decency in art and popular culture has morphed into a sustained, widespread attack on established science and scientific thinking, an attack that threatens the intellectual well-being of our nation.

Indeed, one could make the case that scientific thinking in America today is under siege in a way we haven’t seen since the condemnation of Galileo early in the 17th century. Then, as now, would-be guardians of tradition felt threatened by advances in scientific methods and knowledge. Then, as now, our understanding of the world around us suffered as a result.

Consider this example: According to the Pew Research Center, almost a third of Americans say there is no solid evidence that the Earth is warming. And for those who do acknowledge the existence of global warming, just 4 in 10 believe this phenomenon is caused mostly by human activity.

What’s striking is that there is almost no serious debate within the scientific community about the existence of global warming and our role in its acceleration. For practical purposes, the science on global warming is complete.

This disconnect between the scientific community and the rest of the population is a serious problem, but it’s not a science problem. To advance the important public policy conversations, it’s not more scientific findings that we need. Everyone who knows how and when to be persuaded by science has already been persuaded.

What’s needed instead is a deeper and wider public understanding of the history and philosophy of science, a clearer picture of how scientific thinking works and how we non-scientists can make wise and rational decisions based on scientific findings.

Back in the 17th century, the philosopher John Locke was familiar with just this kind of situation. Locke was not himself a scientist, but he was a champion of Enlightenment thinking and a key defender of the scientific worldview against its scholastic critics.

In the introductory remarks to his monumental “Essay Concerning Human Understanding” of 1689, Locke frames the task of the humanities with regard to debates around science. He refers to himself as an “under-laborer in clearing the ground a little, removing some of the rubbish.”

This is an exceptionally modest characterization of what he was up to, which was nothing less than to establish the epistemological framework that makes Enlightenment scientific thinking possible.

For Locke, “clearing the ground” amounted to providing a solid intellectual foundation for the modern scientific method. If you don’t have Locke’s epistemology, you don’t get Newtonian physics; you don’t get modern chemistry; you don’t get our contemporary science, technology, engineering and math disciplines.

John Locke was not a scientist. He was a philosopher, a consummate humanities scholar. But he was using the humanities to come to the aid of science and the scientific way of thinking at a time when that aid was sorely needed.

Our moment in history is not so different, and there’s important and urgent work to be done by those of us in the humanities on behalf of the common good. To encourage more widespread understanding of science and scientific thinking requires the leadership of humanities scholars – historians, philosophers, writers and poets – and the engagement of the public at large.

We must expand the conversation around issues like global warming, evolution, and the role of technology in our lives. We need to understand the history and the process of scientific thinking so that we, the non-scientists, develop the necessary skills to navigate the complicated public policy debates that affect us all. We cannot all become climate scientists or biologists, but we can – and must – develop and exercise our critical thinking faculties so that we are able to understand what the scientific community is telling us and make decisions accordingly.

Mainers will have the opportunity to join in just this kind of conversation in the coming days. On Nov. 15, the Maine Humanities Council will present “Why Darwin Matters,” a daylong forum exploring the history of Charles Darwin’s thought and the ways Darwin continues to influence contemporary science, art and intellectual life.

On that day, participants will hear from writers, historians, artists and scientists and will come to a deeper understanding of Darwin’s life and thought and how his legacy still affects our world today.

— Special to the Press Herald