Living in Society

Culture of Open Inquiry

Green up on the Lake Macbride Trail.

In 1820 most countries started out on a relatively equal economic footing. Translation: People and regions were poor around the globe.

Author Jeffrey D. Sachs described this world:

Life expectancy was extremely low; children died in vast numbers in the now rich countries as well as the poor countries. Many waves of disease and epidemics, from the Black Death of Europe to smallpox and measles, regularly washed through society and killed mass numbers of people. Episodes of hunger and extreme weather and climate fluctuations sent societies crashing.

The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time, by Jeffrey D. Sachs.

What changed, according to Sachs, was the onset of the Industrial Revolution. Why did this happen in Britain before China, which had been the technological world leader for a millennium? In part, British society was relatively open after the decline of serfdom, its traditions of free speech and open debate contributed to the implementation of new ideas, and Britain became one of the leading centers of Europe’s scientific revolution. “With Britain’s political openness, speculative scientific thinking was given opportunity to thrive, and the scientific advances on the Continent stimulated an explosion of scientific discovery in England,” he wrote.

The impact of these conditions of intellectual inquiry is old news. Yet today’s Americans should take note as legislatures around the country restrict tenure among university professors, ban books, control school curriculum, regulate who can use which bathroom, and remove funding from projects that contribute to understanding of our most significant problems. Lawmakers are putting a damper on open inquiry. Dumbing down and censorship do not represent a path to create the explosion of new ideas and technological innovation needed to survive and thrive in the years ahead. Who could even have imagined this might become a concern?

The deliberate destruction of knowledge is not new. Libraries and archives have been attacked since ancient times. Today, public libraries fight for their very existence as they are censored, deprived of funding, and subject to pressure from political, religious and cultural forces. Open inquiry in this context is hobbled by real constraints.

The latest hobble here in Iowa is elimination of funding for an important water quality sensor program at the IIHR Hydroscience and Engineering center at the University of Iowa’s College of Engineering. Erin Jordan of the Cedar Rapids Gazette covered the story here. “Iowa deploys about 70 sensors each year on streams and rivers across the state that measure nitrate loads and concentration so observers can tell whether water treatment plant upgrades, wetland improvements and agricultural conservation practices are working to reduce pollution,” Jordan wrote.

“Defunding progress reporting and monitoring is not the direction we should be going in our approach to nutrient pollution in Iowa,” Alicia Vasto, water program director for the Iowa Environmental Council told the Gazette. “Iowa taxpayers deserve accountability for the funding that is being spent on nutrient reduction practices.”

Hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico, caused by nutrient runoff in Midwestern farming operations, is a problem. Closing down open inquiry into solutions to the problem is exactly the wrong direction.

We Americans are better off today than we were before the Industrial Revolution. The lesson that should be taught in schools is open inquiry into the problems of our day is as important as any curriculum item. Regretfully, my opinion may be viewed as that of just another advocate. In today’s society, the powers that be don’t want the rest of us to do too much thinking. Therein is the problem.