By Mindy Townsend
I haven’t always been very excited by the skeptic movement. It’s not like I believed in a lot of woo, but I just couldn’t get too worked up about Loch Ness or Bigfoot or UFO abductions. What’s more, as a non-scientist, I didn’t feel like I had anything to add.
As regular readers of this blog might know, I’m a lawyer by training, and I like to communicate to non-lawyers those legal concepts that aren’t immediately recognizable. My main passion has been human rights and I’ve spent a big chunk of my time since I graduated working to make the whole concept more popular in the United States. Skepticism and the promotion of science always took a back seat to my human rights work.
Then it occurred to me: Advancing human rights and promoting science and reason are the same thing. Let me explain.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is the primary international human rights document. The UDHR was adopted by the United Nations in 1948 as a result of the horrors of World War II. It enumerates several rights that we take for granted, like freedom of speech (Art. 19) and the right to a fair trial (Art. 8). There are also some less accepted rights, at least in the United States, like the right to join a union (Art. 23) and a right to an education (Art. 26).
Over the years, I have spent a fair amount of time studying this and other human rights instruments, but it wasn’t until recently that I noticed the link between scientific knowledge and human rights. That link is Article 27 of the UDHR.
- (1) Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
- (2) Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.
Interesting, isn’t it? Everyone has a right to enjoy scientific advancements. I sounds pretty simple and straight forward. It doesn’t mean that everyone has the right to an iPhone, but it does mean that knowledge should be relatively free-flowing. The International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) expands on the concept further in Article 15:
- (1) The States Parties to the present covenant recognize the right of everyone:
- (a) To take part in cultural life;
- (b) To enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications;
- (c) To benefit from the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.
- (2) The steps to be taken by the States Parties to the present Covenant to achieve the full realization of this right shall include those necessary for the conservation, the development and the diffusion of science and culture.
- (3) The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to respect the freedom indispensable for scientific research and creative activity.
- (4) The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the benefits to be derived from the encouragement and development of international contacts and co-operation in the scientific and cultural fields.
The plot thickens! Nations that are party to the ICESCR pledge to promote, proliferate, and protect scientific knowledge. The international human rights community has long recognized that science isn’t just totally awesome, but access to the knowledge gleaned by studying the world around us is necessary for us as people to develop to our full potential.
Think for a second about recent legislation in the United States. Last month, Tennessee passed a law that allows science teachers to deny evolution and climate change without repercussions. Several years ago, the board of education of my home state of Kansas made national headlines by putting “intelligent design” in the state science guidelines. These aren’t the first attacks on science education, and, unfortunately, these won’t be the last.
Each of these examples are governmental efforts to deny scientific knowledge from its citizens (otherwise known as “humans” or “people”). When you look at these interferences in the context of the above mentioned human rights instruments, it starts to look more serious.
Not only is the denial of proper science education just dumb policy, it’s a human rights denial. Sure, it’s not crushing your civilian population with an iron fist, but the purpose of the human rights treaties and resolutions is not solely to avoid violence. The purpose is to affirm the dignity of every human being and to give every person the opportunity to live up to their potential. Not everyone has the same potential. Not everyone will grow up to be great scientists. But the opportunity shouldn’t be denied.
The state is under a responsibility to diffuse scientific knowledge and encourage scientific advancement by providing the freedom to do scientific research. None of this is possible without adequate science education. Not everyone has access to the Internet or a great library. But most people in the United States have access to school. If schools won’t provide accurate scientific information, then it’s letting everyone down in more ways than one.
As a human rights activist, it needs to be my job to fight for science education at all levels. As a skeptical activist, it needs to be my job to fight for the human right of all people to learn about science and defend scientific knowledge. It’s two sides of the same coin.