Unscientific America — Denying Science at Our Peril

Increasingly, scientific consensus is failing to influence public policy. Facts, statistics and data appear insufficient to change highly politicized minds… and science has started scrutinizing why.

Alas now, this topic inevitably devolves down to our screwy American politics. And while (as I avow repeatedly) every political wing has its anti-science flakes, growing mountains of evidence suggest that one wing has gone especially frenzied in an anti-scientific snit. Or else (as that wing contends) science itself has become corrupted, top to bottom, rendering “evidence” suspect or moot. Let’s examine both possibilities.

Chris Mooney, author of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future, has a new book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Don’t Believe in Science, in which he describes how firmly some of our neighbors – even moderately well-educated ones – now cling to aphorisms, assertions and just-so stories in order to clutch a politically motivated view – or mis-view – of scientific data.  Misinformation persists – and propagates – about the dangers of vaccinations, the hazards of nuclear energy, the credibility of creation vs. evolution, and the preponderance of data supporting global warming. In case after politically-redolent case, we find that evidence has a limited power to persuade on hot button issues where deep emotions are involved.

I agree with Mooney that this delusion-conviction effect has done grievous harm to our once-scientific and rational nation. And anyone would have to be deaf, blind, and in hysterical denial not to see these trends operating, in tsunami proportions, among our Republican neighbors.

Mooney describes in detail how bad it is – that millions of our neighbors deem facts to be malleably ignorable. Though soundly refuted by scientific studies, angry parents continue to believe their children acquired autism through vaccinations: “Where do they get their ‘science’ from? From the Internet, celebrities, other frantic-angry parents, and a few non-mainstream researchers and doctors who continue to challenge the scientific consensus, all of which forms a self-reinforcing echo chamber of misinformation,” writes Mooney, noting that for every five hours of cable news, just one minute is devoted to science. In 2009, 15 year old U.S. students ranked 17th out of 34 developed countries in science. A firm foundation in science is fundamental to modern citizenship as well as our ability to innovate and succeed in a global economy.

In fact, the “war on science” has ballooned long past any mere attack upon the credibility of researchers and professors.  It now manifests as a general “war on all knowledge castes” — including teachers, economists, journalists, civil servants, medical doctors, skilled labor, judges, diplomats… everyone (in other words) who actually knows a lot. All are routinely attacked on you-know-which-murdochian-“news”-network.

Science itself is turning attention to this problem and things are not looking good.  According to one study (via Mooney): “The result was stunning and alarming. The standard view that knowing more science, or being better at mathematical reasoning, ought to make you more accepting of mainstream climate science simply crashed and burned.” It was found that conservatives who knew more tended to dig in their heels against new facts or budging their views, using what they already knew as bulwarks against changing their minds. But this did not hold for the other side. Educated liberals who were pre-disposed to be suspicious toward nuclear power nevertheless were adaptable when shown clear scientific data assuaging their fears.

Mooney concludes that even education fails to serve as “antidote to politically biased reasoning.”

Take a look at this excerpt of Mooney’s latest book, The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality (due out in April). It shows that our current Culture War is not about left vs right at all.  It is about two very different sets of personalities and worldviews.

== It’s not all bad news ==

Oh, heck, want a positive note? It may be possible to overcome this sickness, enflamed deliberately by Roger Ailes and his crew. Stanford Prof. James Fishkin and his colleagues ran an experiment in which a full spectrum of Californians were brought together and asked to soberly deliberate on state problems, negotiating a range of solutions. With their minds focused by sober responsibility, rabid partisans suddenly displayed flexibility, curiosity, willingness to learn and … (yes even the Republicans)… a readiness to negotiate with their opposing neighbors, without calling them satanic.

Fishkin and his colleague, Bruce Ackerman, call for a new holiday, Deliberation Day each Presidential election year, when “people throughout the country will meet in public spaces and engage in structured debates about issues…” to revitalize a spirit of open communication and negotiation in democracy.

== But the bad is still plenty bad ==

All too often politicians use bad science to justify their political agenda. Both right and left have favorite conspiracy theories about Global Climate Change (which I’ve discussed in Climate Skeptics and Climate Deniers). On global warming, Rick Santorum said, “I for one never bought the hoax.”  But consider…which is more likely: A massive conspiracy involving 90% of scientists worldwide — or oil companies spending vast sums to sway opinion, and influence public policy to protect their profits? Decide for yourself.

In any case, most of the methods for reducing greenhouse gas emissions involve increasing our energy efficiency and stimulating development of new forms of energy — things we ought to be doing anyway to remain competitive and current in an ever-changing global economy.

Oh, please… you Brits over there… nail those guys who have done so much harm to America. Whose family name reminds one of the underground-dwelling cannibals of Wells’s novel The Time Machine.

==Campaign Finance: Follow the Money==

Talking Points Memo

Compare numbers of campaign donations under $200 and those over $200 between Obama, Paul and Romney. Who has a broad range of support? Who is the populist candidate?  A fascinating comparison… especially when you add in super-pacs, whose average contributors (for Romney) have been in the $100,000 range.  Citizens United, anyone?

Do you think we’ve been exaggerating the degree that the super-uber-rich are buying influence in politics?  Just one small group of immensely wealthy GOP donors…almost all of whom attend twice-yearly secret meetings hosted by the billionaire Koch Brothers — have already sent gushers of cash to Super-Pacs supporting Romney, Gingrich and even Ron Paul. We’re talking upwards of One Hundred Million Dollars... and it is only March.  Tell me… is there any red line that even your fox-crazy uncle must decide is intolerable?  Can we stop this?

WhoWhatWhy reports that that Saudi prince Walid bin Talal – Rupert Murdoch’s top partner at Fox – has invested heavily in Twitter.  An event coinciding with Twitter’s recent announcement that it would cooperate with censorship of any content deemed “illegal” in any country, whatsoever.  WhoWhatWhy can get a bit “over-eager” but these facts speak for themselves.

Iceland shows the way. If the European (and American) debt crises seem endless, with Big Banks the only relentless winners, then read up about Iceland, given up for dead after their foolish bankers (who called themselves “geniuses”) leveraged the country into tsunamis of red ink.  What this article doesn’t talk about is the “gender aspect”.  In effect,, the women of Iceland simply took over.  Grabbed the reins of politics and finance out of the hands of their “genius” husbands and sent them back to the fishing boats, where they belonged.

Following those rumors of a brokered GOP convention?  A lot of simmering talk about drafting… Jeb Bush.  This survey of Bush Family “coincidences” may be a little biased… but the facts do speak.



Filed under economy, education, media, science, society

4 responses to “Unscientific America — Denying Science at Our Peril

  1. Actually, throughout history “scientific literacy” on the part of most people is rare. The only differance now is that, on the internet, people can find more dissinformation which conforms to thier beliefs.

  2. Winthrop Arnold

    Yes, these things are true, but Religion and Science should continue to go hand in hand so that there may be a balance. Science teaches us the how and why things work. Religion teaches us what to do with that knowledge. For without a foundation of moral code, our societies would cause their own demise by using science to destroy humanity rather than further its progress.

  3. Sorry, but that is an utter canard and so far from truth as to be opposite. By any moral standard – for example rates of violence between people, oppression, starvation or unfair treatment, scientific societies have been vastly, vastly more ethical and moral.

    Moreover the many people who are secular have proved repeatedly that they are capable of behaving that way, and exhibiting the compassion and love preached by Jesus, without needing the threat of hell or the lust for Heaven in order to propel them toward right behavior.

    Now I will surprise you and say that I am – personally – a religious person. So are half of the scientists I know! They are capable of loving God without feeling bullied by Him. They can love and help their fellow man because they CHOOSE to… and not because they are terrified.

    And they choose to look at the facts of God’s universe, wherever those facts may lead us.

  4. Crazy Uncle

    Dare one suspect that Mooney is slightly biased, and chooses the facts and studies that he reports carefully ? Hmmmm. Did he mention how well total science funding does under Republican administrations and congresses ? Perhaps Republicans are not against science, properly conducted, but against science as practiced by Democrats, who seem unable to avoid biasing their hypotheses (and thus, their conclusions) with their personal views and ideologies. Given that a large portion of American scientists are Democrats, one has to question whether their “scientific consensus” is unbiased truth, or just a sociological phenomenon based on their common, follow-the-leader faith in each other. Science has supported many gods, good and evil, in different times and cultures, and has no inherent morality of itself. Those who proclaim that they know the truth because they are “scientists” are living in a delusional world, unaware of their own programming. It’s sad to see so many otherwise competent scientists buying into the politically-motivated climate change delusion that a small fluctuation in carbon dioxide that the Earth has experienced, and survived, many times in the past will somehow destroy the world. I thought that the use of bad, incomplete, and selected science to motivate political loyalty to government control over individuals and economies was a shameful episode of the past century that would never be allowed to repeat itself. Unfortunately, the support that deluded and self-righteous scientists have provided to the misguided policies of the Democrats and the current Administration are driving us to that same end. Science has thereby been placed squarely in the eternal cross-fire between individual freedom and government regulation. Is it any wonder that Republicans now attack it publicly as flawed and untrustworthy ?

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