New Scientist magazine earlier this month ran a special report called: “Unscientific America: A dangerous retreat from reason.” (If you are unfamiliar with the highly respected New Scientist it is a newsweekly for and by scientists, much like The Economist that examines stories, trends and analyses in science. It is published in Great Britain.) It opens, “As campaigning for the 2012 presidential election gets into full swing. US politics, especially on the right, appears to have entered a parallel universe where ignorance, denial and unreason trump facts, evidence and rationality.” It points out that while America was founded on enlightenment values it as fallen off the wagon (And while the dizzy argue about whether the founding fathers were Christian, there is no doubt that they were profoundly educated and versed in the best science, philosophy and theory available at the time). One doesn’t have to listen very far into the current political debates to see that America is in deep doo doo as its commitment to science slips further and further into an allegiance of the unenlightened and the uninformed.
The report blames the current catastrophe in American values of learning and education on several concurrent storms. I’m not sure if I agree with these, but they are worth exploring, if just for discussion.
First, the article points to is the prominence of the growth of relativism in the academe. A growing perception that there were no standards of truth that can be rigorously applied, created a climate that no truth could trump any other. In essence, all truth is opinion and truth is a function of how it is rhetorically defended rather than appeals to data and fact gathering.
Second, the articles opines that as news reporting became more competitive, its entertainment value began to be recognized and relied on. It became a generator of advertising revenues and this begin to trump actual reporting. Controversy sells and by generating controversy where none exists, alliances begin to form within certain factions of the public and news reporting (cough, cough, Fox News, which is apparently worse than no news for staying informed according to recent studies).
Lastly, Congress became more and more scientifically illiterate. Congress now has only 2% of its members with a scientific background. The article points out that 222 members of Congress are lawyers who (it argues) are products of a culture that focuses on winning arguments over objective facts of the matter. Congress members also are paid millions of dollars in special interest money. This does not help to create a climate where unbiased assessments of matters of fact are the course of the day.
The article takes Climate Change as a case study. Thousands of independent scientific studies all conclude that the planet is warming and humans are largely responsible. It is an unparallel consensus that converges on the same story from multiple disciplines as varied as satellite studies, oceanography, ecological studies from every biome on the planet from Antarctica to the Arctic and from the mountains to the great plains of Africa, ice core studies, dust deposition studies, you name it. Yet with a public ignorant of this consensus story (as influenced by entertainment news) and an even more cadre of ignorant politicians, this can be swept away as just another opinion. Every GOP candidate has distanced themselves from this data and claimed everything from it is a hoax (the recently stepping down Bachman) to it is a conspiracy among scientists (Now gone Perry) (and incidentally if it is I’m like totally mift that I wasn’t included when the big bucks were passed around and scientists were being asked to join). Huntsman was the only one who accepts the scientific reports and, well, he’s now gone too in the polls now so you see what it got him. (For a hilarious take on the state of things watch this. Greatest line, “Pretty soon you’re hooked on that grant money waiting for that next big score.”)
The report says further that last year the energy industry spent a half a billion dollars on fighting climate change legislation and anther 73 million on anti-clean energy ads. And you wonder why you can find copious well-designed websites claiming climate change is a hoax. Scientists have no advertising budget and rely largely on news media to take the story told in scientific research papers to the public—a media with a growing interest in new’s role as entertainment. A toxic mix.
Global warming is just an example. The problem runs across the spectrum from biology and medicine to many of the sciences we have today. Examples in history where political will chooses to walk away from science’s warnings are well known and calamitous. Look at what happened with Lysenko in USSR (who refused to believe in Darwinian evolution and thus knocked Soviet genetics back 100 years) to Mao jailing the scientists warning of the food collapse in China. We are not immune from our own idiocy and we will pay the costs of such ignorance.
So what can you do? Become informed. Read science. Read magazines like Discover, Scientific America, Science News, National Geographic and reliable newspapers. Follow what the scientists are actually saying. Sites devoted to an agenda usually aren’t the best. If someone copies you hundreds of websites against things like climate change thank the high prices in fuel costs that fund those websites. They are paying for it. (Invariably in a post like this. someone will post links to sites doing just that. Notice no science is being done on those sites.)
Demand better from you political leaders. For example, BYU Professor Barry Bickmore, a conservative Republican runs a site called, Anti-Climate Change Extremism in Utah: A Local Front in a Global Battle that calls Utah Politicians out on their uninformed views on climate change (find his exchange with Senator Hatch, it’s priceless). Call them out when they say that the science is unsettled, or that more research is needed (like they don’t do for the ‘dietary supplement’ industry.) or that vaccines cause harmful effects. And most importantly vote people into office who understand how science works. I trust far more those who know how to weigh and apportion evidence, then those who have spend their lives in the pocket of the greedy. Mormons have long had a tradition of being scientifically literate. Don’t let the growing trends in its abandonment pull you over to the dark side.
Our gains from the modern rise of science are too precious to be left to the hands of unenlightened men and women. As I argue here it is the best way we have of exploring the material world. It is a gift from God. Rise up. Demand that American rise from its retreat from reason.
Note: I will not be debating climate science here. I’ve done it enough and I’m not interested in debating with those who have chosen not to follow the science in this. The sources are abundant any reputable scientific site can give you the facts. I’d especially recommend Jared*’s LDS Science Review or Science Daily; Another is the Berkeley Earth Project a group of climate change skeptics who set out to do their own analysis of the data and came away completely convinced (I love people who are intellectually honest enough to change there mind when the data warrants it. So in this post I’m interested in discussing the threat of growing ignorance.