Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Pitchforks and denial.

"Scientist" is second only to "firefighter" in prestige, according to a recent survey of the US population (first chart), yet, at the same time, the only country with a lower proportion of people who accept that evolution is true is Turkey (second chart).

What is going on?

Other worrying trends are a general decline in an active interest in ... just about anything (third chart). Only politics has shown any significant growth in the number of people who follow it closely in the news (consumer affairs and culture & arts have shown a small increase), and a continuing decline in the number of conservative politicians who accept that global warming has begun at all, let alone that it poses any risks.

Texan politicians were recently caught editing all references to human involvement in global warming, and even that sea levels are rising, from a scientific report into the state of Galveston Bay (all the scientists involved in the report had their names removed in protest) [Boing Boing]

In the New Scientist, we read that...
  • Michele Bachmann, a candidate for the Republican nomination for president, in 2008. Bachmann ... thinks that the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine can cause mental retardation
  • Bachmann's rival, Texas governor Rick Perry, advocates biblically based abstinence-only sex education. He argues that evolution is "a theory that is out there - and it's got some gaps in it". On climate change, Perry says "the science is not settled... just because you have a group of scientists that have stood up and said here is the fact... Galileo got outvoted for a spell".
  • Rising Republican star Herman Cain claims there is no scientific evidence that homosexuality is anything other than a personal choice.
Republican politicians that dare to question even the most appalling anti-science stances, that "scientists say" CO2 is a carcinogen, that school children must be taught that astrology controls the weather. 96 out of 100 newly-elected Republican congressmen have openly denied that global warming is real, and vowed to oppose any measured designed to combat it.

The Republicans used to be the party of science. Abraham Lincoln created the National Academy of Sciences in 1863; William McKinley won two presidential elections, in 1896 and 1900, over the anti-evolution Democrat William Jennings Bryan. McKinley supported the creation of the forerunner to today's National Institute of Standards and Technology. Bryan's campaigns against evolution led to in the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial, and drove more scientists toward the Republican party. In 1923, an exasperated Republican, Nobel physicist and California Institute of Technology president Robert A. Millikan, wrote that creationists were "men whose decisions have been formed, as are all decisions in the jungle, by instinct, by impulse, by inherited loves and hates, instead of by reason. Such people... are a menace to democracy and to civilization."

This is just... scary. That's all it can be.

We hear disparaging jokes about America falling under extreme Islamic laws, but what this articles is just as bad - when a single individual flatly denies reality, others edge away. When that individual owns a weapon, others feel unsafe.

But what if it's not just a single individual? I have this mad mental image of villagers with flaming torches and pitchforks, but they're not storming Frankenstein's castle, they're storming the particle accelerator, then the GP surgery, then the library, then the school science lab...

Then I have to remind myself - these villagers don't have pitchforks and torches, they have the largest nuclear-capable military on the planet.

You'll pardon me a little lost sleep.

[Charts sourced from New Scientist. Registration may be required to view]