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]


  1. I agree. The prospect of the right wing coming to power is often quite scary (for instance, Scary-eyes Bachman as president?! Kill me now!).

    However, I find the scenario of the Republicans *literally* nuking all the science, as it were, to be...unlikely. I'm much more concerned about (ironically!) the erosion of essential rights and liberties. Though this does include the intellectual backwardsness - and enforcement of it - of which you speak, I _don't_ think it will actually, literally turn physically dangerous. For two reasons: first, the right has to move towards the center if it wants sustained success, and second, American politics in particular, with just two parties, seems on the whole to be very cyclical in nature in terms of which party/faction predominates.

    At first, it seems like the crazies will take over the country forever. I don't believe it is so. For one thing, as far as I can tell, the moderates and independents are really the ones that determine the elections in this crazy two-party system, because the hard-core dems and the hard-core right won't be moved from their party. But in order to appeal to the moderates - since the centrists are the ones who make the difference - the right HAS to tone things down to get elected.

    Of course, recent events like the tea party's invasion of congress certainly show the ability of far-right wingers to ride in while ignoring the center. But I remain confident that this is not a sustainable plan for the right. The American people quickly get "exhausted" by extremist policies and officials and move more towards center, then the other way, then back... Broadly speaking, the parties switch dominance every few decades depending on who was in power during the last war/depression/generic crisis.

    So yeah, hopefully that's not insulting (I mean, you are REALLY well-informed about American politics AFAIK), but that's my take. :)

  2. @A: As long as the next switch happens before things tip too far to return...

  3. @Kiteman: Well, there's the rub, of course. I think, although it's of course rather difficult to prove, that as long as the actual form of government remains the same, and voting retains a meaningful role in frequent, fair elections, it'll end up relatively alright. Historically speaking, the tug-of-war from left to right seems to have resulted in a snail's-pace leftward crawl.

    I mean, it's essentially impossible under the current system to enact legislation or policies which literally cannot be undone, so unless really radical changes are made to the system of government (or large cultural changes occur), it seems unlikely that disastrous policies on the scale you fear will be put in place and stay that way permanently. Though they might be put in place and hurt for a long time...

    But that could be me being too optimistic, too simplistic, or simply too thick, of course. Perhaps I'm merely soothing myself. ;)

  4. The individual voices of Bachman, et al. don't alarm me so greatly- there have always been, and there will always be, wingnuts. The thing that horrifies me is how widespread support for a general tone of anti-intellectualism in favour of superstition and wilful ignorance seems to be.

    When did being clever stop being something to which people aspire? When did being ignorant, ill-informed and lacking understanding of the world around you become somehow "cool"? Scientific endeavour and intellectual progress helped make the united states the greatest country in the world, and it baffles me that they seem to want to discard enlightened rationality in favour of politically expedient misinformation and second-hand bronze age myths.

    Will it be any surprise if certain Asian countries become the world's ascendant superpower? They value being clever.

  5. You didn't even mention the "Holocaust Denial" fools or the ones that are convinced that 9/11 was actually a government conspiracy, and of course theres the ones who claim that they did not in fact land on the moon. The attempt to argue "Evolution" as a SCIENTIFIC theory betrays a deep misunderstanding of what science actually IS. There is no way to reason with people who are so determined to ignore the evidence that's right in front of their faces.

  6. The brain is a mavelous thing, and it ignores what it wants to when it comes to reality. I am discovering just how MUCH this is true as I read up on Human cognisance. Tis a sad sad thing to behold too.

  7. To be clear, you're talking to several different anonymouses (anonymii?). Only the first two anon comments are the usual anon. :P

  8. @The Usual Suspect; I think this is the most traffic I've ever had to a single post!

  9. It's cuz you advertised it. :) I don't think many people knows this even exists.

  10. I've advertised blog posts before - maybe I ought to try more controversial and less philosophical posts...