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IEET > Security > SciTech > Life > Innovation > Vision > Futurism > Fellows > David Brin

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Unscientific America—Denying Science at Our Peril


David Brin
By David Brin
Contrary Brin

Posted: Mar 16, 2012

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.

Still, let’s be fair. There are cases of conviction-delusion on the left, as well. Just look at some fantastically illogical purist stances over the nature-vs-nurture argument, in which leftists hew to absolutist positions based entirely on what is politically correct and dogmatically convenient, never bothering to notice that they claim human behaviors are completely uncontrolled by biology… except when they are completely controlled by biology.  No amount of evidence can alter the way fervent believers want the world to be. Another example, the tense alliance between liberals and leftists  crumbles over issues like the careful restart of nuclear energy, something the liberals are now willing to cautiously resume.

The key difference is not whether such delusionally subjective-selective perception occurs on both political extremes - it does. No, what should matter to us all is how thoroughly the reflexive-denialists on one side control an entire movement, political party and power complex…. and ran the entire country… off a cliff. Meanwhile, the subjectivity junkies on the other side are marginalized (if loud.)

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 casts”—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. (I would love to see this experiment done on liberals re: nature-vs-nurture issues!)

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 for each Presidential election year, Deliberation Day, 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 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.


David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."
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COMMENTS


David this is a problem in Canada as well. People who “know” the answers aren’t interested in listening to anything that doesn’t support their opinion. Popular culture mistrusts education and suggests that the real successes are those who get rich without formal learning.

The experiment in which people were brought together is interesting. It suggests that the way to change people’s minds is through relationship. I posted about an article that suggest “sacred” knowledge was processed differently than other knowledge at a neurological level. Maybe that is shifted in a situation of relationship and cooperation. It would be good to know if their change in thinking persisted past the end of the experiment.





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