pathological ignorance


Why do so many Americans doubt the scientific consensus about Darwinian evolution and anthropogenic climate change? Although the temptation is to attribute these sentiments simply to religious indoctrination and corporate public relations, feelings of powerlessness and resentment may also be in play.

Consider the large differences in acceptance of different scientific conclusions in March 20-24 AP-GfK Poll. Where a mere 4% of respondents doubt the link between cigarette smoking and lung disease and only 6% doubt that mental illness is a medical condition affecting the brain, fully 42% doubted that life evolved through natural selection and 37% doubted that humans were responsible for global warming. Respondents appear more likely to reject the science when the phenomenon in question is a very large scale, impersonal process. Where lung disease and mental illness are understood as problems that affect individuals and might be avoided or treated individually, evolution and climate change must be understood as enormous processes that reduce most individuals to the role of powerless observers. Indeed, individual self-interest is implicated in the failure to take effective collective action to stop or mitigate climate change.

March 20-24 AP-GfK Poll – click to view more

It is no coincidence that ‘powerless observer’ describes how most Americans view the economy. Business interests and the politicians who serve them have hollowed out popular democracy. Why should citizens take electoral politics seriously when what government can do for them in substantive economic terms is profoundly limited? The supply of credit is largely determined by a ‘depoliticized’ Federal Reserve, which balances national economic growth against the stability of the U.S. dollar as the global reserve currency. The power to pass legislation protecting domestic producers from unfair foreign competition and adopt regulations to protect the health of consumers, worker safety and the environment are limited by the World Trade Organization and a growing list of international trade agreements like NAFTA. Corporate investment and hiring decisions that reward or punish state and local governments for the degree to which they are ‘business friendly’ leave little room for any of the other interests of citizens.

Denied any political influence over the very large scale, impersonal process that is the economy, it is unsurprising that many accept invitations from the Christian Right and Big Energy to redirect their resentment at approved targets. Egghead scientists talking about evolution and global warming make good scapegoats. To be sure, effective indoctrination and public relations are still necessary to elicit that transference of rage.

Creationism is believed, in part, because it is an easy story to teach captive audiences of children in Evangelical Sunday schools. It is repeated by adults because the fixed and unchangeable view of life that it offers is consistent with the fixed and unchangeable view of human nature insisted upon by conservatives. (Much as the radically plastic view of life offered by Lysenkoism was consistent with the radically plastic view of human nature in Soviet Marxism-Leninism.)

Climate denialism is embraced, in part, because the implications of the scientific consensus are bad news for the sort of mass consumption to which many feel entitled. Wishful thinking and socially approved self-indulgence are powerful impulses. You would be justified in suspecting that Big Tobacco would have been rather more successful in persuading the public that there was no connection between cigarette smoking and lung disease if they had waged that fight in the era of Fox News and talk radio.

If the minds of many of the doubters are forever closed to explanations of the logic and evidence for Darwinian evolution and anthropocentric climate change, the minority of doubters who are intellectually curious can still be enlightened. Reason is also powerful. Moreover, if they are led to understand something of those complex, large scale processes, they are likely to begin asking questions about the causes for the increasing economic inequality that they and other Americans now suffer. That’s where political re-empowerment may begin.

Image: Businessman hiding his head in the sand licensed by at
John Hickman

John Hickman

John Hickman is Professor of Political Science in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College in Rome, Georgia, where he teaches courses on war crimes, comparative politics, and research methods. He holds both a PH.D. in political science from the University of Iowa and a J.D. from Washington University, St. Louis. Hickman is the author of the 2013 Florida University Press book Selling Guantanamo.