There is a strong strain of distrust of science and technology in American culture.
Americans think nothing of boarding a modern jetliner and trusting the science and technology behind it to get them safely to a far off destination. When polled, Americans claim to have a “great deal of confidence” in science and technology.
Yet Americans swallow about $28 billion worth of vitamins each year, even though the Annals of Internal Medicine recently concluded that “most supplements do not prevent chronic disease or death, their use is not justified, and they should be avoided.” Almost half of Americans believe that astrology has some basis in science. And presidential candidates – well, Michelle Bachman – think vaccines cause “mental retardation.”
A majority of Americans polled claim to worry “a great deal” or “a fair amount” about climate change.
But less than a third of Americans think “dealing with global warming” should be a priority for the President and Congress. Climate change denial is an important political position of the Republican party, and presidential candidates trumpet their denial of the science of climate change. Two-thirds of Americans support “allowing more offshore oil and gas drilling.”
How to explain this distrust and ambiguity?
Partly, it’s a consequence of American’s self-admited ignorance of how science works and what engineers do. The National Science Foundation reports less than half of Americans say they have an “excellent” or “good” understanding of what scientists and engineers do at work. That’s a failure of our education system. And you have to ask the extent to which the Christianist agenda has damaged the science education system.
Partly, it’s a legacy of the Bush Administration’s disinformation campaign, when the process of reporting federally sponsored science research was badly compromised by the Bush Administration’s climate change denial agenda. Once you engender distrust in a process, WC suspects it generalizes to a kind of systemic distrust. And it provides credibility to the conspiracy fringe.
Partly, it’s an intended consequence, carefully fostered and nurtured by the industries that would be affected by a government response to risks identified by science and technology. The fossil fuel industry, for example, has poured tens of millions of dollars into its disinformation campaigns on anthropogenic climate change.
Partly, it’s the religious right and Biblical literalists. According to a 2011 Gallup poll, 30% of Americans believe the Bible to be literally true. It’s hard to discuss science with someone who believes the universe is only 6,000 years old.
The poor education, limited critical thinking skills, and government- and industry-sponsored disinformation campaigns have contributed to the politicization of science in our culture. It’s hard to see a path out of the mess that has been created. If technology is the solution, America is approaching the solution with both feet in buckets of concrete.