Love, Hate and Ignorance: Americans, Science and Technology

Heartland Institute's Billboard, Eisenhower Expressway, Chicago, IL

Heartland Institute’s Billboard, Eisenhower Expressway, Chicago, IL

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.


4 thoughts on “Love, Hate and Ignorance: Americans, Science and Technology

  1. I love that you are addressing science denying in your blog. People need to be shouting “science” from the rooftops while the conservatives are trying their damnedest to drag us backwards to the swamplands of a third world country. However, I do take issue with the remark about vitamins and the Annals of Internal Medicine. Admittedly, I haven’t read what that was based on because I’m too lazy this fine morning to search for a link that wasn’t provided. However, I have done a great deal of reading about research on GMOs. It appears while they have enhanced the allergens in food – hence the upsurge in food allergies – they have simultaneously reduced the nutritional value. Monsanto, being ever altruistic in their concern about our health, is making sure the GMOs GREATLY exceeds our percentage of daily allowance of Roundup. None of this can be good. So, yeah, I’ll keep taking the supplements that my ND recommends because, you see, I haven’t been sick in four years since I started following her advice. Bear in mind, I am a teacher, and I work in a Petri dish teeming with bacteria for ten months of the year.

  2. Very interesting post. I think it comes down to faith over reason. I don’t necessarily mean Religious faith, but faith in the narrative they’ve constructed despite all evidence to the contrary. An extreme plurality of peer reviewed papers on climate change show it to be real, and caused by human actions. But, due to misinformation campaigns lead by business groups, a large number of Americans believe it is not real. This same “belief based” rationale applies to Americans when it comes to Economics as well. Basic Economics teaches that jobs are created when demand for a good or service exceeds the production capabilities of the current Resource pool. But, many Americans continue to believe the “Trickle Down” theory, that jobs will be created simply by putting more money in the pockets of company owners and assuming they will altruistically hire more people with that money.

    It’s a dangerous precedent when belief tops knowledge acquired through the Scientific Method.

  3. Great post, but you leave out one important point. Math, the language of science, is a subject a great deal of Americans avoid at all cost. And, our educational system actually requires only a small fraction of the math needed to understand some of the most basic scientific concepts. Consistently, our students rate poorly compared with other students in other countries in science and math. And, admittedly these subjects are hard and require concentration working through concepts that build upon themselves. I frankly think we should require students to have the equivalent of a minor in a tech or science subject. It is amazing to me how many people I know who enjoy living in a technologically advanced society yet refuse to actually become scientifically literate. We should be embarrassed we don’t ask more of ourselves.

    • I don’t know where you live, but your remarks about our education system only requiring a small fraction (redundant) of the math needed to understand basic scientific concepts is absolutely not true in public schools in CA. However, it is true of a large percentage of religious schools and religious families homeschooling their kids.

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