Anti-intellectualism and its hideous, mouth-breathing mutant offspring: scientific illiteracy

posted in: General science, Philosophy | 2

Introduction:

If you’re reading this, you almost certainly think that the outcomes of scientific studies are pretty sweet.  After all, who doesn’t like living longer, living healthier, living with cooler toys and potentially prolonging the existence of humanity?  So why is it, then, that the scientists and intellectuals behind these good works are seen as geeks?  I think that this question is more important and requires a deeper examination than one might initially suspect.

Society as a whole has to think about why thinking is less sexy than the fruits of thoughts.  If the process of scientific thought and its outcomes can’t be similarly admired, we are likely doomed to suffer increased scientific illiteracy.

Background:

What is anti-intellectualism?

Anti-intellectualism is a general mistrust of intellectuals and/or their pursuits.  The acclaimed author, Isaac Asimov has described American anti-intellectualism by saying:

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”

Before I went on to become a scientist, I lived my whole life in Appalachia.  And unfortunately, this has given me more than my fair share of experience with anti-intellectualism.  To me, anti-intellectualism usually manifests as a dislike of an obviously-inaccurate caricature of people who are perceived as being haughty or over-educated.  It’s a knee-jerk reaction towards people who are viewed to have been spared the gritty rigors of blue-collar life.  It’s not jealousy; it’s an aggressive, tribalistic prejudice against a make-believe version of a non-existent enemy.

Anti-intellectualism is a difficult idea to critically examine because it is such an amorphous notion.  Furthermore, such non-descript and anti-thought notions are easy to dismiss as ridiculously stupid to the point of being laughable.  However, to dismiss a point of view on such grounds threatens to evoke the ab absurdo logical fallacy.  This means that, instead of examining an argument, you just call it stupid and be done with it.

So, to be fair, I will try to list some reasons that anti-intellectualism may arise before I ridicule it.  (However, there is no guarantee that these reasons will be reasonable.)

  • The appeal of tribalism. (It feels good to dislike the “others.”)
  • Some intellectuals really are arrogant and deserve some derision. (Of course, this is true of all people and disliking intellect because of an intellectual is a bit of a baby-with-the-bathwater situation.)
  • Intellectual findings may threaten the deep-seated beliefs of some people. (However, this should inspire productive self-reflection, not dislike of intellectuals.)
  • Vested interests can purposely inspire distrust of intellectualism. (This has been done for political and financial gain by people and institutions.  However, if you are shown that you’ve been duped, the reasonable thing is to change your point of view.  It is unreasonable to respond by disliking the intellect that clarified your mistake.)

What is scientific illiteracy?

As the title of this post suggests, I am proposing that scientific illiteracy is at least partly the fault of anti-intellectualism.  But, while anti-intellectualism is an ugly, ignorance-fueled idea, scientific illiteracy is the more impactful result of that idea.  It’s comparable to impetuously entering yourself into a rodeo, largely because all your friends do it, and getting hurt.  Anti-intellectualism is to the idea of sitting on an angry bull as scientific illiteracy is to the broken bones and horn-shaped puncture wounds that you earn as a reward.

Obviously, scientific illiteracy is the state of not being scientifically literate.  The national research council (1996) defines scientific illiteracy as:

“…the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity.”

Like reading and writing, this is not a trivial skill.  Scientific literacy is so important that without it we struggle to be able to think about how we think.  Therefore, the scientifically illiterate are more likely to be credulous and taken advantage of.  (See my posts on kinesio tape and probability.)  Furthermore, without scientific literacy, we are doomed to dwell in bias towards and ignorance of the beautiful world around us.

So, scientific literacy is far from simply the ability to wear pocket protectors and use math or test tubes.  The skills that a scientifically-literate person has learned include:

  • The ability to ask good questions.
  • The ability to rationally explain things.
  • The ability to systematically describe and evaluate things.
  • The ability to understand the importance of scientific findings in political and societal contexts.
  • The ability to argue rationally and productively (also the knowledge that argument ≠ confrontation).
  • The ability to make well-informed decisions.

Evidence for anti-intellectualism:

Since anti-intellectualism is hard to quantify, it is difficult to gather data on this phenomenon.  However, this is an instance where anecdotes can meaningfully frame the spectacle that is distrust of thoughtful people.  Also, these stories are good for morbid entertainment.  So, here is some anecdotal evidence for smart-hatn’:

  • When he was a presidential candidate in 2012, Rick Santorum said of Obama’s concern for US education: “What a snob. There are good, decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor that (tries) to indoctrinate them.” Not only is this dumber than a broken rock, it’s a straw man.  Obama never came close to implying that people can’t be good citizens or achieve greatness without a college education.
  • In 2012, Congressman Paul Broun (R-Ga.) told a group of sportsmen that many well-established scientific theories are “lies straight from the pit of hell.” (I used the whole quote as a mouth-turd quote on 02/01/2017.)
  • Also in 2012, the Texas Republican Party ran on a platform that stated that they oppose “…the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs…” Why in the world would anyone oppose the teaching of critical thinking (the ability to think about your own thoughts)?  They explain that this is because these lessons “…have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”    They don’t like all that pesky thinking because it makes indoctrination harder.
  • In 2015 Senator Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) confused weather for climate. His confusion was so profoundly thorough that he even used a snowball as physical evidence against global warming.  He literally tossed this garbage “evidence” around on the Senate floor while he was the chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee!
  • In 2016, British MP Michael Gove explained that Brexit proponents had “had enough of experts.” (Because what do experts know anyhow?  It’s not like their exper—oh never mind!)  He went on to say that he was sick of all those pesky experts “saying that they know what is best.”
  • Later in 2016, the reality TV star Donald Trump was elected President of the USA. This was accomplished after flaunting a ludicrous amount of distain for scientific fact.  For example, in 2012 Trump tweeted that “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.”  This is so obviously and laughably false that it also makes an appearance as a Scienceosaurus mouth turd (07/11/2016).

Evidence for scientific illiteracy:

In 2014 the Pew Research Center conducted a survey that resulted in 3,278 responses from adults in the USA.  This survey sought to quantify the knowledge of average American adults for very basic scientific facts.  Although only 6% got all twelve questions correct, the results weren’t completely dismal.  However, here are some of the low points:

  • Only 63% were able to correctly interpret a very simple graph.
  • Only 46% knew that a lens inverts an image (despite our own eyes doing this very thing to our brains every day).
  • Only 35% knew that amplitude, or wave height, is the property of a sound wave that controls how loud it is (despite the word amplitude being synonymous with largeness in casual usage).
  • Just 34% knew that altitude affects the boiling point of water (despite flippn’ Betty Crocker telling people about this for years).

Another measure of the current state of scientific illiteracy is the level of agreement between the public and professional scientists.  To investigate this, we can look at another Pew Research Center survey from 2014.  This one revealed some worrisome discord between the general population and scientists, particularly on topics that have been politicized (cf. Gough, 2013).  For instance:

  • 88% of scientists think it’s safe to eat genetically-modified foods. Only 37% of the general population agrees.
  • 87% of scientists think global warming is mostly caused by human activity. Only 50% of the general population agrees.
  • 98% of scientists think humans are the result of evolution over time. Only 65% of the general population agrees.
  • 82% of scientists think that the increasing global population is going to be a problem. Only 59% of the general population agrees.
  • 86% of scientists think that we should require childhood vaccinations. Only 68% of the general population agrees.

Perhaps the most striking and scariest of the Pew’s findings is that a significant number of Americans actually think that science is detrimental.  15% of the respondents think that life in general has been made more difficult by science.  [I promise you that I actually just sat for a few minutes and blinked at that last sentence.]  This opinion requires an outrageously strong anti-science bias.  To illustrate this, just use your smartphone to access the plethora of information on how horrible the dark ages were.

Finally, 84% of the scientists polled agree (as do I) that the current state of scientific literacy poses a major problem.  This is not an argument from authority or popularity.  This is simply a matter of reflecting on the collective opinion of a group of experts.  Imagine if a large group of engineers almost unanimously insisted that a certain bridge was dangerous.  Would you still use that bridge?  Would you quibble over the engineers’ potentially nefarious motivations?  I doubt that I would.

What if you could fix that hypothetical death-trap of a bridge just by applying a bit of your own time and effort?  It is easy to take an interest in critical thinking and your own scientific literacy.

Discussion on why anti-intellectualism and its revolting spawn have been loosed on us all:

First, I recognize that scientists have created some monsters.  Science is after all responsible for nerve gas and nuclear weapons.  However, the insidious modern distrust of science and intellectuals is distinct from simple admonishment.

So, how did we, as a society, come to largely distrust our own most qualified experts and their methods (science)?  That’s the billion-dollar question.  It is extremely unlikely that the popular opinion changed from viewing scientists as heroes who landed us on the moon in 1969 to money-hungry liars and data manipulators in the 2010’s without some outside encouragement.  After all, science prolongs our lives and fills our extended time with cool toys.  So, the question can be viewed as: who stands to gain by discrediting scientists?  Answer: people with vested interests or deeply-held beliefs that clash with scientific findings.

Three modern institutions have most-obviously become strongly opposed to certain aspects of modern science.  The first is religious fundamentalism; the second is the fossil fuel industry and its machinations within politics; and the third is what I will call the new age spiritualism and/or holistic naturalism movement.  These groups span the political spectrum and are characterized by particularly vociferous proponents.  Of course, you are free to believe whatever you want; this blog will never advocate thought control.  However, when your beliefs are not supported by evidence, and instead are sustained by your own biases, you are better off changing your beliefs.  More importantly, society is better off, too, because your personal view helps to steer the powerful juggernaut of public opinion.

Fundamentalism:

Objective evidence for a correlation between fundamentalism and reduced scientific literacy is available.  Research examining survey data from 2006 compares the general scientific literacy of fundamentalist Christians in America to their secular counterparts (Sherkat, 2011).  The results suggest that religious fundamentalism has a strongly negative effect on science literacy.  In fact, religion played a larger role in scientific literacy than gender, race or income.  These findings make sense when we consider that any doctrine will become increasingly out of date and inaccurate with age.  Thus, when that increasingly-obsolete canon is worshiped as infallible, it will need protection against an increasingly-accurate view of reality.

Politics:

Research also suggests that political motivations can affect scientific literacy.  An examination of survey data from 1974 to 2010 (Gauchat, 2012) has shown that conservative Americans used to have the highest trust in science.  However, modern conservatives are more likely to have the lowest trust in science.  Some researchers have proposed that this change may be related to financial gain (e.g. Jacques et al., 2008; Oreskes and Conway, 2011).  So, perhaps good ol’ fashioned greed is partially to blame.  It is at least plausible that some powerful people may not have liked some findings that correlate global warming with human activities.

It also seems that certain political leanings are more likely to influence a sort of selective scientific illiteracy.  For example, in 2010, none of the 21 senatorial candidates accepted that climate change was caused by humans.  These candidates maintained this belief despite 97% of climate scientists insisting that they were wrong (Anderegg et al., 2010).  That’s 0% of our politicians verses 97% of our experts.  This type of dissent is almost certainly the result of motivated reasoning.  I can assure you that the climate scientists deal with no prestige or wealth, and thus have little to gain from a conspiracy to convince us all of climate change.  However, candidates for the senate may find it beneficial to frame scientists as elitist snobs who don’t know what they’re talking about.

Without a doubt, politics is a tough game.  Politicians are under constant pressure and scrutiny.  This is exacerbated by a desire to be effective leaders.  Unfortunately, it seems that in modern politics this strain may be too much and some of our leaders look for ways to manipulate their effectiveness.  It could be that H.L. Mencken was on to something when he proposed that:

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.”

The tampering of powerful greed within politics is not new.  Remember the leaked documents from the tobacco lobby?  Here is one of the most telling quotes on how they coveted scientific illiteracy in the USA:

“Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public.  It is also the means of establishing a controversy.”

The new-age-spiritualism-and/or-holistic-naturalism movement:

It’s easy to think that if some new age fans want to think with their hearts instead of their heads they aren’t hurting anyone.  That is wrong.  Here are some examples of the consequences of new-age-spiritualism-and/or-holistic-naturalism’s complete departure from reality:

  • Chiropractic spinal manipulation causes strokes (Ernst, 2007), kills children (Vohra et al., 2007) and it’s based on implausible premises. However, this practice is viewed by many as a valid alternative to effective treatments.
  • Some forms of religion encourage prayer over medical treatment. This kills children.  Yep, children, who had easily treatable ailments, die.
  • Homeopathy flat-out doesn’t make any sense and has been shown to be totally ineffective. However, people still believe in this “alternative” to actual treatment.  This occasionally, tragically, leads to serious harm or death.  Yep, death.

So why are there still followers of the new-age-spiritualism-and/or-holistic-naturalism movement?  I don’t know.  That wasn’t a rhetorical question.  Please tell me why.

My best guess is that science can be hard.  So, sometimes it’s just easier for people to gravitate towards easy to understand nonsense.  Also, genuine, albeit misguided, concern can lead to less complicated and therefore safer-sounding treatments.  Unfortunately, even when the results of new-age-spiritualism-and/or-holistic-naturalism aren’t directly tragic, the adherence to these unfounded beliefs always perpetuates credulity.  This, in turn, makes it all the easier for anti-intellectualism to take root.

Conclusion:

So, anti-intellectualism seems to be a veritable phenomenon.  A seemingly growing number of people think that thinking is a bad thing.  At the same time, serious scientific literacy problems exist.  These problems appear to be connected to motivated reasoning within certain groups (Fundamentalist, political, and new-age-spiritualism-and/or-holistic-naturalism).  The inception of this motivated reasoning may lie with problems of tribalism, perceived sacredness, greed, or simple misunderstandings of complicated subjects.

The only answer to these problems seems to be better education.  This is not just for kids.  As citizens of the modern, information-laden world we are bombarded by all sorts of information.  In order to stay afloat in this post-truth sea, we need to learn how to think, not just what to think.  We should all want to know how scientific consensus is formed and what findings led to it.  No one should be content to simply be told the boisterous opinion of a spiritual or political leader.

Maybe Carl Sagan said it best way back in 1990:

“We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.  This is a clear prescription for disaster.  It’s dangerous and stupid for us to remain ignorant…”

References:

Anderegg, W. R., Prall, J. W., Harold, J., & Schneider, S. H. (2010). Expert credibility in climate change. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(27), 12107-12109. http://www.pnas.org/content/107/27/12107.abstract

Ernst, E. (2007). Adverse effects of spinal manipulation: a systematic review. Journal of the royal society of medicine, 100(7), 330-338. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/014107680710000716

Gauchat, G. (2012). Politicization of science in the public sphere a study of public trust in the United States, 1974 to 2010. American sociological review, 77(2), 167-187. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0003122412438225

Gough, M. (2013). Politicizing Science: The Alchemy of Policymaking (No. 517). Hoover Institution Press. https://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&lr=&id=vQVwBAAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PT7&dq=politicising+science+alchemy&ots=jjUB1fuV6O&sig=IriTQ8sRros0NjKBW1XMluLp-Vo#v=onepage&q=politicising%20science%20alchemy&f=false

Jacques, P. J., Dunlap, R. E., & Freeman, M. (2008). The organisation of denial: Conservative think tanks and environmental scepticism. Environmental politics, 17(3), 349-385. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09644010802055576

National Research Council (Ed.). (1996). National science education standards. National Academy Press. https://www.nap.edu/read/4962/chapter/1

Oreskes, N., & Conway, E. M. (2011). Merchants of doubt: How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming. Bloomsbury Publishing USA. http://envhis.oxfordjournals.org/content/16/3/546.short

Sherkat, D. E. (2011). Religion and scientific literacy in the United States. Social Science Quarterly, 92(5), 1134-1150. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1540-6237.2011.00811.x/full

Vohra, S., Johnston, B. C., Cramer, K., & Humphreys, K. (2007). Adverse events associated with pediatric spinal manipulation: a systematic review. Pediatrics, 119(1), e275-e283. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/119/1/e275.short

Jared Peters

Jared Peters

Jared Peters, PhD, is a geoscientist who specialises in marine sedimentology, marine palaeoglaciology and climate change.
Jared Peters
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Jared Peters, PhD, is a geoscientist who specialises in marine sedimentology, marine palaeoglaciology and climate change.