Saturday, June 16, 2012

US is science ignorant - what did we expect?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, science, education, polemics, pseudoscience

It did not make me happy to read Denying Science: Conspiracy Theories, Media Distortions, and the War Against Reality by John Grant. Not happy, no; but sadly, I'm right there with him. I did a little searching (it took no more than ten minutes, on today's Internet, a product of the technology so many malign), to find the following:
  • 40% of Americans believe evolution.
  • 40% believe creationism, including "intelligent design", and most of those believe Earth's age is between 6,000 and 10,000 years.
  • 48% of Americans think that warnings about Anthropogenic (human caused) Global Warming (AGW) are exaggerated.
  • 39% of American parents now either refuse to vaccinate their children or delay most vaccinations.
Then there are the beliefs in "phenomena that science can't explain":
  • 34% believe in UFOs.
  • 34% believe in ghosts.
  • 31% believe in Astrology.
  • 73% believe in ESP and other Paranormal phenomena (including ghosts and astrology). 
Finally, there are the more political items, of which I'll just mention two:
  • 90% of Americans believe the US government is covering up some or all of the "real" 9/11 story.
  • 34% believe the government "did it".
 Now, let's contrast that with some figures for education in America:
  • 87.6% finish High School (but only 78% in the state where I live).
  • 30.4% attain a BS or BA college degree.
  • 40.5% of college graduates studied Business or Management.
  • 39.5% studied a STEM discipline (Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics). 39.5 times 30.4 = just 12% of Americans who understand science at the Bachelor of Science level (and half of those squeaked by with C's).
  • 20.0% studied a Humanities subject such as English, History or Philosophy.
So about 40% of college graduates liked science enough to finish a degree in it. Is it safe to assume that about 40% of high school graduates who didn't go to college are "science friendly"? Probably not, particularly when you see that figure of 73% who believe in the paranormal. One must assume that most of the science majors have stopped believing in paranormal stuff.

A side note: Many science majors, myself included, retain a belief in God, and do not consider Him to be "paranormal". Like many, I have had inner experiences that convince me of God's reality, yet I accept science as by far the best way to understand how the natural world works. We need to be careful how we use the word "believe". At my dissertation defense, once I had presented my conclusions, one of the first questions was, "Do you really believe that?" (clearly, the questioner did not). I replied, "I do not use the word believe in that way. I believe in God. This scientific stuff cannot save my soul, but God can. I understand and defend my hypothesis as the best explanation for the phenomena I have been studying."

Though Denying Science has 19 chapters, there are really four subjects: Vaccination, AIDS, Evolution, and Global Warming. A full third of the book is devoted to those who deny AGW. The author really, really did his homework, so there is a lot of detail. For me, it made for fast reading, because I already knew a lot of it, on all four subjects.

Rather than go into detail myself, I prefer to buttress the main point behind all four subjects. People stand to make a lot of money if the majority of us are persuaded that the science is wrong. When politicians or journalists seem to act irrationally, just follow the money. Almost a full page is devoted to a list of the names of anti-AGW organizations that are supported by Exxon-Mobil. There are 58, and it is a partial list, because lots of organizations are layered or decline to report their sponsors. Another half page lists 34 organizations known to be funded by the Koch brothers, as of 2008. They are also anti-AGW, and anti-science in a variety of other ways (even though their company sells Lycra and other products of science).

If you want someone killed, you can get it done for less than $100 in some neighborhoods. In "better neighborhoods", a great many people would "do a hit" for $50,000 or more. Once the stakes go into the millions, people of conscience get harder and harder to find. The world's biggest corporations do huge amounts of business. Four, Exxon-Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell, WalMart and BP, each have revenues that exceed $1 Billion per day. When business proceeds of a third or a half a trillion dollars a year is at stake, you're in a realm where ordinary human concerns simply go out the window.

Subject by subject:
  • Vaccination: side effects of early vaccines led some parents to question the requirement to vaccinate. Once there had been some lawsuits, more lawyers got involved, then sellers of "alternate" nostrums, and now the anti-vaccination hordes are a source of lots of revenue. The result: a few thousand unfortunate deaths per year, that vaccines could have prevented.
  • AIDS is more politicized and less a financial football, primarily because of the paranoia of certain dictators (who are justified in having a certain level of paranoia!). However, lawyers and sellers of "alternative" treatments are making hay while they can, millions of dollars' worth. The toll, perhaps a third of a million deaths per year, maybe more.
  • The Evolution versus Creationism debate hasn't led to any deaths that I know of (unless it is true that William Jennings Bryan died of embarrassment). But it certainly has led to millions of dollars spent on "textbooks" such as Of Pandas and People, and more millions, perhaps a few billions, on creationist "museums". I've seen a couple of these, and viewed a couple of well-produced anti-evolution or pro-young-earth videos. The science is various kinds of bad, bad, bad.
  • Global Warming denial is where the big money is. At stake: trillions of dollars. First, three of those four mega-corporations I listed above will make trillions from fossil fuels. Once sea levels have risen by a meter or so, companies like Bechtel and Halliburton will make trillions by relocating seaport facilities to higher ground (at present the three largest construction companies, all in China, combined make about a half billion dollars daily). Oh, there will be lots of ways to make money as the reality of AGW hits home with the population of Earth. Just funding the arms buildup for "water wars" is going to be a huge business. What will be the death toll? Estimates range from a few millions to the majority of the human population.
The "almighty dollar" is indeed almighty, particularly among those who deny the Almighty. It reminds me of a joke by Johnny Hart in The Wizard of Id comic. The knight asks the king, "Why do ballplayers get such huge salaries and scientists don't?" The king replies, "Would you pay to watch a scientist?"

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