Anti-science: how America votes for simple, not smart

As more and more people fear (or cheer) that “the American Century” is over,  bookstore shelves fill up with titles that promise to explain the problems or identify the solutions.

For just one example, in That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, authors Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum take their title from a poignant 2010 quotation by President Barack Obama:

It makes no sense for China to have better rail systems than us, and Singapore having better airports than us. And we just learned that China now has the fasted supercomputer on Earth — that used to be us.

Two recent online articles highlight one clear difference between the American (and Canadian, to be honest) system and politics in the rest of the developed world.   The first article outlines the corporate self-interest behind well-funded attacks on unwelcome scientific findings. In the second article, we’re reminded that Americans don’t value science, and they don’t elect scientists to positions of local, state, or national leadership in anything like the numbers found in other countries.

The first article, published by The Guardian (UK) on February 19th, reports the concern of leading scientists that big business attacks are “driving science into a dark era.”

Delegates to the just-completed annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, held here in Vancouver, were presented with a report prepared by the Union of Concerned Scientists: “Heads They Win, Tails We Lose: How Corporations Corrupt Science at the Public’s Expense.”

The report “chronicles the methods used by corporate businesses to attack their targets: harassing individual scientists, ghost-writing scientific articles to raise doubts about government research, and undermining the use of science to form government policy.”

The UCS points to the decision by the United States supreme court to overrule the law that allowed the federal government to place limits on independent spending for political purposes by business corporations as a major factor in the recent increase in attacks on science. The UCS’s Francesca Grifo explained:

“That has opened the gates for corporations – often those associated with coal and oil industries – to flood the market with adverts that support rightwing politicians and which attack government bodies that impose environmental regulations that these companies don’t like,” she said. “The science that supports these regulations is attacked as well. That has made a terrible difference over the past year and it is now bringing matters to a head.”

While the best-known attacks on science occur in the U.S., the trend is spreading, including the Harper government’s attempts to muzzle unwelcome scientific reports in Canada, a move that echoes Bush II’s efforts to politicize American government science in the previous decade.

The second article was published by the New York Times on February 13, under the title question, “Why Don’t Americans Elect Scientists?”

John Allan Paulos presents the evidence — Americans don’t elect scientists, and other countries do — then suggests reasons why.

Paulos argues that “one reason is that an abstract, scientific approach to problems and issues often leads to conclusions that are at odds with religious and cultural beliefs.” To make things worse, “scientists are sometimes tone-deaf to the social environment in which they state their conclusions.”

And “the prevailing celebrity-infatuated, money-driven culture and their personal ambitions”  lead politicians to favour rhetorical tricks over logical arguments. “Both Republicans and Democrats massage statistics, use numbers to provide decoration rather than information, dismiss, or at least distort, the opinions of experts, torture the law of the excluded middle (i.e., flip-flop), equivocate, derogate and obfuscate.”

Paulos laments that “skepticism enjoins scientists — in fact all of us — to suspend belief until strong evidence is forthcoming, but this tentativeness is no match for the certainty of ideologues and seems to suggest to many the absurd idea that all opinions are equally valid.” This commitment to “balance” undermines the requirement that opinion be grounded in information:

The chimera of the fiercely independent everyman reigns. What else explains the seemingly equal weight accorded to the statements of entertainers and biological researchers on childhood vaccines? Or to pronouncements of industry lobbyists and climate scientists? Or to economic prescriptions like 9-9-9 and those of Nobel-prize winning economists?

It’s not just the back-to-the-14th century social movement of the Evangelicals or the corporate cynicism of the capital class that’s responsible for the low status of science in the United States. The American dislike and distrust of the high-functioning expert has a wider base. With the exception of a fear-induced spurt of interest in math and science after the Soviets’ Sputnik launch in 1957, the United States has long embraced a culture of “just folks” and insecure resentment of anything “fancy” or “uppity.” On some levels, for many Americans, anything that signals superior skill or learning smacks of  un-American elitism.

Republican and libertarian politicians in the U.S. are exploiting this plain folks bias, using it in large-scale attempts to discredit scientists who “believe in” global warming and to advance religion-based social positions that can’t stand up to scientific scrutiny.

If this short-sighted, know-nothing attitude continues, the Chicken Littles will be right, and the American Century will indeed be over.

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One thought on “Anti-science: how America votes for simple, not smart

  1. Does this advocate Technocracy,the 1950s? political movement,as the answer ? Surely electing scientists is less important than tweaking the system to allow for more rational thought in government decision making. Reduce the influence of money in the electoral process?

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