by Timothy Lutts
It’s interesting to contemplate the fact that our society can contain both supremely intelligent and practical men—say Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Oprah Winfrey and Elon Musk—and supremely ignorant men (and when I say men, I mean women, too).
As far as I know, it has always been thus. Those who are able and willing lead the way, while those who are unable or unwilling are dragged along behind. In that way mankind and society progresses, and as we go, we all get a little less ignorant (in aggregate) every day.
But all of us walk around with blinders on when it comes to certain aspects of life. We unconsciously ignore certain scientific developments because it makes us uncomfortable to confront them. And we avoid scientific facts because accepting them would jeopardize our position in our social circle.
For example, New York University psychologist Jonathan Haidt and Dan Kahan and others at the Yale Cultural Cognition have separately done research that illustrates how people develop their beliefs to fit in with people in their community.
A 2013 article in Reason Magazine examined their findings at length, and I’ve taken the liberty of summarizing the main points below.
On the left, to generalize, are people who tend to have egalitarian or communitarian views. Typically, they’re registered as Democrats and they feel pretty good about their role in making the world a better, fairer place.
On the right are people who care more about purity and sanctity. Typically, they’re registered as Republicans, and they feel pretty good about their role in defending society from forces that threaten the established order.
Neither of these moral preferences are right or wrong by themselves, but they are biases that affect our worldview, even to the extent that many people ignore science, the better to fit in with their peers.
And which group is most “guilty” of politics? Avoiding science and thus perpetuating ignorance? Consider these hot topics.
The majority of climate scientists believe that human activity is causing the earth’s temperatures to increase. But only 16 percent of conservative Republicans believe that human activity is responsible, whereas 77 percent of liberal Democrats do. Moderate Republicans and Democrats accept human responsibility by 38 and 51 percent, respectively. Advantage: Democrats.
According to a Pew Research poll, 87 percent of scientists believe that humans evolved through entirely natural processes, without input from any God.
But 41 percent of Democrats and 58 percent of Republicans believe that God created human beings in their present form within the past 10,000 years. Even larger numbers (73 percent of Democrats and 89 percent of Republicans) credit God with a guiding role in the process of evolution. Advantage: Democrats.
A 2012 Gallup Poll found that 72 percent of Republicans think that nuclear power is generally safe, compared to just 45 percent of Democrats. Yet a 2009 Pew Research poll reported that 70 percent of scientists favored building more nuclear power plants. Advantage: Republicans.
Every independent scientific group that has ever evaluated biotech crops has found them to be safe for people and the environment. Yet both Democrats and Republicans have been spooked by anti-biotech disinformation campaigns. A survey by the Pew Trusts reported 48 percent of Republicans believe that biotech foods are safe, compared to 28 percent who did not. Democrats are just slightly less likely to think biotech foods are safe, with 42 percent saying they are and 29 percent saying they aren’t. Advantage: Republicans.
The chief worry about synthetic chemicals has traditionally been cancer. Yet as the American Cancer Society notes, “Exposure to carcinogenic agents in occupational, community, and other settings is thought to account for a relatively small percentage of cancer deaths—about 4% from occupational exposures and 2% from environmental pollutants (man-made and naturally occurring).” Furthermore, an article in the journal Lancet Oncology argued that costly regulatory efforts to reduce exposures to trace amounts of man-made chemicals divert resources from truly effective measures to prevent cancer, such as modifying lifestyle factors such as smoking, obesity, and sunlight exposure. Democrats are more worried than Republicans about trace exposures to synthetic chemicals. As part of its campaign for the Safer Chemicals Act, the environmental lobbying group, the Natural Resources Defense Council commissioned a 2012 poll that found that 79 percent of Democrats wanted “stricter regulation of chemicals produced and used in everyday products,” compared to 58 percent of GOP voters. Advantage: Republicans.
One contentious question is whether allowing citizens to carry concealed weapons decreases or increases crime. A 2012 poll for Reuters found that 82 percent of Republicans and 72 percent of Democrats supported laws allowing law-abiding citizens to get a permit to carry a concealed weapon. The science, represented by a 2004 National Research Council report, concluded, “There is no credible evidence that ‘right-to-carry’ laws, which allow qualified adults to carry concealed handguns, either decrease or increase violent crime.”
The other hot button is assault weapons, which were banned by Congress from 1994 to 2004. A 2004 study by University of Pennsylvania researchers concluded the if the ban had been renewed, its “effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement.” Yet in a recent Quinnipiac University poll, 81 and 77 percent of Democrats want to ban assault weapons and large-capacity magazines, respectively. On the other hand, 55 and 58 percent Republicans oppose both bans. Advantage: Republicans.
Scientists favor mandatory childhood vaccinations by 84 percent, and the public is not so supportive, with just 71 percent of both Republicans and Democrats saying we should require childhood vaccinations. Ideologically, there is no difference. Advantage: It’s a draw.
Texas A&M researcher Chris Ferguson recently concluded that “Video games have become more popular and more violent, while youth violence has declined.” Yet a February 2013 Harris Interactive survey found that 58 percent of adults believe there is a link between violent video games and violent teen behavior. And a post-Newtown Gallup poll reported that 55 percent of Republicans and 44 percent of Democrats thought that decreasing depictions of gun violence on TV, in movies, and in video games would be an effective approach to preventing mass school shootings. Advantage: Democrats.
A March 2012 Pew Research poll reported that, among respondents who had heard of fracking to obtain natural gas from shale, 73 percent of Republicans favored it whereas only 33 percent of Democrats did. And a December 2012 Quinnipiac Poll of New York State residents reported that 61 percent of Democrats thought that fracking will cause environmental damage, compared to only 25 percent of Republicans. The chief scientific question is how producing and burning shale gas will effect greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. A 2011 National Energy Technology Laboratory life-cycle analysis found that the average natural gas baseload electric power generation has a life cycle global warming potential that is 55 percent lower than the average coal baseload power generation, on a 100-year horizon. In other words, burning natural gas produces less than half of the globe warming carbon dioxide that coal does. Advantage: Republicans.
Fifty percent of Democrats would prefer to buy organic, believing it’s better for the environment and more nutritious, but only 35 percent of Republicans would bother. Yet a 2012 article in the Journal of Environmental Management reviewing 71 studies on the impact of organic farming on the environment concluded that organic practices do “not necessarily have lower overall environmental impacts than conventional farming.” Furthermore, a 2012 study by researchers at Stanford University detailing the nutritional differences between organic and conventional foods found few significant differences between organic and non-organic foods. Advantage: Republicans.
The most even-handed survey of ideological attitudes toward both abstinence-only and comprehensive sex education is a 2006 study published in JAMA Pediatrics. That survey found that 67 percent of liberals opposed abstinence-only sex education, while 40 percent of conservatives did. It should be noted that 92 percent of liberals and 70 percent of conservatives supported abstinence-plus sex education, i.e., includes instruction concerning contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, and condom use. Although there are some outliers, most research agrees with a 2011 PLoS One study that reviewed sex education programs from 48 states that concluded that the “data show clearly that abstinence-only education as a state policy is ineffective in preventing teenage pregnancy and may actually be contributing to the high teenage pregnancy rates in the U.S.” For what it’s worth, comprehensive sex education has been endorsed by most relevant medical societies. Advantage: Democrats.
Clearly, the cultural forces that guide political identification affect our tendency to accept or reject scientific evidence, and thus our ability to combat ignorance. Furthermore, it’s very difficult to imagine that this will change easily, just as it’s difficult to imagine that investors will ever stop behaving as irrational herds, sending stocks first up to irrational heights and then down to irrational lows. It’s in our nature
As an optimist, however, I have hope. After all, we have progressed this far, and passed through periods that were politically less conducive to sanity than the present era. One of my everlasting hopes is that people get less attached to political parties and other affinity groups so that they can begin to think a little more independently and thus a little more rationally.