I can think of few times in recent memory when I was so embarrassed to be an American as when I first saw this video of United States Senator Jim Inhofe, chairman of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, attempt to demonstrate his assertion that climate change is a “hoax” by bringing a snowball with him into the Senate chamber. I don’t know whether Inhofe himself actually believes the nonsense he pontificates or if he is simply pandering to an ever-expanding base of low-information voters, but both of those prospects are equally frightening. There is a growing trend in this country, ironically most often propagated by ardent and vocal supporters of the concept of “American Exceptionalism“, to reject the studies and theories of scientists, professors and other educated folks as being “elitist” and “out of touch” with the demographic of mainstream America that they see themselves representing.
Let’s be clear: Climate change is very real and it is very much caused by human activity. This is the consensus of 97% of climate scientists around the world and has been accepted as truth by virtually every developed nation in the world except ours. We are already starting to see some of the effects of climate change occurring even sooner than some scientists predicted. Whether the denial that seems to be unique to America is a symptom of the blizzard of political polarization that has engulfed this country or simply the result of an increasing majority of Americans being unable or unwilling to comprehend a concept more complicated than “how can the Earth be getting warmer when it’s so cold outside?”, either way it shows a stark rejection of actual scientific research in favor of what Americans simply believe in their collective gut to be true.
Another unfortunate example of the collective dumbing down of our country is the so-called “debate” between evolution and creationsim. There has been a strong push, especially in the South and Midwest where folks tend to be more fervent in their religious beliefs, to “teach the controversy” in our public schools. Mind you, said “controversy” doesn’t actually exist. Evolution is the universally accepted scientific theory on how the human race came to be, whereas creationism is the Christian religious belief that the entirety of the human population descended from two people that a supreme being created literally out of dust. There is no debate among the scientific community as to which of those two theories actually took place, but yet there is a growing push to include creationism in the public school science curriculum. The Texas State Board of Education, which holds a tremendous influence over nationwide textbook publishers due to the volume of media they purchase, stated in a 2013 review that “‘Creation Science’ should be incorporated into every biology textbook.” Despite these blatant attempts to insert religion into a science curriculum where it has absolutely no place, our mainstream media, in a misguided attempt to appear non-partisan and unbiased, has given enough news coverage to “creationists” to make it appear as though the creationist argument is just as plausible and legitimate as the theory of evolution, when in reality nothing could be further from the truth.
Probably the most immediately dangerous aspect of science denial is the anti-vaccine movement. The argument that modern vaccinations are to blame for a wide range of health problems first came about when former British doctor Andrew Wakefield published a study in the medical journal The Lancet that supposedly linked the MMR vaccine to autism, aggressive behavior and irritable bowel syndrome. The Lancet subsequently retracted this publication and Wakefield’s medical license was ultimately revoked when it came to light that Wakefield was being paid for damaging information by trial lawyers who intended to bring a lawsuit against the vaccine manufacturer, that he co-owned a company that stood to make millions of dollars a year testing vaccinated children for the non-existent condition “autistic enterocolitis“, and that he falsified the data in his experiments to achieve the desired conclusions.
Despite the fact that Wakefield’s study has been thoroughly debunked as “an elaborate fraud,” the false notion that the MMR vaccine and other vaccines can cause autism and a host of other health problems continues to be propagated by celebrities such as Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey and remain widespread. These misguided fears have led to such an increase in parents refusing to vaccinate their children that last year a woman from Washington state actually died from pneumonia caused by measles, the first measles-related death in America in over a decade.
There is a video clip from the HBO series The Newsroom that has been making the rounds on social media in which a character played by Jeff Daniels is asked what makes America the greatest country in the world, and his surprising answer is, “It’s not.” Although Daniels plays a fictional character in the show his words lay bare an uncomfortable truth. If America is to continue to identify as the “greatest country in the world” then we as a people need to stop rejecting science and education as “elitism” and stop embracing and pandering to ignorance. In 2014, award-winning science educator Bill Nye and best-selling Christian author Ken Ham engaged in a debate on the merits of evolution vs creationism. When asked the question: “What, if anything, would ever change your mind?” their answers were telling.
Ham’s answer: “No one is ever going to convince me that the word of God is not true.”
Nye’s answer: “Just one piece of evidence.”
If we are to undo the self-inflicted damage we’ve done, America needs a lot less of Ham’s attitude and a lot more of Nye’s.