We Have Met the Enemy—and It Isn’t Ignorance

Whenever controversies arise that pit scientists against segments of the U.S. public—the evolution debate, say, or the fight over emissions regulations—a predictable dance seems to unfold. On the one hand, the nonscientists appear almost entirely impervious to scientific data that undermine their opinions, and they are prone to argue back with technical claims of dubious merit. In response, the scientists shake their heads and lament that if only the public weren’t so ignorant, these kinds of misunderstandings wouldn’t occur. But what if the fault actually lies with both sides?

We’ve been aware for a long time that Americans don’t know much about science. Surveys that measure the public’s views on evolution, climate change, and even the idea that the earth revolves around the sun yield a huge gap between what science tells us and what the public believes.

But that’s not the whole story. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences convened a series of workshops on this topic over the past year and a half, and many of the participating scientists and other experts concluded that, as much as the public misunderstands science, scientists misunderstand the public. In particular, they often fail to realize that a more-scientifically informed public is not necessarily a public that will more frequently side with scientists.

Take climate change. The battle over global warming has raged for more than a decade, with experts still stunned by the willingness of their political opponents to distort scientific conclusions. Scientists conclude, not illogically, that they’re dealing with a problem of misinformation or downright ignorance.

Yet a closer look complicates that picture. For one thing, it’s political outlook, not education, that seems
to motivate one’s belief on this subject. According to polling by the Pew Research Center, Republicans who are college graduates are considerably less likely to accept the scientific consensus on climate change than those who have less education. These better-educated Republicans probably aren’t ignorant; a more likely explanation is that they are politically driven consumers of climate science information. Among Democrats and independents, the relationship between education and beliefs about global warming is precisely the opposite—more education leads to greater acceptance of the consensus climate science.

In other words, it appears that politics comes first on such a contested subject, and better information is no cure-all—people are likely to simply strain it through an ideological sieve. In fact, more education probably makes a global-warming skeptic more persuasive and more adept at collecting information and generating arguments sympathetic to his or her point of view.

The moral of this controversy is that experts who want Americans to take science into account when they form opinions need to do far more than just lay out the facts or “set the record straight.” What science says is important, but in controversial areas, it’s only the beginning. It’s critical that experts and policy makers better understand what motivates public concern in the first place; they mustn’t be deceived by the fact that people often appear to be arguing about scientific facts. Rather than simply crusade against ignorance, the defenders of science should also work closely with social scientists and specialists in public opinion to determine how to defuse controversies by addressing their fundamental causes.

They might find a few pleasant surprises in the process. For one thing, the public doesn’t seem to disdain scientists, as scientists often suppose. A 2009 study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that Americans tend to have positive views of the scientific community; it’s scientists who are wary of the media and the public. ❧

—Chris Mooney

Chris Mooney is co-author, with Sheril Kirshenbaum, of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future. Basic Books, 2009.

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2 Comments

  • Steven Earl Salmony November 21, 2010 at 8:14 am

    Dear Chris Mooney,

    Given the general mind-set, the one driven in our time by economic globalization and the global political economy, it is difficult to believe how change to whatsoever is sustainable could occur. The mantra of endless growth of unsustainable lifestyles and too-big-to succeed corporations appears pervasive and unassailable.

    Gigantic, multinational conglomerates are adamantly engaged in the production of goods (both needed and unnecessary), business and finance, the marvelous edifices housing the great religions, large-scale agriculture, the military complexes. These entities are the actual constructions that drive the process of economic globalization and give the global political economy its leviathan-like structure.

    What you are reporting appears correct. It seems to me that two things could happen. First, an internet-driven transformation of global human consciousness will somehow occur in order to bring about necessary changes in the self-serving, destructive behavior of the fossil fools among us. Second, something embodied in this shift in human consciousness will give rise to completely unexpected, somehow interlocking events like the one which occurred at the city of Jericho in ancient times when “the walls fell down”. Even the leviathans of human enterprise in our days could crumble.

    Recently we witnessed the near collapse of some of the giants of the automobile industry and the virtual implosion of investment houses and big banks on Wall Street. Are the titans of big business and finance not only “too-big-to-fail” but also “too-big-to-succeed” precisely because they are soon to become patently unsustainable on a planet with size, composition and ecology of Earth?

    We have also seen in the past several years the poisonous fruits to be derived from extolling as ‘virtues’ outrageous greed, obscene overconsumption and relentless hoarding of wealth by many too many leaders. Never in the course of human events have so few stolen so much from so many….with a sense of pride. That these people reward each other with medals and awards for their pernicious activities is shameful. I believe we can agree that the unbridled overgrowth activities of the masters of the universe now overspreading the surface of Earth can much longer stand neither the test of time nor the biophysical limitations of the planetary home we are to inhabit and not ruin, I suppose. Following self-proclaimed masters of the universe down a primrose path could be the wrong way to direct the children to go.

    The children deserve the chance of facing the prospect of a future that is good enough. I am no longer thinking of leaving the children a better world than the one that was given to their elders. That appears out of reach now. It remains my hope that the elder generation, with responsibilities to assume and duties to perform, will do better than we doing now by changing our ways for the sake of keeping Earth fit for habitation by children everywhere. As examples, we could pay our debts instead of mortgage the children’s future; we could clean up the ecological messes that have been made in the course of the past 65 years; we could eschew “bigger is better” and “the biggest is the best” in favor of “small is beautiful”, doing more with less, and embracing the spirit of living well by living more simply and sustainably.

    Perhaps changes toward sustainable lifestyles and right-sized enterprises are in the offing.

    And perhaps we have been travelling down a long road over hundreds upon hundreds of years, a road of growing production and distribution capabilities, of wanton overconsumption and reckless hoarding, and of unbridled overpopulation. These activities have been occurring for a long time on a small scale, but only recently exploded in seemingly uncontrollable ways, within the natural world we inhabit and without sufficient regard being given either to human limits or Earth’s limitations. An improbable combination of narcissism, arrogance, foolhardiness and greed blinded leadership to the practical requirements of living on Earth; to the “rules of the house” in our planetary home. Too many leaders decided to willfully behave like kids who were left alone and given the run of the house by their overseers. All the rules were ‘forgotten’ or simply ignored. Laissez faire, whatever will be will be, living without limits and all that ruled!

    The children tore everything up and made a big mess. When they realized what they were doing, they felt stuck as if between a rock and hard place. Do they stop their destructive activities or else choose to keep tearing up the house? This is a tough choice for kids at play. Who knows, perhaps they will not be caught red-handed at what they have been doing. And if they are caught, they could always blame the wreckage on other bad boys. How many times have we seen kids at play and men at work blaming their wrongdoing on others and not ever taking responsibility for their own dishonest, deceitful or destructive behavior?

    Either the choice to turn back and begin the clean-up or the choice to keep tearing things up is fraught with danger. From a kid’s (or fossil fool’s) perspective they could face more danger by trying to clean up the mess they made than they would be exposed to by continuing with their rampage. Either choice presents its own challenges and threats. After all, so much damage has already been done. There is no longer any easy way forward, that is for sure, even under the best circumstances.

    What to do here? Now what? These are the questions, I suppose.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=czvxyDgqxmM

    Sincerely yours,

    Steve

    Reply

  • BARBbf March 12, 2011 at 8:45 am

    Remember when the Doctors..who represented the scientist telling us year, after year, after year…that smoking was GOOD FOR US! Remember all of the crappy medicines the scientists approved that cost the lives of thousands? Remember Thalidomide? Is it no wonder that regular non-scientist doubt what those brilliant people tell us. We suspect that they are lying to us when we can see more and more of our children are the victims of physical and mental problems as more and more vaccinations are recommended and demanded by those “brilliant” scientist.

    Reply

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