512 years after Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for suggesting that Earth orbited the Sun and that the Sun was just one among innumerable stars (forget your schoolbooks: Galileo was a comparative conformist, and the Church went light on him), a disturbing percentage of Americans are still struggling to catch up to the Copernican Revolution. That’s the first conclusion we should draw before thinking about the recent studies showing that intelligent conservatives are unlikely to accept climate change or even to agree that a 6-metre rise in sea level would have significant consequences for human life.
In my last post, I pointed out that on the subject of climate change, a large number of conservatives are simply goofy, freely confessing to pollsters not only that they think climate change was bogus, but that even if it did happen, they don’t foresee any particular problems arising from a 6-metre rise in sea levels. Some of the people who said that are living in houses which would be underwater. This apparently would not concern them.
As I warned yesterday, we shouldn’t be too quick to jump to the conclusion that this simply means liberals are smarter than conservatives based on these new studies of climate change and “scientific literacy.” The leading study to date suggests that people in both camps — indeed, in any camp — are just repeating the sorts of beliefs that are likely to earn them affirmation and encouragement from other members of their own subculture. But the new study on sea level rise suggests that may be being overly charitable.
I think the first problem to tackle is what it means to be “scientifically literate” in the early 21st century. It’s a hard question. One thing we can say for certain is that a very large number of people are appallingly ignorant. As I suggested in my title, one-quarter of Americans still believe that the Sun goes around the Earth. One-half of Americans also think that the Earth goes around the Sun (or vice versa) in one day, rather than one year.
In addition, more than half of Americans think that antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria, and this number is actually climbing (up 7% over the last 5 years). Americans are also evenly split on the existence of the Y-chromosome, on whether electrons are smaller than atoms, and on whether there’s land at the North Pole or just ice.
When we look at the body of knowledge Americans claim they have altogether, it gets even murkier. For instance, the fact that around 4 in 10 Americans accepts evolution is consistent with other surveys which say that Americans are divided on the question of whether the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. But on the other hand, 80% of people responding to this survey agreed that continental drift occurred on multi-million-year timescales.
It doesn’t help that the questions aren’t well written. One of the questions, for instance, asks whether the universe began in “a huge explosion.” Only 39% got it “right” (answering yes). I’m honestly not sure how I’d answer this question. A question on whether the Earth’s core is hot is also ambiguous (hot compared to what? Jupiter’s? The Sun’s?).
At best, I think we can conclude that Americans are badly confused about basic scientific concepts. This probably won’t surprise many people, especially scientists or educators. It doesn’t terribly surprise me either, given that the British Columbian government recently engaged in weighty deliberations over whether fish, bacteria, and viruses were all members of the “animal kingdom” (the general consensus: bacteria and viruses probably were, but fish might not be).
But here’s the thing: given the scientific literacy numbers, I don’t find it remotely surprising that conservatives think climate change isn’t real and that even if it was, it wouldn’t matter. If people are struggling to answer questions like whether antibiotics are active against viruses, then I would sincerely doubt their ability to understand the theory of climate change. Even being able to answer all of these questions correctly wouldn’t necessarily be enough to convince me that someone had even a basic grasp of how or why climate change occurs. (Although presumably those who got them all wrong would be much less likely to be able to than those who got them all right.)
What this all goes to mean, then, is that there really is a problem with science education. The cultural problem overlies that — conservatives follow their social group in rejecting climate change, and liberals follow their social group in embracing climate change. But overall, these surveys paint a picture of a general public which is simply not intellectually capable of having a debate about whether climate change is happening, or, if it is, why it is and what we should do about it. The science literacy questions aren’t detailed enough to give us any confidence that even the “highly literate” groups are actually able to comprehend the theory of climate change at a deep enough level that they really know what they’re accepting or rejecting.
The fact that so many conservatives suggested that a 20-foot sea rise would not be a significant concern would seem to bear out my suggestion in this regard. A large number of people simply are not prepared to think deeply about the planet, even to the fairly minimal extent necessary to imagine the consequences of a minor change in sea levels. I’m prepared to assume that this applies to the study’s “liberals” as much as the study’s “conservatives”; assuming that conservatives really aren’t just dumber than liberals, it stands to reason that a similar proportion of liberals said “yes” without more than a vague idea of what a sea level rise would mean.
Unfortunately I’m not sure how to resolve this dilemma without the support of the government, which we currently don’t have, at least not in Canada, where the government is currently being run by a gang of religious extremists and Western separatists. Most adults are not interested in science education; on controversial subjects, most people (including myself) tend to be fairly confident that they’re right even if they don’t really have any evidence to back up their beliefs. Moreover, any educational initiative specifically focused on a subject like climate change would have to begin from scientific premises, i.e. that climate change is a real possibility, and for that reason it will promptly be denounced by the climate change denialists as a leftist plot.
What I can say, however, is that it means we need to be far more careful about we interpret polls on questions of complex scientific or social theories, whether it’s climate change or — as Canada has recently experienced — the impact of “Dutch disease” on currency valuation. A large proportion of the population simply lacks the intellectual tools necessary to participate in this conversation. I don’t say this as an elitist excuse to dismiss the rabble. I say this as a warning that I don’t see how democracy can function as intended if a sizeable fraction of the population is not capable of meaningful participation in an extremely important debate.Tweet