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Monday, September 22, 2008

Anti-Intellectualism

Jeffrey Sachs says anti-intellectualism "could end up getting us all killed":

The American anti-intellectual threat, by Jeffrey D. Sachs, Commentary, Project Syndicate: In recent years, the United States has been more a source of global instability than a source of global problem-solving.

Examples include the war in Iraq, launched by the US on false premises, obstructionism on efforts to curb climate change, meager development assistance and the violation of international treaties such as the Geneva Conventions. While many factors contributed to America’s destabilizing actions, a powerful one is anti-intellectualism...

By anti-intellectualism, I mean especially an aggressively anti-scientific perspective, backed by disdain for those who adhere to science and evidence. The challenges faced by a major power like the US require rigorous analysis of information according to the best scientific principles.

Climate change, for example, poses dire threats... that must be assessed according to prevailing scientific norms... We need scientifically literate politicians adept at evidence-based critical thinking to translate these findings and recommendations into policy and international agreements.

In the US, however, the attitudes of President Bush, [and] leading Republicans ... have been the opposite of scientific. The White House did all it could for eight years to hide the overwhelming scientific consensus that humans are contributing to climate change. It tried to prevent government scientists from speaking honestly to the public. The Wall Street Journal has similarly peddled anti-science and pseudo-science to oppose policies to fight human-induced climate change.

These anti-scientific approaches affected not only climate policy, but also foreign policy. The US went to war in Iraq on the basis of Bush’s gut instincts and religious convictions, not rigorous evidence. ...

These are ... powerful individuals out of touch with reality. They reflect the fact that a significant portion of American society, which currently votes mainly Republican, rejects or is simply unaware of basic scientific evidence regarding climate change, biological evolution, human health and other fields. ...

Recent survey data by the Pew Foundation found that while 58 percent of Democrats believe that human beings are causing global warming, only 28 percent of Republicans do. Similarly, a 2005 survey found that 59 percent of self-professed conservative Republicans rejected any theory of evolution, while 67 percent of liberal Democrats accepted some version of evolutionary theory.

To be sure, some of these deniers are simply scientifically ignorant, having been failed by the poor quality of science education in America. But others are biblical fundamentalists... They reject geological evidence of climate change because they reject the science of geology itself.

The issue here is not religion versus science. All of the great religions have traditions of fruitful interchange with -- and, indeed, support for -- scientific inquiry. ...

The problem is an aggressive fundamentalism that denies modern science, and an aggressive anti-intellectualism that views experts and scientists as the enemy. It is those views that could end up getting us all killed. ...

It is difficult to know for sure what is giving rise to fundamentalism in so many parts of the world. ... Fundamentalism seems to emerge in times of far-reaching change, when traditional social arrangements come under threat. The surge of modern American fundamentalism in politics dates to the civil rights era of the 1960s, and at least partly reflects a backlash among whites against the growing political and economic strength of non-white and immigrant minority groups in US society.

Humanity’s only hope is that the vicious circle of extremism can be replaced by a shared global understanding of the massive challenges of climate change, food supplies, sustainable energy, water scarcity and poverty. ...

The US must return to the global consensus based on shared science rather than anti-intellectualism. That is the urgent challenge at the heart of American society today.

    Posted by on Monday, September 22, 2008 at 07:29 PM in Economics, Politics, Religion, Science | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (227)

          

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