Wednesday, August 26, 2009

If you give a birther a birth certificate…

Yesterday was the 400th anniversary Galileo’s demonstration of his telescope to Venetian merchants. Originally built to help sailors spot distant objects at sea, Galileo soon turned his telescope to the stars, and sent shockwaves through Italy and the Church. His discovery that the sun, moon, and planets operated according to the same natural laws as objects on Earth, upended Church dogma and ushered in the era of modern science. From this point on, Man would no longer rely on gut feeling and superstition to understand the natural world.


400 years after Galileo supposedly swept away unquestioning dogma in favor of science, here are some sobering statistics, estimating various groups’ views on the most important question of our time, “Do you think human activity is a significant contributing factor in changing mean global temperatures?”

82% of all scientists agree.
88% of scientists who actively research and publish scientific articles agree.
97% of climate specialists agree.

But as for the general public, only 58% agrees.

It’s scary enough that ordinary citizens can disregard scientific consensus so blithely, but here’s an even more incredible statistic, courtesy of Joe Romm at ClimateProgress:

In 1997 some 42% [of Republicans] said warming had begun and 48% said most scientists believe warming is occurring — a modest 6 point differential. By 2008, the percentage of Republicans saying the effects of global warming have already begun had dropped to a mere 42% (an amazing stat in its own right given the painfully obvious evidence to the contrary). But the percentage saying most scientists believe global warming is occurring had risen to 54% — a stunning 12 point differential.

What this means, as Joe Romm points out, more and more Republicans are willing to reject truths about the natural world which they nonetheless understand that most scientists believe; they consciously understand what the science says, but choose to disregard it. Sure, it’s a well-known human tendency—whether liberal or conservative—to selectively reject evidence that does not confirm one’s own worldviews, but you would think such confirmation bias would not apply to objectively knowable scientific truths. When you reject the word of scientists in favor of demagogues like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, that’s a pretty good sign that you’ve given up rational thought altogether in favor of blind allegiance to ideology. Actually, I think delusion is a better word.

The American Right is full of such delusional movements, of which global warming denial is but one. Take the birthers—whose ranks may include over half of all Republicans—who believe President Obama was born outside the US. These folks will cling to their paranoid fantasies no matter how many times you show them undeniable evidence to the contrary. They continue to demand that President Obama show his birth certificate, despite the fact that he has already done so. Repeatedly. If you show a birther a birth certificate, he’s going to ask for another one. And if you give a skeptic the evidence for global warming, he’s going to respond, “there is no evidence!”

The public is similarly confused over biology. More than half of Americans believe in Creationism than evolution, but that’s less disturbing to me than the fact that more than half of Americans also claim to accept the theory of evolution. 53% believe that “human beings developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life,” but fully 66% believe that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.” The statements’ wording could not be any more unambiguous wording, yet 21% of Americans believe both!

Neither is the health care debate immune from paranoid delusions. Despite repeated debunkings by the mainstream media, the President, Republicans, and the fact that such claims do not pass the “laugh test,” a majority of Americans still cling to demonstrably false beliefs about health care reform. The conservative Wall Street Journal admits:

A majority of Americans (55%) believe the bill will extend health insurance coverage to illegal immigrants even though no proposals currently under negotiation would do so. An equally high number (54%) believe the overhaul will lead to a “complete” government takeover of the health care system, although there is also no actual proposal for that, either.

And nearly as many Americans falsely believe the health care bill contains “death panels” (45%) as those who know otherwise (50%).

These stats are scary. When a majority of citizens hold objectively false beliefs about major issues, the ability of a democracy to function in the interests of its citizens is seriously undermined, a reality which the Founding Fathers knew only too well. That's why they created a representative democracy, to hopefully (maybe too hopefully) act as guardians of the public trust against the masses' tendency toward base passion and disinformation.

We still have hope in Obama. But Rush Limbaugh and friends are a real threat, not only democracy, but to the entire legacy of reason over ideology left to us by Galileo—and to the very ability of Man to progress as a species.

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