But there’s a problem: research can inadvertently put scientists in conflict with commonly held beliefs that might differ from unwelcome new conclusions. Copernicus and Darwin experienced this. The former taught us that the Earth orbits the Sun, not visa versa. The latter showed how we are of the Earth, not put here by magic. People in general were not enthused at these new ideas. Both were vilified for their insights which we now know as scientific reality. Today’s controversy of global warming serves as a reminder of our natural tendency to accept only ideas that fit our biases, rather than embrace those based on new discoveries and information.
Congressman Paul Broun (R-Ga.) offers a not uncommon, though slightly over the top, example. He declared that “evolution and the big bang theory are lies straight from the pit of hell.” He actually received a standing ovation when he said that global warming is a hoax. He referred to it as a conspiracy perpetuated by certain members of the scientific community to “destroy America.” Really?! My concern here isn’t Broun’s strident temper tantrum, per se, but rather the willingness of voters to support this sort of nincompoopery. Unfortunately, congress has no shortage of “conservatives” who either deny or oppose science.
Science educator, Bill Nye, rightfully questioned Broun’s ability to serve on the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, stating, “Since the economic future of the United States depends on our tradition of technological innovation, Representative Broun’s views are not in the national interest,” and, “He is, by any measure, unqualified to make decisions about science, space, and technology.”
You might think, given our tradition of education and leadership in science that Americans would be among the most scientifically literate people in the world. But according to professor Prothero, “Study after study has shown that the U.S. is near the bottom of industrialized nations in science literacy.” The countries which score the highest include Finland (top of the list), Norway, Sweden, Germany, France, South Korea, and China. This should indicate a national challenge.
In America, only 53% of adults know how long it takes the Earth to revolve one time around the sun (the definition of a year). A quarter of the population doesn’t even know the Earth, in fact, revolves around the Sun. Four out of ten adults think dinosaurs and humans coexisted. In reality, dinosaurs had been extinct well over 60 million years before the first human ancestors appeared in the fossil record. Just about half of Americans believe in creationism over evolution. Some 46 percent of Americans think the Earth is less than 10,000 years old. Evidence shows it to be approximately 4.5 billion years old. Our galaxy, The Milky Way, is estimated to be between 11 and 13 billion years old.
Religious fundamentalist groups have been effective in opposing the teaching of geologic time and evolution. Since evolution incorporates geology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, and biology, this builds distrust of science in general. The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago established an inverse correlation … the greater the religiosity, the lesser the understanding of science.
Corporate ownership of media these days undoubtedly shares some responsibility. For every 5 hours of cable news, for example, less than a minute is devoted to science. This is appalling. Global warming, outside the scientific community, is controversial … but only in America.
Neil DeGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist, author, and director of the Hayden Planetarium, stated: “The problem in society is not kids not knowing science. The problem is adults not knowing science. They outnumber kids 5 to 1, they wield power, and they write legislation. When you have scientifically illiterate adults you have undermined the very fabric of what makes a nation wealthy and strong.”
Recently I saw the Facebook site of an acquaintance. He was using this winter’s polar vortex, and the resulting record cold temperatures in the Midwest, to criticize science. He and his “friends” were having fun, profanely denigrating climate scientists and suggesting the “Farmer’s Almanac” was far more accurate at weather predictions. What they don’t seem to understand is that weather and climate are very different concepts. While Farmer’s Almanac is entertaining, it’s not a very dependable source for information re/climate or weather.
With Jay Leno’s recent retirement, his feature, “Jay Walking,” will no longer be part of the Tonight Show. Leno and a film crew would go out ‘on the streets’ and ask passers-by to answer questions or identify photos that pertained to a wide variety of topics… history, culture, nature, politics, etc. Some of the answers were so outlandish, they were hilarious (also scary).
When we ignore illiteracy, or deny scientific findings, such as global warming, it doesn’t just go away. As Leonard Cohen (song writer and poet) once said, “Reality is one of the possibilities I cannot afford to ignore.” If we do nothing, it only gets worse.
Dr. Prothero points out, “When science tells us something that does not fit our cherished notions of the world, it is more likely that they are reporting a scientific reality since they have nothing to gain by giving us bad news.” “It is time for America to quit rejecting reality and denying science and recapture the power and prestige that an advanced and cutting edge science and technology program brings to a nation.”
Fifty million years hence, we don’t want our fossils to bear mute testimony to the foolhardiness of triggering run-away global warming, and having neither the foresight, the commitment, nor the courage to do something about it.