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Hullabaloo


Monday, April 21, 2014

 
Dear Ezra Klein: if Americans don't accept evolution or the Big Bang, they won't apply science to politics either

by David Atkins

Earlier this month Ezra Klein posted one of his first articles on Vox decrying the lack of scientific objectivity in American politics, and the inclination of the electorate to discard basic facts about public policy in service of an ideological agenda. Paul Krugman smartly responded that the abandonment of fact-based politics is not a two-sided affair, but rather largely limited to the right.

Krugman is right, of course. But I also wonder if the phenomenon isn't also a particularly American one in that so many Americans deny even basic scientific facts, including evolution and now apparently the Big Bang:

In a new national poll on America's scientific acumen, more than half of respondents said they were "not too confident" or "not at all confident" that "the universe began 13.8 billion years ago with a big bang."
The poll was conducted by GfK Public Affairs & Corporate Communications.

Scientists were apparently dismayed by this news, which arrives only a few weeks after astrophysicists located the first hard evidence of cosmic inflation.

But when compared to results from other science knowledge surveys, 51 percent isn't too shameful -- or surprising.

Other polls on America's scientific beliefs have arrived at similar findings. The "Science and Engineering Indicators" survey -- which the National Science Foundation has conducted every year since the early 1980s -- has consistently found only about a third of Americans believe that "the universe began with a huge explosion."

In 2010, the NSF poll rephrased the question, asking whether the following statement was true: "According to astronomers, the universe began with a big explosion." When reworded, more Americans agreed, suggesting more respondents are aware of the science than originally suggested -- they just don't believe the science.
Krugman would say, of course, that the vast majority of the people who refuse to accept evolutionary and cosmological science are on the conservative end of the spectrum, and he would be right.

But there's a lesson here. Many liberals often believe that if we could just marshal enough facts and figures in evidence, that more people would see reason and vote for Democrats. Liberals operate on the assumption that the public simply needs to be better educated about the facts. But that's not necessarily so.

The public is aware of the science of evolution and the Big Bang. A majority simply chooses not to believe it.

And if the public chooses not be accept the scientific consensus around easily observable, non-political phenomena, how much more unlikely will they be to accept the balance of the evidence on more controversial, less provable political theories such as supply-side versus demand-side economics?

Politics is mostly about making emotional value judgments. Most people have already made up their mind how the world works, and the rules it operates under. You tend to either believe that the universe is just, that the privileged by definition earned their status, that people are either good or bad, that patriotism is the highest moral good, and that traditional social mores are de facto superior; or you tend to believe that the universe is ruled largely by luck, that the privileged tended to be rent-seekers and advantage takers; that personal morals come in varying shades of gray, that racial and national borders are artificial creations, and that almost all social norms are cultural constructs subject to questioning and evaluation.

Most people fall on one side or another. Most politicians' natural base will fall on one side or another. The art of politics is essentially about maximizing your side's turnout at the polls, while encouraging the very few people dangling on the fence to lean toward your camp.

And you know what? There's really nothing wrong with that.


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