Knowledge vs. Ignorance

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Obama Administration

Yesterday I saw a blurb that defined the clash over climate change as a struggle between science and ignorance. But these days what major issue isn’t essentially a struggle between knowledge and ignorance? Whether you’re talking about climate change, health care reform, national security, abortion, etc., you can see a dividing line between people who build their opinions upon a framework of facts and people who, um, don’t.

Knowledge and ignorance don’t necessarily sort themselves into Left and Right. You can find all kinds of ignorance all across the political spectrum. But in the U.S., because so much of the Right has been overrun by extremists the ignorance scale tips heavily in the Right’s favor these days. And screaming, antagonistic ignorance so permeates media and government that the U.S. is becoming increasingly ungovernable.

In his blog, Paul Krugman talks about climate change deniers.

Nothing gets me as many crazed emails and comments as any reference to climate change. The anti-global-warming people are just filled with hate for anyone who suggests that maybe, just maybe, the vast majority of scientists are right.

Of course, the Right has created a myth that large numbers of scientists disagree that the climate is changing, and no amount of hard data will persuade them otherwise.

Krugman’s comments are partly in response to a question from Digby:

Can someone explain to me why these people hate this climate science so much? I mean, I get that they don’t like gays and think women should stay barefoot and pregnant. I understand that they hate taxes that pay for things that help people they don’t like. Evolution — yeah, that’s obvious.

But global warming? Why? Is it all about their trucks or what? I just don’t get where the passion comes from on this one.

Part of it is that whatever “libruhls” are fer, they’re agin’. But Krugman points to two other cultural factors.

First, environmentalism is the ultimate “Mommy party” issue. Real men punish evildoers; they don’t adjust their lifestyles to protect the planet. (Here’s some polling to that effect.)

The survey that Krugman links to says that much climate change denial is cultural, and identify three types:

  • People who deny global warming because they don’t want their lifestyles. Even if they think it is real, they don’t want to do anything about it.
  • People who are confused by propaganda and misinformation.
  • People who deny global warming because the science conflicts with their economic, partisan or religious beliefs.

Not all climate change denial is confined to America, of course. Blaine Harden reports for the Washington Post that in Australia, as in the U.S., “partisan politics and vested interests have paralyzed some of this country’s response to climate change.” The deniers include farmers who refuse to concede the climate is changing even as their farms dry up and blow away. They don’t want to believe that their way of life is coming to an end, and they hang on waiting for a rainy year that will turn things around.

Regarding propaganda and misinformation — see Sean Hannity claiming that 2009 will be the “9th coldest year on record,” when in fact it is more likely the 5th warmest year on record, ending a decade that is the warmest on record. See also James Fallows’s analysis of news coverage of global warming.

I’ll come back to the third bullet point in a moment. Krugman continues,

Second, climate change runs up against the anti-intellectual streak in America. Remember, just a few years ago conservatives were triumphantly proclaiming that Bush was a great president because he didn’t think too much.

I think this second point is part of the third bullet point above. Critical thinking is an alien concept to a large part of our population. Rather, one’s opinions are formed by tribal loyalty and held on faith alone. So often one hears the ignorant say liberals “believe in” abortion or evolution, when belief has nothing to do with it. But they cannot imagine any other way to form opinions.

For many, faithfulness to the doctrine of climate change denial is an integral part of their ideological tribal loyalty, and tribal loyalty in turn is part of self-definition. A threat to the doctrines of the tribe is experienced as a threat to oneself. Admitting to the truth would bring on a massive existential crisis. So the more evidence for climate change, the more angrily, and frantically, they will denounce it.

As Digby points out in her post linked above, since swifthack other climate scientists have been targeted by hackers and thieves who seem to think they are on a holy mission. “This global warming email pseudo-scandal is turning wingnuts everywhere into revolutionary criminals,” she says. This will get worse before it gets better.

At the Guardian, Sue Blackmore writes about the often-noted correlation between high levels of religiosity and societal dysfunction — the “strong positive correlations between nations’ religious belief and levels of murder, teenage pregnancy, drug abuse and other indicators of dysfunction.”

The 1st world nations with the highest levels of belief in God, and the greatest religious observance are also the ones with all the signs of societal dysfunction. These correlations are truly stunning. They are not “barely significant” or marginal in any way. Many, such as those between popular religiosity and teenage abortions and STDs have correlation coefficients over 0.9 and the overall correlation with the SSS is 0.7 with the US included and 0.5 without. These are powerful relationships. But why?

These results don’t necessarily show causality. Does religiosity cause dysfunction, or do people cling to religiosity as a way to cope with dysfunction? We see here in the U.S. that the “Bible belt” states long have had the highest rates of divorce, teen pregnancy, etc. Where is cause and where is effect?

I am using the word “religiosity” rather than “religion” because I think much of what passes for religion in America is really superstition (I make a distinction between religion and superstition at the other blog). The overwhelmingly Christian hyper-religious of America on the whole are remarkably ignorant of basic Christian doctrine. Few can recite the Ten Commandments if put on the spot, and I suspect most wouldn’t recognize the Sermon on the Mount if they bumped into it outside of church. Instead, much of the country is infested with a social pathology in which religious totems — the cross, the Bible, tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments — get mixed together with extremist political beliefs and magical thinking to create a toxic and impenetrable ignorance.

And now we’ve got a big, honking positive feedback loop in which the ignorance causes more personal and societal dysfunction, which causes people to cling more tightly to the ignorance. They’re even becoming more aggressive and militant about their ignorance. I have little hope that this will be turned around in my lifetime.

In some parts of the country a culture of personal crisis has taken hold in which people imagine themselves besieged by powerful evil forces, when in fact they’re mostly causing their own problems. But because they are unwilling to be honest with themselves about what’s really causing their problems, the more stressed they are the more self-destructive they become.

I remember reading that when the Black Plague started to spread in Europe, people blamed witches and went around killing cats, thinking the cats were associated with witchcraft. The scarcity of cats allowed rodent populations to explode, thereby spreading the plague. A lot of conservative reaction to today’s problems hasn’t evolved much from witch scares. (Energy crisis? Global warming? Lie, deny, and drill baby drill.)

So climate change denial might be seen as symptomatic of a deep social and cultural pathology. But I have no idea what’s to be done about it.

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24 Comments

  1. Bob K  •  Dec 9, 2009 @12:22 pm

    Part of it is that whatever “libruhls” are fer, they’re agin’

    How about if everybody ABOVE the Mason Dixon line gets to be a “libruhl” and everyone BELOW the Mason Dixon line gets to have “their country back”?

    No I suppose not – that didn’t work out so well last time we tried it, did it?

  2. joanr16  •  Dec 9, 2009 @12:55 pm

    Seems to me the deniers have what I call “the James Watt mentality.” Reagan’s horribly inappropriate Interior Secretary was brimful of religiosity of the Palin kind. Watt was one of the first to interpret “Man is steward over the earth and its creatures” as “Drill, baby, drill.” Essentially he, like Palin, took “stewardship” to mean not caretaking but exploiting. And the exploitation was always motivated by pure greed.

    After those “Earth Hours” of the past couple years, when everyone is supposed to turn off their lights for one hour, Rightie bloggers were bragging about how they went around their houses turning all the lights on. I remember reading those morons’ comments and thinking, “WTF are you, a kindergartener?” I’d never heard of anything so childish. But then, that was before the world met Sarah Palin, our perfect storm of greed, ignorance, and immaturity. What Watt hath wrought.

  3. griff  •  Dec 9, 2009 @1:04 pm

    Maha,
    Fear. Ignorance and fear.
    Good article.
    Griff

  4. I'm Against It  •  Dec 9, 2009 @1:05 pm

    It’s hard to argue with teh crazee and win due to their rules of engagement…

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DtMV44yoXZ0

  5. Lynne  •  Dec 9, 2009 @1:08 pm

    I’d love more study and discussion about the correlation between religiosity (good term) and resistance to accepted science. It is truly disturbing and, yet, fascinating.

  6. uncledad  •  Dec 9, 2009 @1:24 pm

    Maha,

    Excellent post, nail on head, well done.

  7. We Are The 801  •  Dec 9, 2009 @2:27 pm

    Not only in other developed nations do you have less religion, but the quality of what religion is in those countries is significantly different. First of all, only in the US you’ll find people wearing religion on their sleeve. This is so much the opposite elsewhere to the point that outright displays of religious faith OR LACK THEREOF (like wearing a t-shirt about Jesus OR atheism) is, in general, tasteless and tacky. is Its purely a private thing.

    When I was living in New Zealand in 2007, they had just passed a (still) controversial anti-smacking bill. There were various groups out in the streets in support or against it. Many churches gathered as well, and when I read about this in the local paper, I thought to myself, “Here come the Christians with their ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ mentality.” –because I knew that in the US, most churches would rally AGAINST such a proposal. I was wrong, and I had to re-read the article because I was confused by it LOL No, these churches were in SUPPORT of such a bill.

    Likewise, just the other day, churches in NZ rang their bells at 3:00 pm in SUPPORT of the Copenhagen talks.

    The only religious nuts that get a bit of attention are the Destiny Church (because they are nuts)– predictably, they are modeled on US charismatic churches. But they are such a small minority and are rightfully marginalised.

    Karl Marx got some things wrong, some things right. But he was dead-on with religion being the “opium of the masses.” I’d say that religion declines BECAUSE of improvements in society. There becomes less of a need for religion. True progressivism delivers real results.

    But I think that once a country regresses so much, religion contributes to a downward spiral. Once a certain point is reached, a society worsens BECAUSE of religion– not *entirely* because of religion, but it plays a much larger role than most US Americans think.

  8. Sam Simple  •  Dec 9, 2009 @2:45 pm

    The deniers only need to do a simple experiment – have them run a garden hose from the tailpipe of their car into their living room and let the car idle for an hour or so. Then, let them come back (if they are still alive) and tell us that there is no problem with burning fossil fuels. Simple.

  9. Four Horsemen  •  Dec 9, 2009 @2:55 pm
  10. moonbat  •  Dec 9, 2009 @3:50 pm

    To me, “ignorance” isn’t really the right word. People who are ignorant are like blank slates, or at best they’re operating out of conditioning they learned a long time ago. Your use of “ignorance” in this piece is active: a willful rejection of reality, a refusal to face facts, a militant denialism, a firm contradictory belief they won’t let go of.

    These people are conditioned to view environmentalists as out of touch elites who want to use environmentalism to turn the world into some socialist New World Order hellhole. In other words, elites who want to control their lives, take away their “freedoms”. Of course, these same people are oblivious to the moneyed elites who skillfully program them with the most sophisticated propaganda ever created into accepting the capitalist You’re On Your Own hellhole that benefits the moneyed elites.

    From what I’ve read about Australia, they are experiencing the effects of global warming much more intensely than the US, and so it’s interesting that despite the evidence right in front of their faces, things are still intensely polarized even there.

    It’s as though the house next door were on fire, and everyone could see it was on fire, and yet the deniers are working overtime to pretend there’s no fire.

  11. Enlightened Layperson  •  Dec 9, 2009 @4:53 pm

    So far as I understand it, conservatives don’t believe in global warming becasue it’s against their principles. For religious conservatives, it’s simple enough. God gave us earth for our benefit and gave us dominion over it. (Go forth. Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and subdue it). If God created the earth for our benefit, He just can’t let this happen to us.

    For libertarians, it’s more complicated. It’s a matter of individual responsibility.

    If A dumps garbage on B’s land without B’s permission, that’s simple enough. The actors are discrete and readily identifiable individuals, so it’s a matter of individual responsibility. A has wronged B and B therefore has recourse against A.

    Then complicate things a bit. A smelting plant, hog farm, chemical factory, etc creates pollution. There’s still a discrete and readily identifiable actor causingK the pollution, so to that extent it’s still a matter of individual responsibility. But the party they are wronging who has a claim of recourse is not an individual, but a community. There is no real way for a community to claim recourse without engaging in the dreaded “collectivism.” But since there is at least an individual actor at fault, I think many libertarians would acknowledge some sort of action may be in order.

    Now switch it around. A city landfill is filling up. No one person’s garbage is causing the problem, but combining everybody’s, it adds up. The city tries to reduce gargage by mandating recycling. Libertarians cry foul. Our rights are being violated! The idea that insignificant individual actions could have a ruinous cumulative effect is rampant collectivism! But even here, there is still an individual actor, even it it the Evil Government (i.e., the city) that is suffering harm from the pollution so libertarians can with some difficulty wrap their heads around it.

    But look at global warming. The polluters are all of us, by individually insignificant actions that cumulatively add up. The victims are also all of us, bearing the costs of changing climate. No individuals to hold accountable anywhere! Nothing but collectivism as far as the eye can see! It violates every principle libertarians hold dear. Which may actually be just another way of saying that God (in the form of the free market) just can’t let this happen.

    At least that is as nearly as I understand libertarians. I really wish any of you out there who are libertarians or former libertarians could clarify it further for me.

  12. PW  •  Dec 9, 2009 @5:07 pm

    Applause!!

  13. Bob K  •  Dec 9, 2009 @5:07 pm

    Moonbat – The GOP goal lately is pure obstructionism. It is important that the Obama administration has a heaping helping of “FAIL” for the next four years so they can regain seatsl in 2010 and ultimately the White House is 2012. That’s it, that’s their whole agenda. And if the country goes to hell in a handbasket meanwhile, serves us right. “YOU people made your choice by electing Obama, don’t blame us for your bad decisions.”

    The house republicans are kicking and screaming against H.R. 4173 – Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2009. No surprise about where they stand on that. This is not a priority for them except to make sure it doesn’t happen – here’s what’s really important:

    http://thinkprogress.org/2009/12/09/boehner-christmas/

  14. Dear Maha  •  Dec 9, 2009 @5:17 pm

    What’s a 20 seat majority? Is it an RNC code word for “The Revolution Starts Now”? because if so I need to run to the store to stock up on canned goods and bottled water for my bomb shelter.

    http://wonkette.com/412622/michael-steele-has-a-lot-of-big-ideas-about-harry-reids-20-seat-majority

  15. erinyes  •  Dec 9, 2009 @6:46 pm

    Great post, Maha.
    As far as religion goes in our country, it seems that Christ’s religion has been hijacked by the cult of Revelations. Hal Lindsey in particular, leads the charge in his magical mystery tour, totally devoid of critical thinking, twisting the dreams of a deciple into a grotesque prophesy of doom and destruction via a God who loves us, yet would cast us into a “lake of fire” if we dare buck the system.
    I’m quite sick of these idiot deniers of science/ followers of preposterous charlitans.
    I have no doubts about climate change; we were in the mid 80’s here in FL today.
    Our weather patterns are indeed different, I’m growing lychee and exotic bamboos in Orlando that would not have made it here years ago, and they are thriving. We are also getting far wetter summers AND winters.
    The right wants to preserve the old ways of the internal combustion engine and petroleum. We need to move beyond all that, and pronto. We are running out of time.

  16. Doug Hughes  •  Dec 9, 2009 @7:11 pm

    Very nicely written, Barbara.Yeah, it’s a problem that if TV runs any factual piece on global warming anywhere, people will change chanels in droves to avoid the exercise of thinking – but a lot of them are gonna vote their ‘gut’.

    In an exchange of emails with a wingunt on climate change he declared that everything I was warning against in global warming…

    “has been scientifically proven to have taken place since the Earth was formed, long before any life enhabited this rock.”

    And I pointed out that taking the global ecology back to a point ‘before any life enhabited this rock’ might not be a desirable goal. He didn’t get it. Ya can’t make this shit up. They really are that stupid and damn proud of it. What is unfathomable to me is why we are having so much trouble getting meaningful reform passed when the opposition runs on ignorance.

  17. felicity  •  Dec 9, 2009 @7:20 pm

    It’s in the human DNA. The belief in a geocentric universe lasted for 1200 years – no matter that 1200 years of observing the universe contradicted the possibility or plausability of a geocentric universe.

    Then Kepler came along, (after, finally, the naysers to a geocentric universe conceded that we went around the sun, heliocentric.) He put it out that the orbits of planets (including ours) describe an elipse rather than a circlular path aound the sun. There was great gnashing of teeth, Kepler was branded a heretic. Orbits had to describe a circle because god made the universe and the circle is a perfect figure and god only makes perfect things.

    And the beat goes on. (I love Galileo’s coment after denying his findings to probably a papal court. As he left the courtroom, he was heard to say in reference to the earth, but it does move.)

  18. No Prisons - No Workhouses  •  Dec 9, 2009 @7:38 pm

    This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy. Ignorance IS not bliss.

  19. Rudy  •  Dec 9, 2009 @8:41 pm

    For what it’s worth, I was just talking to my dad about “Prosperity Gospel” preachers on late night tv. Definitely superstition, and not religion. Interestingly, in Japan there are Buddhist sects with a very similar message, that appeal largely to poorer, working class folks. I don’t know how much overlap there is between the prosperity Gospel folks and the end-times, fundamentalist folks in the US.

  20. Ken Lovell  •  Dec 9, 2009 @9:39 pm

    To paraphrase an old saying, there’s no shame in being uneducated but it’s no great honour either. Nevertheless many ignorant people wear their ignorance like a badge of honour, boasting of how they never went to college or even finished high school, as if that is somehow a matter for pride and self-congratulation.

    I suspect much of the passionate resistance to the very notion of AGW arises from a failure of imagination, similar to the reaction some people have when they are told they have a terminal illness. The implications are too awful, therefore they are literally incapable of accepting the truth. To preserve their emotional health they simply deny facts and the more compelling the evidence, the more furiously they reject it.

  21. Swami  •  Dec 9, 2009 @9:56 pm

    I agree with moonbat..it’s deeper than ignorance. It’s more like burying your head in the sand.

  22. Swami  •  Dec 9, 2009 @10:17 pm

    Here’s a little comforting for all you mahablogger who have hit upon hard times. Swami knows the trials of life like having an abscess in your sole remaining tooth while you’ve just been served an eviction notice from your double wide. Put your burdens upon Jesus!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z3teWniiWc4

  23. We Are The 801  •  Dec 10, 2009 @3:45 am

    Tonight, in the ER where I work, an ambulance driver, seeing me reading a book (in a rare slow moment), felt compelled to boast that he has “never read a book in his entire life!” He was proud of this.

    The earth has long exceeded its Stupid Quota!!!!

  24. Diane  •  Dec 11, 2009 @6:33 pm

    Excellent article.
    I don’t know what you call it, when the facts are there and you refuse to acknowledge them?
    Is it ignorance, stupidity or arrogance? I’m leaning towards stupidity/arrogance.

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