Knowledge vs. Ignorance

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.