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Friday, October 14, 2005 

The best way to deal with "idiot America"

PZ over at Pharyngula posts an article here about dealing with "idiot America," as described in an essay by Charles Pierce in the latest Esquire magazine. I shelled out the $2.95 and bought it (link here; at least you can email it out to all your friends after purchasing it). From the article:

LET'S TAKE A TOUR, shall we? For the sake of time, we'll just cover the last year or so. A federally funded abstinence program suggests that HIV can be transmitted through tears. An Alabama legislator proposes a bill to ban all books by gay authors. The Texas House passes a bill banning suggestive cheerleading. And nobody laughs at any of it, or even points out that, in the latter case, having Texas ban suggestive cheerleading is like having Nebraska ban corn. James Dobson, a prominent conservative Christian spokesman, compares the Supreme Court to the Ku Klux Klan. Pat Robertson, another prominent conservative preacher, says that federal judges are a more serious threat to the country than is Al Qaeda and, apparently taking his text from the Book of Gambino, later sermonizes that the United States should get with it and snuff the democratically elected president of Venezuela.

The Congress of the United States intervenes to extend into a televised spectacle the prolonged death of a woman in Florida. The majority leader of the Senate, a physician, pronounces a diagnosis based on heavily edited videotape. The majority leader of the House of Representatives argues against cutting-edge research into the use of human stem cells by saying that "an embryo is a person. . . . We were all at one time embryos ourselves. So was Abraham. So was Muhammad. So was Jesus of Nazareth." Nobody laughs at him or points out that the same could be said of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, or whoever invented the baby-back rib.

And, finally, in August, the cover of Time —for almost a century the dyspeptic voice of the American establishment—clears its throat, hems and haws and hacks like a headmaster gagging on his sherry, and asks, quite seriously: "Does God have a place in science class?"

Fights over evolution—and its faddish new camouflage, intelligent design, a pseudoscience that posits without proof or method that science is inadequate to explain existence and that supernatural causes must be considered—roil up school districts across the country. The president of the United States announces that he believes ID ought to be taught in the public schools on an equal footing with the theory of evolution. And in Dover, Pennsylvania, during one of these many controversies, a pastor named Ray Mummert delivers the line that both ends our tour and, in every real sense, sums it up:

"We've been attacked," he says, "by the intelligent, educated segment of the culture."

And there it is.

(Continued below)

As an academic (presumably, a part of the "intelligent, educated segment of the population,") this rise in anti-intellectualism certainly disturbs me. As an educator, a scientist, and most importantly, a parent, the increase in support for intelligent design, despite it having no serious support in the scientific community, worries me enough that I do all I can to take action and fight for good science education. As a public health professional, I'm dismayed by the creedence given to anti-vaccine lobby groups, and am worried about those who deny HIV (such as this family) and encourage others to follow their lead. As a woman and an epidemiologist, I've hated to watch our current administration give credence to those who say that abortion is a cause of breast cancer, and worse, to force the NIH to temporarily take down a page saying this link had no scientific support. As a nature lover, I can't stand reading reports saying that "a substantial portion of scientists" doubt global warming, or other positions that make it OK for big business to continue pillaging our natural resources. As an American, it shames me to see our government act on any of the other reports that experts in the field have decried as being faulty or based on incorrect or incomplete information. And as a daughter of a mother with an incurable chronic illness, I'm concerned about those who are taken in by quacks and snake oil salesmen in their desperation to find something, anything, to help them treat their disease. Pierce's article cuts to the heart of many of those issues:

In the place of expertise, we have elevated the Gut, and the Gut is a moron, as anyone who has ever tossed a golf club, punched a wall, or kicked an errant lawn mower knows. We occasionally dress up the Gut by calling it "common sense." The president's former advisor on medical ethics regularly refers to the "yuck factor." The Gut is common. It is democratic. It is the roiling repository of dark and ancient fears. Worst of all, the Gut is faith-based.


The Gut is the basis for the Great Premises of Idiot America. We hold these truths to be self-evident:
1) Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.
2) Anything can be true if somebody says it on television.
3) Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.

Obviously those who sell their "alternative theories" would say this is a strawman and a mischaracterization, and to some extent, I agree. I also don't like any kind of "Truth" with a capital T (not saying that Pierce intended this; it's impossible to tell since it's the beginning of the sentence), and whether we can ever know anything as a "fact" is a debatable philosophical position. Nevertheless, it is clear that "truth," "facts," or whatever you choose to label them, cannot and should not be decided by popular opinion, but by the weight of evidence. Too many in modern-day America, however, have shown that they will not be swayed by any amount of evidence. I'm at a loss as to the most effective way to counter that mindset. PZ Myers of Pharyngula, however, doesn't hold back in his, err, oft-times "colorful" criticisms of those "Idiot Americans:"

You would be surprised at how much email is sent to me telling me to stop being so derisive, that harsh language and ridicule turn people off and repel the very ones we're trying to persuade. My reply is like the one above; by refusing to ridicule the ridiculous, by watering down every criticism into a mannered circumlocution, we have created an environment where idiots thrive unchallenged. We have a twit for a president because so many people made apologies for his ludicrous lack of qualifications—we need more people unabashedly pointing out fools.

I'm doing my part to fight Idiot America. I hope more people join me.

Unlike PZ, I tend to pull punches. I want to think that these people really aren't morons. I want to think that you catch more flies with honey and all that jazz. I want to think that there are ways to challenge people that don't resort to calling them "twits" (no matter how much I may believe they are!). I want to think that it benefits "our side" when we show that we're above this sort of knee-jerk response. I want to think that if I educate them, just a little, maybe it will help. I dunno; maybe I'm just wasting my time by approaching it in this manner. Opinions, anyone?


About me

  • I'm Tara C. Smith
  • From Iowa, United States
  • I'm a mom and a scientist, your basic stressed-out, wanna-have-it-all-and-do-it-all Gen Xer. Recently transplanted from Ohio to Iowa, I've spent most of my life in the midwest (with 4 years of college spent out east in "soda" territory). My main interest, and the subject of my research, is infectious disease: how does the microbe cause illness? What makes one strain nasty, and another "avirulent?" Are the latter really not causing any disease, or could some of those be possible for the development of chronic disease years down the road? Additionally, I've spent a lot of time discussing the value of teaching evolution, and educating others about "intelligent design" and other forms of creationism. My interest in history of science and medicine is also useful as a way to tie all of the above interests together. [Disclaimer: the views here are solely my own, and do not represent my employer, my spouse, that guy who's always sitting by the fountain when I come into work, or anyone else with whom I may be remotely affiliated.]
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