Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Media Dumbs Down

“The U.S. is being overrun by a wave of anti-science, anti-intellectual thinking. Has the most powerful nation on Earth lost its mind?” (from a Maclean’s article entitled “America Dumbs Down”, by Jonathon Gatehouse)
I don’t subscribe to Maclean’s magazine, but car trouble last week left me stuck at the mechanic with a styrofoam cup of bad coffee in hand and, well, there wasn’t much else on offer. I read a bunch of articles but the Gatehouse piece stuck out like a sore thumb.

His thesis, in short: Americans are stupid. Gatehouse’s proof?

·         42% of Americans  are “not too” or “not at all” confident that all life on Earth is the product of evolution;
·         51% are skeptical that a “big bang” 13.8 billion years ago started it all;
·         36% doubt the Earth has been around for 4.5 billion years;
·         47% are less than perfectly confident that child vaccines are safe;
·         only 33% are highly confident that global warming is “man made”.

(Also, Gatehouse is offended that more Americans didn’t uncritically embrace Obamacare and had to have it rammed down their throats, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Then he warms to his theme: “Everywhere you look these days, America is in a rush to embrace the stupid. Hell-bent on a path that’s not just irrational, but often self-destructive.”

Really? Does Skepticism = Stupidity, in every instance?

Not on the basis of that batch of evidence.

Gatehouse does go on to make a series of perfectly valid points about declining education in the U.S. His stats on American performance in various school subjects and data on the decline in book reading are certainly alarming. And when he sticks to his stats instead of his biases, his thesis seems that much more plausible.

But on subjects where long-term visible or anecdotal evidence is available to the American public, Gatehouse’s statistics don’t support mass stupidity or intellectual obduracy. 82% of Americans, he acknowledges, agree that smoking causes cancer. Considering that the remaining 18% are almost surely pack-a-day types in denial, those numbers sound reasonable to me.

In other instances, the data he advances may suggest a different interpretation than the one he draws: If newspaper and magazine readership continue to decline and if supper-hour TV news is no longer compulsory for an increasing number of Americans, it may not be simple anti-intellectualism at work. After all, Gatehouse concedes that 82% say they now get their news digitally, and while he considers that “suspect”, the point is that most Americans are still reading and watching the news, just not the way Gatehouse would like — and not from his approved, largely secular liberal news vendors.

I have another theory: Gatehouse’s problem with Americans is that too many of them are insufficiently enthusiastic about his worn-on-the-sleeve secular liberalism. In this, I’m definitely on the side of the American boneheads.

I think it’s quite possible that more than a few Americans are resistant to being told what to believe not because they are unable to recognize that some people are more intelligent than others, or to grasp where they themselves fall on that continuum, but because they simply don’t trust those who have set themselves up as their betters.

That includes Gatehouse’s precious media, government, and yes, even scientists.

Any American lack of confidence in the pronouncements of authority figures is not misplaced.

The piece contains gems like this one:
“Charles Darwin’s signature discovery — first published 155 years ago and validated a million different ways since — long ago ceased to be a matter for serious debate in most of the world.”
“Validated a million different ways since”? Really?

Since being popularized as an quasi-scientific alternative to creation, I have no doubt that a million attempts have been made to prove the theory of evolution by natural selection, that it has been asserted a million times, or that (if time went on forever) a million different ways in which evolution might have taken place will eventually be postulated as each suggested mechanism is regretfully discarded by successive generations of scientists. And yes, it is in the nature of every modern debate for proponents to holler “The science is SETTLED!” at every opportunity, as if volume and pugnacity are a reasonable substitute for evidence.

But validated? Only if by “validated”, Mr. Gatehouse means “not conclusively disproved”.

Evolution is not ‘scientific’ in the sense that engineering or math is scientific. Engineering and math are rigorously testable. If a building stands for 100 years, you may conclude that its engineering has been ‘validated’. If a mathematical formula enables you to send a rocket to the moon, you may conclude that the formula is valid. But evolution cannot be validated in that way. If it can, we’ve yet to have the evidence produced.

That alone, of course, does not make evolution ‘unscientific’, since science has always accommodated theories, some of which certainly turn out to be valid in the long run. Others require modification. Still others are eventually falsified. Evolution is a popular theory (where “theory”, in the words of those who defend evolution, means a “broad explanation[s] for a wide range of phenomena ... strongly supported by many different lines of evidence”). And while the theory therefore qualifies as ‘science’ in the broader, more elastic sense of the term, the debate is far from closed.

There is a huge difference between “broadly accepted” and “validated”.

Gatehouse’s thesis is more rhetoric than rigor. That’s one small example. Resistance to having evolutionary theory shoved down one’s gullet may not be “stupid”, “anti-intellectual” or “unscientific” at all. It may represent an unwillingness to exercise faith in the source. When you read something like “validated a million different ways” tossed off as if it’s not only true but indisputable, who can blame you for losing confidence in the messenger? And when you see it happening all the time, day after day, you’d have to be crazy or intellectually comatose to avoid developing sales resistance to the latest incoming wave of effluvia belched from the propaganda machinery.

I think Americans are reluctant to believe their intelligentsia because increasing numbers of them recognize they are being systemically lied to and betrayed at every level. Ironically, Gatehouse himself offers evidence in support of this point, but misses the most natural inference:
“... three-quarters of Americans agreed that science is a force for good in the world. Yet when asked if they truly believe what scientists tell them, only 36 per cent of respondents said yes.”
In other words, Americans believe in the validity of the scientific method; they just don’t believe in scientists — or at least the current generation of scientists. One possible reason Americans don’t believe what the intelligentsia tell them is that, as Gatehouse says, they are stupid. But another very legitimate possibility is that, despite declining educational standards, Americans are still cynical enough to sniff out an obvious agenda or conflict of interest.

That’s science. What about the media?
“Just 12 per cent expressed strong confidence in the press to accurately report scientific findings.”
It is rather astonishing that Gatehouse reports this without appearing to notice the blindingly obvious fact that — far from proving generalized stupidity — he is indicting his own profession for chronic and transparent dishonesty. The media are not only liars, they’re so bad at it that 88% of the population sees through them.

Gatehouse goes on to further undermine his own thesis by adding:
“... according to a 2012 paper by Gordon Gauchat, a University of North Carolina sociologist, the erosion of trust in science over the past 40 years has been almost exclusively confined to two groups: conservatives and regular churchgoers. Counterintuitively, it is the most highly educated among them — with post-secondary education — who harbour the strongest doubts.”
There’s nothing counterintuitive about it. A man who prizes education and lauds elitism cannot have his cake and eat it too: The fact that the most highly educated folks on the other side — their ‘elite’ — are the least convinced by your arguments cannot legitimately be advanced as evidence of their stupidity. It can only speak to the weakness of your argument.

Conservatives and Christians remain unconvinced because the secular liberal position is simply unconvincing.

Re-read Gatehouse’s survey questions and look how they’re framed. What he calls stupidity looks like healthy skepticism to me.

I, for one, with 36% of Americans, doubt that the Earth has been around for 4.5 billion years. I don’t know how long it’s been around, but I can guarantee you that particular number is wrong. Why? You don’t have to be a full-blown true believer in the 17th century Ussher chronology to doubt that number. You just have to have lived long enough, as I have, to watch science re-invent itself every few years. I guarantee you that 15 years from now, Gatehouse’s litmus test of creationist nutbaggery will not be the failure to docilely accept the 4.5 billion figure. It’ll be something else entirely.

Likewise the “big bang” 13.8 billion years ago. Does anyone, even true believers in the scientific method, actually think that’s a hard number; a number that will never be significantly modified by future study? I’m far more worried about the people who say they believe it than the people who don’t. Folks who sign off on something like that show a level of credulity and deference to the random assertion of authority that is truly terrifying.

Gatehouse is ticked off that only 33% of Americans believe global warming is man-made. But given the revelations of dishonesty and data manipulation surrounding that whole subject, and given the wild prophecies of certain imminent doom made by warmists that have already proven false, I’m considerably more concerned about the critical faculties of those who buy in than those who don’t.

Finally, when 42% of Americans respond to a survey by saying they are “not too” or “not at all” confident that all life on Earth is the product of evolution, many of them are in all likelihood doing no more than hedging their bets. What they are saying, if I read it correctly, is that even the systemic, uncontested brainwashing of the public education system has failed to make the case for evolution overwhelming.

Sorry, Mr. Gatehouse. Plummeting school grades are problematic. Bigotry, lack of charity and knee-jerk, reactionary refusal to look at legitimate data or debate genuine intellectual challenges are to be deplored.

But are Americans all ‘stupid’ primarily because they fail to uncritically subscribe to liberal bromides? Simply calling people names seems a cheap sort of argument.

Sometimes the skeptics are the rational ones.

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