It is often observed that the American public is rather ignorant of their own government, the impact of human activities on the world at large, and of the world outside of U.S. Borders. There are many terms used to label this problem: provincialism, scientific illiteracy, isolationism, and just plain willful ignorance. Many people claim that this is due to the media, but while it is true that the news media (especially in recent years) has been focused more on profits and viewership than on accurate reporting, the media reports on many things that simply never make it into the popular consciousness. So, while the media bares some responsibility, it is not entirely to blame.
My own impression is that the real problem is a mix of people not wanting to accept inconvenient realities, people wanting their own prejudices reified rather than examined, and a media that is more than happy to serve up a diet of this sort of thing (though it is fair to point out that the media only serves what there is an appetite to consume).
We live in a society in which people rather routinely feel the freedom to ignore truths that don't fit with the view of the world that they wish to have. Whether it be a lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, anthropogenic global warming, the fact that both the Bush and Gore camps did some questionable things during the 2000 election recount, Michael Moore's tendency to exaggerate and engage in emotional manipulation, or Rush Limbaugh's tendency to tell flat-out lies on a regular basis, we as a culture tend to provide great weight to those scraps of information that support our preconceptions, while ignoring or attacking information – regardless of the validity of said information – that conflicts with our preconceptions.
Because it is emblematic of the problem, easy to discuss due to the nature of data, and a subject that I am very familiar with, most of this section will draw examples from the distortion of science in public discussion. However, these tendencies can be found in any form of information.
If you Don't Like the Facts, Ignore Them and Hope they Go Away
One of the first problems with the audience is the tendency for viewers/readers/listeners to ignore or reject any fact or argument that contradicts their own preconceived notions, no matter how valid the argument may be. This is perhaps most obvious in discussions concerning sex education and birth control.
Opponents to teaching about birth control in sex education curriculum claim that teaching about birth control encourages promiscuity, that birth control is ineffective, that birth control is demeaning to women, and that condoms (a special target of these folks) have a high failure rate. Each of these is untrue. Consider:
- Rates of sexual activity are fairly constant among young people, regardless of whether they are taught about birth control or not. Indeed, in areas where "abstinence only" is the order of the day, rates of STD's, unplanned pregnancies (and, not coincidentally, abortion), and other problems associated with risky sexual activity tend to be higher. Even in programs which ask for a "virginity pledge", the age of vaginal intercourse is only delayed by a year or so, and rates of unprotected oral and anal sex (which many believe leaves the virginity intact) increase. Oral sex is, all things considered, less risky than vaginal intercourse (though by no means safe from STD transmission), but anal sex, because of the possibility of tissue damage allowing a pathway for pathogens such as HIV, is riskier than vaginal intercourse – especially when a condom is not used. In other words, the data indicates that "abstinence only" education has little effect on the frequency of adolescent and young adult sexual activity, but does reduce the precautions taken AND may push them towards riskier activities.
- Birth control is not ineffective. Yes, it has a failure rate (variable by form of birth control, but generally low), but so does every medical practice. Indeed, my own impression is that heart surgery probably has a higher failure rate, I have yet to see anyone protesting heart surgery as a medical practice (well, the Christian Scientists, but they're nutty anyway). Organ transplants definitely have a higher failure rate, but nobody uses this as an excuse to attack that medical practice. The reality is that most medical contraceptive methods, when practiced according to instruction, have a very low failure rate. Those that have high failure rates – for example, the contraceptive sponge, tend to be phased out of the market for that very reason.
The irony of this is that the same people who scream about the alleged ineffectiveness of birth control are also the same people who oppose abortion rights. This is not to say that all anti-abortion rights activists oppose birth control, but rather that the people who oppose birth control are almost entirely comprised of a (unfortunately growing) segment of the anti-abortion rights folks. In other words, they oppose the only proven method to reduce the number of abortions – thus proving themselves to be out of touch with reality.
- There is also a claim that birth control is demeaning to women. While there are many rationales given for this claim, they all have one thing in common – they don't stand up to any scrutiny. Essentially, this claim is based in the idea that women exist solely to produce children, and that they have no other real purpose – a belief that actually is demeaning towards women. It is no coincidence that the increasing availability of birth control has happened alongside women gaining rights in the workplace, at home, and in society. In fact, if anything, the availability of birth control gives women more control over their lives – and therefore is empowering, not demeaning.
- Condoms come in for a lot of abuse from these folks. Claims exist that condoms have a breakage/slippage rate of 15% to 20%, which the CDC's and other studies have proven untrue (actual rates are probably closer to 2-4%, and there are health care professionals and scientists who believe that THESE rates might be too high). Moreover, claims that condoms are useless against STD's are exaggerations at best. To be certain, condoms are of only limited use against herpes and the papiloma virus – this is due to the fact that the lesions (and hence pathogens) associated with these diseases can be present in the area around the genitals and not just on the genitals, thus allowing contact with vulnerable skin even with a condom. However, condoms have been shown to be very effective against diseases that require an exchange of body fluids (such as HIV, syphilis, and so on). So, while there is good reason to be cautious and avoid promiscuity even with a condom, they are MUCH more reliable and useful than the anti-sex folks would have you believe.
So, all of this being the case, how do the folks who promote "abstinence only" education and who oppose birth control deal with the fact that their claims are easily proven to be bullshit? Simple – they either ignore the data altogether, or they trot out flawed studies that appear to support their claims and ignore all data that says otherwise. Basically, it's a bit like a television fan who ignores anything negative said about his favorite show, and who voraciously consumes everything that is positive. The difference is that the television fan is merely tinkering with entertainment, the anti-sex folks are engaging in misinformation campaigns that severely alter peoples lives (and deaths, with deadly venereal diseases being amongst the things that their methods are ineffective at addressing).
The problem is that many people feel that it is acceptable to simply ignore facts that they dislike. This is rather like an ostrich sticking its head in the sand. Just because something is ignored doesn't mean it will go away, and just because something is denied does not mean that it isn't true.
Simplifying and Complicating
Another two habits that many folks get into are those that involve either over-simplification of complex issues in order to arrive at a conclusion that meets the individuals interests, or to use unnecessarily complicated explanations as to why their beliefs are true even when the data indicates otherwise.
In the case of global warming, people tend to over-simplify in one of two, often contradictory, ways: First, they note the existence of natural climatic variability, and conclude that all current change is therefore natural. This ignores the fact that, while natural climatic variability is a very real phenomenon, it does not appear to explain the rather rapid increases in global temperatures over the last century, and especially the last few decades. Natural variability tends to have rather different characteristics, and is dependent on low amounts of emitted greenhouse gases (such as CO2) in the atmosphere. To cite that there is natural variability and then ignore all data concerning the nature of the variability is to lie through over-simplification.
Another way in which people oversimplify climate change is through citing things that seem on the surface to support their claims, but really don't. I recall reading in 1996 that "only liberals would be stupid enough to believe in global warming when we are having record rainfall." Now, if the earth is warming, then this increases the rate of water evaporation, which, in turn, increases the amount of water in the atmosphere in some locations, which, in turn, causes increased rainfall in some locations (such as California). So, rather than "disproving" global warming, this increased rainfall was consistent with the predictions.
Complicating the Picture
When faced with the fact that increased rainfall is in keeping with global warming (as are increased number and severity of other storms, including hurricanes), and that 20th century global temperature increases are unusual, the usual response of those committed to opposing the notion of anthropogenic global warming is to state something to the effect of "global temperature is complex, and therefore you can't single out any one element."
Climatic change is indeed complex, no doubt about it. And it is certain that there are many different forces, both natural and man made, at work. Absolute certainty is lacking, but that is ALWAYS true in science. Science is always about probabilities, not certainties. The knowledge that we have of chemistry, climate, and ecology are all consistent with the idea that the burning of petroleum, coal, and other activities that emit greenhouse gases WILL increase the global temperature (not to mention cause other problems such as acid rain and air pollution). This is a high probability claim, one that is consistent with responsibly gathered data. In other words, it is a strong, solid hypothesis, and the claim that the matter is too complicated or that there is significant debate over what is happening is a flat-out lie.
There are many matters that are extremely complex, and many that are quite simple. Most matters fall somewhere in between. However, to intentionally and willingly oversimplify or complicate matters to justify an a-priori conclusion is dishonest, wrong, and in the cases where it serves as a justification for practices that will impact others across a wide range of time and geographic space (as is the case with global warming, pollution, and even many economic and political policies) is flat-out evil and irresponsible.
Moving the Goalposts
Another approach used by those who are ideologically committed to a point is what is often called “moving the goalposts", that is, stating that one must have a given type or amount of information to reach a different conclusion, but then changing the requirements when the initial requirements are met. Really, the tendency of oversimplifying or complicating matters is an example of this, but I want to discuss it in a much broader sense in this section.
A classic case of this is obvious when one looks at the public arguments concerning evolution and creationism (I say public arguments because evolution is a central ,unifying theory of biology, and one that is widely accepted and respected – in other words, the controversy, such as it is, is purely public and not scientific).
My own experience with evolution deniers is that discussions with them move through a few stages:
Stage 1 – they reveal that they don't actually know what evolution is, despite their claims to the contrary, and therefore have unrealistic expectations as far as the nature of the information available.
Stage 2 – (if you get this far) they accept what evolution actually is, but state that they will not accept it as valid because data X,Y, and Z have "never been discovered" and therefore giant gaps exist in the theory.
Stage 3 – You point out that data X, Y, and Z (as well as A, B, C, and Q) have, in fact, been gathered (or are irrelevant), and that their claims about the lack of supporting evidence are, in fact wrong. They will then state that information L, M, N, and O are missing, and therefore evolution has huge gaps (though the gaps are smaller than they at first thought).
Stage 4 – You point out that data L, M, N, and, and O have been gathered (or are irrelevant), and that their claims about the lack of supporting evidence are, in fact wrong. They will then state that information 1, 2, 3, and 4 are missing, and therefore evolution has huge gaps (though the gaps are smaller than they at first thought)
Stage 5 – You cycle through stages 3 and 4 ad nauseum, with the claims of "missing data" becoming increasingly more and more bizarre and absurd.
You will never convince them, not because the data is not on your side (it is) and not because you are out of touch with reality (you aren't, they are, though they will claim it is the other way around), and not because you haven't thought the matter through (you have, they haven't – though that won't stop them from accusing you of being "spoon fed" when they are in fact the person guilty of that).
The simple fact is that they are unwilling to accept reality, they have made up their mind about what they want to believe, and they will continue to try to find "faults" in your argument. When they can't find faults, they will either make them up (usually putting words into your mouth – my grandfather, is a master of this game), create "straw men" (claim that you are making easily dismissed claims that you are, in fact, not making), or claim faults that simply don't and/or can't exist (go to Google and look up “Crocoduck” for an example).
You will also find the same pattern in discussing issues such as: Social security (both those who want to change it and those who don't want to tend to engage in this game), Iraq (especially with the alleged Weapons of Mass Destruction), World Trade Center conspiracies (those who claim that the government did it are huge fans of this sort of thing), and people who favor economic systems (I guarantee that whether someone favors Marxist communism or unfettered capitalism, you will find this sort of pattern).
When Ideology Trumps Reality
I could continue on with other sorts of rhetorical tricks that people use to convince themselves and others of foolish things. However, I think I covered the big items above. Regardless, the problem is that these folks are disregarding a reality that they dislike for a fantasy that meets what they want. It doesn't matter whether one is labeled as conservative, liberal, progressive, reactionary, radical, or cheesecake lover, these activities are common in all groups.
That being said, it does concern me that the current definition of "conservative" is such that folks who place themselves under this banner are increasingly more and more likely to engage in these types of behaviors on a wider variety of issues than the rest of the population. So, while all groups engage in this, it is the current crop of self-styled conservatives who are routinely among the worst. If you need evidence of this, I would suggest looking at the way that the current administration has abused, when not flat-out opposing, science to appeal to its allies in business and on the religious right. It deeply disturbs me (and if you are in any way a responsible individual, it should also disturb you) that issues as important as climate change, terrorism, and medical science are routinely distorted, twisted, and often lied about in order to score political points.
Now, this sort of behavior would simply be amusing if it wasn't for the fact a huge number of votes are routinely mobilized on this sort of rhetoric and actively encouraged to engage in it. While, the media and politicians bare some responsibility for the state of things, they wouldn't get any traction if the populace wasn't more than happy to support empty rhetoric and nonsense.