Beating That Dead Horse….

I know, I know….this blog has become a venue for breast-beating and hand-wringing and other elements of my increasingly curmudgeonly analysis of our collective civic IQ. (Ironically, if the people who comment here are representative of those who read my rants, they don’t need the lectures. I guess it’s the ultimate “preaching to the choir.”)


A reader sent me a link to an NPR story that makes a really important point about the content of civic knowledge.

According to the National Council for Social Studies, the goal of social studies is to promote civic competence, or the knowledge and intellectual skills to be active participants in public life. Yet, engaging with the most complex public issues of our time—biodiversity, climate change, water scarcity, obesity, energy, and HIV/AIDS—also requires a deep understanding of the scientific process.

I’d settle for a cursory understanding of what science is. And isn’t.

Turn on your television, or even worse, read the letters to the editor in your local paper, and you will encounter–ad nauseum–mindless repetition of the “evolution is just a theory” meme, displaying total ignorance of how the use of the term by scientists differs from its use in everyday language. Ask students what falsification means, and you will get blank stares.

Ignorance of the most basic definition/methodology of science may not have been problematic back when most Americans were still on the farm, and the policy issues we faced did not require a working understanding of things like net neutrality, climate change, the human genome, etc. It is more than problematic now.

And scientifically illiterate voters have just empowered a bunch of aggressively scientific illiterate politicians to decide those policies and make those decisions.

It’s truly terrifying.


  1. Not so much scientifically illiterate as hostile to science if it contradicts certain core Christian and/or Republican beliefs. And by “science” we really mean anything relying on empirical evidence.

  2. I do not believe the currently elected politicians (the GOP) are scientifically illiterate at all. They are deliberately obfuscating facts and figures they spoon feed to the scientifically illiterate voters to keep themselves in office and continue filling their coffers with profits gleaned from pollution and graft. I have said before and will say again; a lie repeated often enough becomes truth in the minds of those staunch hangers-on to the long-gone Republican party. Sheep following the Judas goat to destruction; the rest of us are just caught in the middle of that herd. We had our shot to begin separating ourselves from the sheep on November 4th; our scientific belief and knowledge is of little use to us now.

  3. Civic literacy (as librarians call the understanding of civics) should be a priority for teaching in libraries, secondary schools, and post-secondary schools. Just like many schools require a minimum number of years of instruction in a foreign language, so should they set minimum standards for learning the responsibilities and privileges of national, state and local citizenship.

  4. Mike, and to add to the craziness, a lot of the “core” religious beliefs are based on a misreading of the scripture, so these are folks who don’t understand scripture are using that, along with their odd cultural beliefs to undermine science in a destructive road to ruin.

    It’s been mentioned previously by Pete, but it would be worthwhile to check out the cultural cognition site at Yale, where they provide a lot of insight into this phenomenon. Their knowledge is being used to help folks come to understand and act on science in their best interests, namely in South Florida. See the site:

  5. Some are on someone’s payroll, some have sincere beliefs but many are just ignorant of their own ignorance.

  6. One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.
    —Bertrand Russell, The Triumph of Stupidity

    Charles Darwin, in The Descent of Man in 1871, stated “ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

    There is an effect that explains this well – The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias whereby unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude.

    This Dunning–Kruger effect IMHO is evident in extreme forms of Nationalism – such as Americans are “Exceptional.” It also evident in extreme Religious Righteousness, which shuts off the valve of rational thoughts.

  7. Now we will get a chance to see what dumb people with holy books can do to screw up our nation. Hang on folks. The next two years are going to be ugly. They are much like one of my elderly aunts: Seldom right but never in doubt.

  8. When I went to school, the engineering curriculum was 4 1/2 years long yet academia was somewhat apologetic that they hadn’t figured out how to educate us both technically and classically in that time.

    My purely subjective WAG is that technical education today requires the teaching of twice as much stuff as then.

    A problem.

    On the other side of the coin, for both good and bad reasons, those who pursue non technical educations can get almost no science in high school or college. This leaves them thinking that science must be just common sense. If you can use a smart phone, that’s all that is important about smart phone technology. Or, if you can complain about the weather that is all that’s important about climate science.

    Then these people go and vote for shiny objects.

    A bigger problem.

    We are approaching the point where what we need to learn to be fully productive in life requires us to spend way more time on education. Time taken away (except for the years added to our time by health care advances) from making money and raising kids and exploring the world. Oh, and watching TV and following sports and learning golf or tennis.

    What to do, what to do.

    My approach to stem the rising tide of climate science ignorance is to teach climate science for…….I won’t use the “d” word but let’s say those whose education proceeded along other paths.

    I see at least a little progress from that approach. Scientific principles (including, perhaps surprisingly, what is science) can be taught in ways that reveal important things about the output of science, knowledge, sans things like the math that is required to perform science, within a relatively manageable investment of time.

    Perhaps I am delusional, but I believe that we are at a fork in the evolutionary road that separates a future of continued unimaginable progress by life, for life, and life’s ultimate product, knowledge, and, sadly, some sort of cntrl/all/del reboot of evolution.

    The difference that enables the high road over the low road is not from religion as some would believe, but from learning ourselves and educating others.

    Can we? Yes, for sure! Will we?

    I don’t know.I just don’t know.

  9. I have the impression that we are simply documenting the demise of our civilization. We can change some of the events around us, but the big forces in place that have been recklessly developed are relentless, and people won’t understand the situation until it’s upon them. Ignorance is bliss until it’s not.

  10. Dinosaurs were big, strong, and dumb. Humans are puny and, relatively anyways, intelligent. Dinosaurs couldn’t see extinction coming. The last one just woke up one day and noticed that he/she was the last one. Sad for them but good for our ancestors who flourished because hardly any predator could catch and eat them because they were smart.

    We see the possibility of extinction at our own hand coming. Will we act as dinosaurs or use our smarts?

    I don’t know. I just don’t.

  11. When my daughter was in 4th grade, she had a bible spouting, judgmental bigot for a teacher. The kids were always hearing some quote about how deficient they were according to Jesus. From his mouth to her ear….but she also taught that evolution was only an untried ‘theory.’ I told my daughter to tell her so is gravity, but she didn’t see her teacher flying off into space. The teacher snapped at her, ‘gravity is a LAW’ and kept her in from recess so she could contemplate what a sinful child she was. Mind you, this was PUBLIC school, not a parochial school. We let it pass because my daughter was so pleased with having gotten in the better shot, but we got really tired of our kid being the punching bag in the christian war on science.

  12. “Ignorance of the most basic definition/methodology of science may not have been problematic back when most Americans were still on the farm,”

    Shelia, we’re not all dummies here on the farm.

  13. That was definitely NOT what I was saying. My point was that policy issues “back in the day” did not require an understanding of technology, genetics, bioethics, etc. Things have gotten considerably more complicated in all areas–including the farm.

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