American Idiot: Are we getting dumber?

I’ve heard and seen several declarations over the past few months that Science is losing ground with Americans, and we’re all becoming “anti-intellectual.” It’s as if the Tea Party, Ken Ham and Jenny McCarthy have somehow moved us all back intellectually, back into a realm where research and evidence is trumped by our gut.

Sure, it doesn’t look good when many of the Republican candidates running for the U.S. Presidency are staunchly against scientifically supported viewpoints across a number of topics (climate change, evolution, vaccines, and GMO’s). From the European perspective, it’s alarming that no major GOP candidate supports evolution, and several flatly refute it. In the scientific community, it’s effectively the bedrock of all genetic research.

Then we see a Senator using a snowball to disprove global warming, a measles outbreak happens in California pockets of anti-vaxxers, the “Food Babe” becomes a thing, facts seem to be almost completely absent in popular politics, and suddenly empirical science is under attack.

But fear not, because…

We’ve always been panicky, emotional idiots

Let’s start with the secular and the non-secular. If you look at the trends, acceptance of a non-theist based human evolution is trending up and theist creationism is trending down (both slightly, but enough). General religious practice (which is not antithetical to scientific belief) in itself continues to trend downward. For every meme about growing up Baptist, Jesus and angels, there’s a meme or following for Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson and SpaceX. And in truth, many spiritual people balance their faith with full respect of forward scientific research.

And yeah, we’ve had a bad go on vaccines in the last 15 years, but a lot of that has been fueled by the massive growth of the pharmaceutical market, and its subsequent rash of drug recalls. That’s the backdrop from where people view our growing vaccine schedule for infants, which went from 6 vaccines in 1995 (about 18 injections) to 14 vaccines in 2014 (about 34 injections). In that timeframe, 14 new vaccines were released, which is a lot to take in. Corporate greed and its rush to market casts a large shadow, and a small nugget of psuedoscience sparked a ready backlash against time honored vaccines.

The good news is that it was very small backlash, and the vast majority of parents continue to vaccinate their children. In truth, the CDC remains among the highest trusted Federal agencies (with NASA following close behind), and it’s done a commendable job demonstrating the safety and importance of childhood vaccinations.

Today, we just see more stuff

The general truth is that with the expansion of the media and it’s focusing lens on our daily life, we have access to more shared knowledge as well as scandals and concerns. Documentaries like Supersize Me and the like feed things like “The Food Babe”, which just occupies a space of niche psuedo-nutritionists who’ve always thrived. This is just a continuation of the Adkins diet, only that guy kinda had a lab coat feel. The “Food Babe” is just, well, a self-described “babe” with no credentials and Kardashian appeal. When has that ever gone out of style?

Nutrition in the public sphere has generally been about the loudest voices, not the most credible science. It has a veneer of empirical evidence, but it comes to us through gossip and infomercials. We have a unique relationship with food, which makes it a bad litmus test for scientific trust (in my mind).

Politics is even worse. Sure, no GOP candidate wants to outright support evolution, because they know their voters. Republican voters trend more theist, and therefore largely believe in some form of God-based creation of life. Even in general, our country is largely Christian by self-identification (around 71%), and compared with other countries we’re quite avid attendees of church (39%, only beat by the Irish, Maltese and the Poles). This shouldn’t much a surprise — the whole idea of the country started by worshipers seeking religious freedom.

Finally, if you feel the environment is a cause that shows how little we respect science, the general public struggles most over the long-term projections of climate change, not the immediate effects. Three out of four Americans want the EPA to do something about smog, because smog exists right now, and it’s immediately visible. But if you mount an argument that airplanes, cars and coal factories will sink Miami in 20 years, it’s an argument we can dismiss, because Americans are exceptional at dismissing issues until they’re staring us in the face. For this one, I won’t link articles, just raise 3 points: World War I, World War II and our National Debt. Oh, and those 15 pounds we put on since the 90's.

We’re not dumber, we’re just mistrustful

The truth is we know a lot more than we ever did as a society, and while that’s helped us a lot, it’s also exposed a lot as well. Across the board, nearly every public institution and authority has lost some trust with the public. The result causes a lot of debating and noise, but that’s just a part of the process. We’re not always going to get it right, but at least we’re engaged, enough to question authorities now than we ever have.

As one of our smartest Americans once put it:

“Don’t just teach your children to read…
Teach them to question what they read.
Teach them to question everything.”
- George Carlin
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