In German, the term fachidiot refers to a person who is an expert at navigating one highly specialized field, but who also claims to know how to solve problems in other specialized areas, and often takes a reckless or disastrous approach to solving them. There appears to be no English equivalent to the word, but in America, we certainly call these people politicians.
Across the country, there is no denying that the upper echelons of decision making are littered with a class of political elite that ignore hundreds of years of innovative scientific research when making important decisions. These so called “leaders,” elected under the full faith of a willing electorate, do not ignore important scientific fact out of ignorance or misunderstanding. Instead, many answer to a higher calling.
This phenomenon is commonly called “anti-intellectualism,” and it refers to a willful rejection of scientific and/or academic work because of religious conviction or an unhealthy mistrust of intellectuals. In modern America, a shocking number of our leaders would be classified as staunch anti-intellectuals for their stances on a wide spectrum of issues, ranging from global warming to evolution.
These politicians are not difficult to find. Many are unabashed in their beliefs. For proof, look no further than the Republican primary underway. In states such as Iowa and South Carolina, where strong “evangelical” values reign supreme, candidates such as Ted Cruz dominate the field by spreading a message that they are first and foremost Christian and servants to God before Americans, and that global warming is a global conspiracy.
But even these campaigns for the most powerful office in the country are not the most damaging evidence of the anti-intellectual trend in America. Embarrassingly enough, two of the most scientifically technical committees in the U.S. Senate are led by senators who actively campaign on anti-science issues. Senator Jim Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, yet has consistently claimed that human induced climate change is a giant hoax. Senator Inhofe even famously brought in and threw a snowball on the floor of the U.S. Senate, claiming that if the climate was warming, it wouldn’t be getting cold anymore. Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican from Texas, chairs one of the most important scientific committees in the entire Senate. As chairman of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Space, Science, and Competitiveness, Senator Cruz is responsible for important decisions on scientific programs, such as Earth observing satellites to monitor climate change and funding research on the effects of warming. With both these committees dominated by anti-science representatives, the future of climate research is in serious jeopardy.
As the problem with Senator Cruz and Inhofe prove, anti-intellectualism is not just a question of denial, but it is an active campaign being waged in America against science and progress. Consider the absolute absurdity that school boards must face when deciding biology curriculua. The fact that the issue of evolution, a theory that has been uncontested in scientific canon for hundreds of years, is still a debated “hot-button” topic for school boards and elections illustrates how detrimental anti-intellectualism can be for our future. But to only add insult to injury, the stalemate that results from many of these debates often leaves young students as the victims of the war between science and religion.
The problem, however, is not just anti-intellectual politicians. In fact, politicians like Ted Cruz are nothing more than a symptom of a malicious anti-science reality that exists in America.
A 2014 poll conducted by Gallup found that over 40% of Americans believe God had created the Earth only 10,000 years ago. These are the masses that donate and turn-out to support candidates that campaign on a religious crusade against science. But we shouldn’t be surprised. Religion is a literal billion dollar industry in America.
A study conducted by Ryan T. Cragun, a sociologist at the University of Tampa, found that the government’s decision to make religious organizations non-profit, thus exempt from taxation, actually subsidized major religious organizations in America to the tune of $71 billion. The result of this system is not hard to see. Mega-churches and television pastors who reach millions are living in massive mansions with numerous sports cars while preaching about the good works that come from donating to the church. Cragun’s research also found that these mega-churches own over $600 billion in property, all tax free. All the while, federal research programs fight for the scraps of a budgetary process that is always more than happy to gut them on a moment’s notice.
Consider all the research that could be done in lieu of that subsidy. We often forget that this nation was founded on the premise that church and state ought to remain distinct. Instead, activists calling for the end of tax-free church exemptions are the targets of hateful attacks.
However, before you sharpen your pitchforks and blame religion in its totality, consider the narrative that science has taken within American culture. Growing up, not many wished to be called a nerd or geek. Our idols were not scientists, TV and movie stars were rewarded for their looks, and more often than not, football coaches made more than our science teachers. In short, youth in America are conditioned to reject scientific inquiry and embrace superficiality in order to fit in. Now we pay the price.
A Pew study found that most Americans could not identify basic concepts of physics and chemistry, and when asked, only 63% could correctly interpret a scatterplot. While we cannot expect 100% literacy in every dimension of science, but it’s a strong example of what our educational system has produced and illustrates that gaps remain.
However, there are even more dangerous and embarrassing examples of the scientific literacy gap propagated by anti-intellectual religious misinformation. For example, the National Research Council found that only 28% of American high school science teachers follow the hugely important National Research Council standards for teaching evolution. What’s worse, the study also found that 13% of those teachers explicitly advocate creationism in the classroom instead.
Unfortunately, due largely to the insular nature of religious communities within America and the powerful anti-intellectual agenda spread through captive religious audiences, teachers attempting to educate students with information that runs contrary to religious doctrine are more likely to take flak than those ignoring fundamental scientific fact in favor of religious fiction.
The study of this anti-intellectual phenomenon is not new. Pulitzer Prize winning author, Richard Hofstadter, literally wrote the book on anti-intellectualism in America. His award winning work entitled Anti-intellectualism in American Life studied the cultural roots of the anti-intellectual trend across the American experience. Hofstadter claimed that the theme of anti-intellectualism was embedded in the American experience as a result of its colonial European and evangelical Protestant heritage. In part, Hofstadter argues, America had democratized education to the point where any one issue (including hard scientific fact) could be debated and ruled incorrect by popular consensus. This gave rise to the power of large religious coalitions to alter popular consensus on important scientific issues.
But why has anti-intellectualism survived for so long? The simple answer may be that old adage: ignorance is bliss.
This simple yet powerful phrase coined in 1742 by poet Thomas Gray has existed in popular culture for centuries but resonates particularly powerfully now as issues such as global warming threaten our very survival. When the reality of science is a hard pill to swallow, it is easy for the mass public to turn to other simple and unthreatening answers.
Unfortunately, the temptation is only made stronger with the influence that ultra-religious organizations hold on educational outlets such as school boards and radio broadcasts.
We must then remember that anti-intellectualism, by definition, cannot and will not be based on a rational foundation. There will be no “facts” or “evidence” to back up claims made by the anti-intellectuals, and thus to place their arguments on par with scientific theory would be worse than insulting to those who dedicate their lives in pursuit of difficult and time-consuming research.
But more importantly, what are Americans, especially pro-science Americans, to do? With caustic rhetoric and the war of words between the scientific community and religious elite an ever present reality, the solution will likely be complicated.
Efforts to change the course of the American populous are not new. The famous 1925 Scopes trial, known famously as the Scopes Monkey Trial, was one of the first modern American referendums on science education in America. The case involved a teacher, John Scopes, who purposely violated Tennessee’s Butler Act, which made the teaching of the theory of evolution illegal. The famous case is considered a victory by pro-science circles, but in reality, the Scopes trial did not lead to the overturning of the Butler Act, and numerous religious legal organizations took off as a result of the case. Instead of a victory for modern education in America, the Scopes trial revealed a deep chasm between intellectuals and the religious right in America.
Carl Sagan, American astronomer, astrophysicist, and famed science communicator, attempted another one of these revolutions in American public scientific thought. Sagan, who authored many popular science books, narrated and co-wrote the show Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which is widely considered to be the most watched series in the history of American public television. Cosmos was designed to inform the public over a litany of important scientific issues ranging from the origin of life to our role in the universe. The backlash was harsh and many thought of it as a conspiracy to undermine American Christian values using publicly funded television.
Today, with the revival of Cosmos and the popularity of popular scientists, such as Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson, America seems primed for another run at the shattering of anti-intellectual norms. We live in a time where platforms such as social media and the Internet offer almost any idea footing for launch in popular culture. For years, the power of the anti-intellectual counter-media to fund campaigns of misinformation has outweighed the resources of scientific organizations. Now, however, it will be up to young Americans to reject anti-intellectual rhetoric and promote a pro-science agenda with the tools of the modern age. With a new wave of anti-intellectualism establishing itself within the political agenda of political candidates and riding on the underfunding of American education, the process of rehabilitation will require each one of us to become advocates in our own disciplines. No longer can science be the worry of scientists alone. The silent witnessing of science by educated America will become explicit complicity in the death of progress once again.