The politics of ignorance

Could Romney win the election? 46% of American adults say that human beings were created by God within the last 10,000 years. And 7% say they don’t know.

George Bernard Shaw once said that democracy wouldn’t be a viable form of government until the man-in-the-street learned to resent a fallacy as much as an insult. Typical Shavian overstatement, but pointing at an important truth. To paraphrase Tom Lehrer (on folk music), the problem with democracy is that it is rule by the people, most of whom have no talent for government.

A republic with strongly democratic elements is superior to other forms of government not because the Demos is wise or just – even on average – but because the resulting dispersion of power forces elites to compete for mass approval and because democracy supports egalitarian manners even when it doesn’t lead to economic equality.

But it’s easy to romanticize the People: to move from the claim that polyarchy is better than tyranny to the belief that the voters tend to get things right.

In that connection, consider the latest poll results. Given the following question:

(1) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process. (2) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process. (3) God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.

46% choose option (3), which is flatly contrary to easily ascertainable fact from both the fossil record and the archaeological record, and another 7% say they don’t know. (The Lascaux cave paintings date back about 17,000 years. Paleolithic tools are much older than that, and as far as we know no animal makes tools.)

As expected, Republicans tend to favor ignorance: “58% of Republicans believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years, 39% of independents and 41% of Democrats agree.” Of course high religiosity and biblical literalism are common among some poor and ill-educated constituencies who tend to vote Democratic. But among those with a high-school degreee or more, I’d be prepared to bet that anti-Darwinism correlates strongly with Republican voting, and negatively with either years or quality of higher education.

There are of course valid criticisms of the current system of higher education, as there are of the K-12 system. But much of the current assault on those systems from the political right stems from nothing more complex than love of ignorance, fear of knowledge, and hatred for those who make a living by conveying knowledge and finding new knowledge.

Alas, it’s quite possible that an ignorant majority will vote to protet itself, and its children, from the dangers of learning.

Footnote Gallup also provides no cross-tab with religious denomination; though it reports the expected strong correlation between frequency of church-going and expressed beliefs contrary to fact. It would be interesting to see whether the official Roman Catholic teaching, which does not deny evolution, makes anti-Darwinism less common (controlling for educational level) among Catholics than among evangelical Protestants, most of whose preachers think you’ll to to Hell if you allow science to shape your world-view.

Update As some commenters note, Gallup-style polling can’t easily distinguish between what people actually believe and “Sunday beliefs.” It’s possible that some of the respondents were simply voting “on the side of the angels,” and don’t really think the fossil record is the produce of either scientific or Divine fakery. Still and all, any naive faith in democracy has to be tempered when half the people either believe nonsense or think that it’s socially preferable to pretend to believe nonsense.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

45 thoughts on “The politics of ignorance”

  1. I’ve seen folks blow right past ‘..easily ascertainable facts..’ with the notion that God put that stuff there to test our faith. Well, mine fails on that account, but certainly a God who wanted to mess with us could salt the mine with Lascaux paintings and human-chimp DNA similarities. Dems, in my experience, seem to be awfully credulous on things like vaccine refusal. So it seems to me that there’s a lot of silly stuff on both sides of the political divide, just different silly stuff.

    1. “Dems, in my experience, seem to be awfully credulous on things like vaccine refusal.”

      Which Dems are those? Do any of them hold elected office? Did any of those alleged Dem office holders gain office on a public platform advocating vaccine refusal? Is there a vaccine refusal movement made up of Dem politicians powerful enough to bend the ear of other elected Dem officials in order to further its own interests?

      Your blanket statement reminds me of nothing more than Dave Weigel’s pathetic attempt over at Slate to equate birtherism with 9/11 Trutherism. One the birther side, there are so many powerful Republican politicians, with more being added every day, that you could throw a brick in the general direction of Capitol Hill and hit two or three. On the Truther side, you have…a bunch of guys that no one has ever heard of, plus Van Jones. Who I never heard of prior to his expulsion and haven’t heard anything from since.

    2. As an autism mom, I once read “Evidence of Harm,” mainly out of curiousity about what was animating the anti-vaxers (before anyone gets started, my kid’s had all his shots and then some). One thing that surprised me was how very, very right-wing a lot of the parent leaders were/are. They were staunch Republicans long before they were parents.

      There was in particular a huge amount of animosity directed at Hillary Clinton — the rest of us might have forgotten it, but as first lady she spearheaded a childhood vaccination PR campaign, apparently making her one of the main causes of the increase in autism dx’s. And the anger that wasn’t directed at Hillary was focused on Big Government, the source of all our troubles.

      There seems to me to be a qualitative difference between lefties who are skeptical about some things the government has done (including mandating vaccines) but maintain an overall belief that government remains the best way to address issues that affect us all, and right-wingers who believe most everything the government does is with malicious intent and that we’d all be better off with a much smaller and ineffective federal government. So I don’t lump the two categories together, even though their unvaccinated children are endangering me equally.

  2. “though it reports the expected strong correlation between frequency of church-going and expressed beliefs contrary to fact.”

    Shouldn’t that be, “these particular expressed beliefs contrary to fact.”? Because I’m fairly sure there are expressed beliefs contrary to fact which might show rather different correlations. Say, belief that IQ isn’t heritable, or that lots of people have been killed in nuclear accidents?

    1. on the heiritability of intelligence–

      regarding the number of people killed in nuclear accidents much depends on how you define “lots.” if you define lots as 100s-1000s then that’s a fairly reasonable belief given chernobyl. if you define lots as millions then i would agree that’s just plain silly.

      1. I define “lots” as more than the day to day carnage of coal. And, no, neither Chernobyl or the recent problems in Japan reach even to the 100s, if you mean today. If you mean “Integrated over the next century”, Chernobyl *might* reach the 100s, assuming cancer treatment gets no better, but by that standard coal is into the, what? Millions?

        1. integrated over the next 50 years the chernobyl radiation release might reach 9000-90000 depending on dose-dependency and improvements in cancer treatment. i reject out of hand the recent book speculating on a potential death toll of 1000000+.

          as for coal, who brought up coal? you initially listed 2 specific beliefs as examples and now that folks have responded to your examples you seem to be trying to change the subject. if you want to change over to a discussion of coal would you be willing to support a carbon tax that would account for the hidden costs in deaths and disabilities caused by coal? the devastation wrought by coal seems to trouble you so what policy would you promulgate to mitigate the harms?

          1. No, he’s not trying to change the subject. Rather, he’s answering the question of what he defines as “lots,” and simultaneously pointing out the irony in the fact that to-date the measured impacts of coal power, which is so much more commonplace, and taken for granted, are much higher than nuclear power. It’s part of his original point, and it reinforces it. And BTW, his point was simply that different types of incorrect beliefs seem to be held by different cohort groups. Whatever the specific numbers are to-date about nuclear power is not particularly relevant. What’s important is who believes what, and that it’s not always the same misinformed group(s), and I haven’t seen that point rebutted.

            And one other BTW — it seems to me that Brett is suggesting that coal-fired power generation is pretty awful, and is suggesting that nuclear power is cleaner, less injurious to the environment, less injurious to humans (in the aggregate), and as a nice side benefit, less expensive too. So I think if you reread what he already wrote, you find the answer to your last paragraph.

            It seems like a lot of folks here automatically assume Brett’s always wrong, and always on the side of the Devil. I only think that sometimes.

          2. @ken–remember that he’s the one that picked the original examples to point at. then, when i offered the current extent of what is knowable about both examples he ignored the current knowledge about i.q. inheiritability, proceeded to lowball the total deaths due to nuclear power accidents, and then brought up coal. that seems a lot like a change of subject to me. and instead of assuming that he was wrong for changing the subject i asked what he proposed to do to mitigate coal’s harms. i’m not suggesting that brett’s on the side of the devil but neither do i automatically assume he’s arguing in good faith either which is why i insist on his explicitly naming the terms of the discussion. as for rereading what he already wrote, it seems like you’re reading an awful lot into his rhetorical question at the end of his comment.

          3. By my understanding 9000 is more of a high limit assuming no advances in cancer treatment. (This based on comparisons to known cancer rates among Nagasaki and Hiroshima survivors with known exposure, rather than dubious LNT models which research seriously undercut.) That represents approximately 4 days worth of the normal, accepted death toll from coal. For an outlier event involving a wildly obsolete reactor operated in a deliberately unsafe manner, and then not responded to properly because it happened in a communist country that didn’t value lives. Coal is, per terawatt hour, approximately 1800 times more deadly than nuclear including the accidents.

            Even using the inflated 90,000 figure for Chernobyl deaths, coal’s every day operation represents 9 Chernobyl accidents every year!

            And, what would I recommend in response to this reality? Stop demanding that nuclear be the only energy source which must be perfectly safe for anyone to use. This is utterly irrational, because whatever your views on the value of a human life, holding nuclear up to a standard orders of magnitude more strict than other power sources results in more dangerous power being used. It COSTS lives. I’d recommend that every power source be held to the same deaths per TWH standard of safety.

            Is opposition to nuclear characteristic of conservatives? No, of course it isn’t. It’s one of the signature irrationalities of the LEFT.

            And that’s my point: Gallup polled on a subject where irrationality just happens to align in a way that gives liberals a feeling of validation. But poll for other forms of irrationality, and you might not like the correlations. (And might not admit them, either, for the obvious reason…)

          4. so your solution appears to be that rather than hold coal to a higher standard we should hold nuclear to a lower standard.

            if i’m not correctly summarizing your position please clarify.

          5. Yes, that’s correct. It’s possible to spend too much money on safety, to the point where you increase danger by making the safest alternative uneconomic. For instance, making air travel so expensively safe that people drive long distances because they can’t afford the tickets.

            Based on any rational comparison of the safety of nuclear to other energy sources, we’re making nuclear too safe. Nuclear which was “only” as safe as hydro power would be considerably cheaper, and easily supplant fossil fuels, thus dramatically increasing the over-all safety of our energy supply. Making nuclear more dangerous would save lives.

            Contrary-wise, were we to force other energy sources to be as safe as nuclear is now, nobody could afford them, and again, nuclear would supplant them.

            Nuclear only has trouble competing with other energy sources, resulting in environmental degradation and a huge toll in human life, because we subject it to a double standard, requiring a level of safety from nuclear no other power supply has a chance of matching.

            This is irrationality, and it’s irrationality with political correlations which don’t validate comfortable liberal beliefs in their own rationality.

            Similarly, genetics and intelligence. Sure, liberals are glad to say that intelligence is heritable. The irrationality come in with the insistence that, unlike height, pigmentation, facial structure, proclivity to develop hypertension… unlike essentially every other element of human variation, that heritability can’t have the least correlation with racial or ethnic groups, or social implications. That even asking the question is forbidden.

            No group is free of it’s own cognitive gaps, it’s own irrationalities. Anybody who thinks they belong to THE rational group just doesn’t see their own problems. But then, who does? That’s my bucket of cold water on this triumphalism.

          6. 2 things.

            first, you are ignoring liberals efforts over the past 3 decades to make other sources of energy reflect their actual costs in terms of environmental harms. it is not liberals and progressives as a group who have made a priority of preventing a more accurate pricing of all types of hydrocarbons.

            second, to the extent that poverty is as highly correlated with i.q. as ethnicity, liberals would be delighted to have a conversation about the social implications of the factors relating to intelligence. where liberals have a problem is when conservatives use research into intelligence as an excuse to continue marginalizing ethnic groups.

          7. No, I’m pointing out liberals’ efforts over the past three decades to make sure the safest, most reliable form of energy gets spiked, no matter how many lives it costs.

          8. = = =
            Brett Bellmore says:
            June 6, 2012 at 4:25 am

            No, I’m pointing out liberals’ efforts over the past three decades to make sure the safest, most reliable form of energy gets spiked, no matter how many lives it costs.
            = = =

            That’s interesting, because it is basically genco shareholders and Wall Street financial firms that have stopped any[*] new nuclear power plants from being built in the last 25 years. The NRC has stood ready, through administrations Republican and Democratic, to approve permit applications, and it has granted design review approval to several new designs. But the finances just aren’t there for a $7-$10 billion investment that won’t pay off until year 20 at a minimum (assuming no accidents).

            In any case, given that you (Mr. Bellmore) lean libertarian I’m sure you stand fully behind repeal of the Price-Anderson liability limits, correct?


            [*] A few projects are underway as of 2012, but not many compared to 1965-1985.

          9. Cranky, my point is, why is it such a huge investment? It’s such a huge investment because, even with nuclear being the safest power source around, by several orders of magnitude compared to coal, that NRC of yours keeps piling on more and more requirements. You could be 90% finished with your power plant, and the NRC could decide that you need the insides of all the pipes gold plated, and you’d have to rip out the plumbing and start over.

            It’s not like the incredibly high cost of building a nuclear power plant is inherent. It’s a result of the regulations.

            But, you know, the intelligent design nutsos have their arguments, too, and probably think they’re being rational, too.

          10. = = =
            Brett Bellmore says:
            June 7, 2012 at 4:24 am

            Cranky, my point is, why is it such a huge investment? It’s such a huge investment because, even with nuclear being the safest power source around, by several orders of magnitude compared to coal, that NRC of yours keeps piling on more and more requirements. You could be 90% finished with your power plant, and the NRC could decide that you need the insides of all the pipes gold plated, and you’d have to rip out the plumbing and start over.

            It’s not like the incredibly high cost of building a nuclear power plant is inherent. It’s a result of the regulations.
            = = =

            No. What you say was correct during the post-TMI period (which is also when I was working in the nuclear power industry). But that’s to be expected as TMI revealed numerous design and operational deficiencies that had to be addressed rapidly in an environment where the answers weren’t known.

            Since the 1989 licensing reform however the NRC has had a streamlined licensing process, including options to obtain construction, operating, and environmental compliance certificates in one set of hearings before the project starts:


            and as noted above the NRC has also pre-approved several advanced plant designs as not requiring additional design basis analysis. The parts are all in place; it is Wall Street that has said NO over and over again.

            And I’ll note that you failed to address the liability exclusion law: from a libertarian perspective why if nuclear plants are so wonderfully safe why does the industry need a liability exclusion? Can’t they just call their local State Farm agent and buy a contract for any necessary insurance?


            PS Care to pop back to some of the previous threads where you have left questions unanswered? I’m really curious to hear your defense of your utterly bizarre definition of “addict”. Thanks.

      2. That paper has to do with genetic associations with so-called “general intelligence,” not the heritability of IQ. In fact, the very first sentence of the abstract is “General intelligence (g) and virtually all other behavioral traits are heritable.”

        1. which was exactly my point. this paper is a survey of the field which shows that intelligence, like many other traits, is heiritable but that , again like many other traits, is also influenced by environment.

    2. Are you claiming that a high percentage of non-churchgoers believes that intelligence has zero heritability? I very much doubt that.

      If that’s not what you mean then what belief are you talking about when you talk about a belief “that IQ isn’t heritable?”

      My guess, in fact, is that non-churchgoers are at least as likely as churchgoers to have this generally right.

      1. Let’s note for the record that plenty of Democrats and even (gasp) liberals hold religious beliefs and attend churches; just not the hard right-wing evangelical churches Mr. Bellmore’s allies prefer.


      2. Of course some parts of IQ are going to be heritable. But IQ is a complex dynamic, and the genetic factors are marginal to environment. The way the kid is raised, the world he is born into, is exponentially more determinative. We know how people learn, have loads of research on it. It gets racial because of racial disparities in IQ and class, which appeals to Friedmanites who want to believe that class sorting is perfectly natural, and like the idea that people generally deserve their lot in life. Thus many of them adopt racialist framework to pretend the racism of their ideological bias is somehow scientific.

        1. “Of course some parts of IQ are going to be heritable.” Talk about your hypostatization of analytical categories.

    3. How about incidence of birth defects and cancers around sites of nuclear accidents? I’m for nuclear power, but let’s not gloss over the potentially very real consequences of this type of energy.

    4. I like that in a post about polling Republicans, Bret – who previously denied being a Republican if I recall correctly – has to try and defend Republicans and their crazy beliefs.

  3. Dave, I think, is indulging in a false equivalence. There are a number of hippy-dippy types on the left, who don’t like anything that sounds too technological, or unnatural, or something. But Democrats give them zero support. Who is the last elected Democrat who fudged on vaccines? Hard to think of one. And what happened the last time a dozen Republican presidential candidates were asked about their thoughts on evolution?

    1. Does this count as “fudging”?

      “We’ve seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Some people are suspicious that it’s connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it.” –Barack Obama, Pennsylvania Rally, April 21, 2008.

      1. i agree that the last sentence of the statement is crap. do remember though that when he said “this person included.” obama was pointing at the man in the audience that asked him about vaccines and autism and was not talking about himself.

  4. There’s a debate about fluoridation going on in my town right now. The small number of anti-fluoride folks includes the town’s paranoid anti-government Left contingent, as well as the town’s one vocal Tea Party wingnut. Anti-vaccination sentiment likewise seems to unite conspiracy theorists on both the left and the right.

    I don’t think either of those is particularly comparable to disbelief in evolution. Nor, for that matter, is not knowing how many people have died in nuclear accidents. Sorry, Brett.

    Evolution is a broad principle that provides the fundamental basis for most of the biological sciences. Evolution plays approximately the same role in biology that “the earth is round” plays in geography. If, Heaven forfend, some kind of catastrophic accident at a nuclear facility in a densely populated area were to lead to large numbers of deaths, the “wrong” answer to Brett’s question would suddenly become the “right” answer. In contrast, I can’t think of any event that could suddenly make evolution just … stop.

  5. My own view is that to make sense of data like these we have to unpack the concept of “belief” and understand what it means for someone to believe something: how they use these beliefs, how they relate to other beliefs, how they feel about them, how they form them, how they deal with new information using them, etc.

    On the basis of really nothing much more than intuition, I don’t think these statements even fall into the realm of “factual information” as far as the people who say these things are concerned. They’re more like badges of cultural affinity, and in some cases expressions of defiance.

    To some extent this is true on the side of “reality-based” people as well. Hence the currency of the question. “Do you believe in evolution?” isn’t really a question about evolution, is it?

    1. i would agree that the question is a proxy for a larger question. the answer to the question “do you believe in evolution?” is a reasonable proxy for one’s method of interpreting the world. the answer to that question tells whether a person believes in the idea of scientific thinking with all the epistemological freight that mode of thinking has. a negative answer to that question implies a belief in faith over reason and while a positive answer is no guarantee that the respondent understands the concept of testable ideas that can be subjected to falsification through observation and experiment, it does not imply the rejection of that notion out of hand.

    2. Good point. I suspect a lot of fish-shaped car-magnets with the old Greek punning acronym (these are common in California at least, apologies to those who may not see them locally ) say less about the driver’s carefully comsidered metaphysical views on creation and trinity than about their membership in a tribe which rewards such advertising of the tribe — a sort of soft proselytizing. And hostility to science has a lot to do with misapplied statistics reported in the press (confusing and contradictory stories about what diet is best, reports linking preference for organic food with being overly critical, etc.). Most anti-science views are held by people who don’t know the first thing about quantum field theory, but do know they’ve reads lot of tendentious nonsense labeled (wrongly) as’science’.

    1. Make that “stone tools,” then. There’s a large gap between stripping the leaves off a tree limb and chipping out a hand axe.

  6. “which is flatly contrary to easily ascertainable fact from both the fossil record and the archaeological record”

    You later mention the Carbon dating record, but don’t forget the DNA record. DNA has been a valuable tool in understanding evolution, and another nail in the coffin of evolution denial.

  7. All valid criticism taken, Mark’s point stands, and is more than a little disturbing. I would like to amend his closing sentence to what I feel is the true rationale for this massively successful disinformation campaign:

    “Alas, it’s quite possible that an ignorant majority will vote to prote[c]t itself, and its children, from…danger[]”

    Where the perception of “danger,” real or immaterial, increases in direct proportion to the level of functional ignorance (functional in the sense that the fundamental concepts of evolution permeate the functioning of modern society as thoroughly as, say, petroleum products).

  8. Alas, that’s quite possible, even likely. My only point being that liberals should not imagine they’ll be on the side of the angels in every one of those cases. Sometimes you’re the ones leading the ignorant mob, instead.

    1. This is indeed possible and something to keep in mind. At this time, I don’t think that’s what we’re seeing. The anti-vax thing, maybe, though I haven’t actually seen a partisan breakdown there.

      But sure, humans in general have an unfortunate tendency to reject evidence they don’t like for whatever reason. We all have to guard against it.

      1. while rob’s point is well-taken, i would point out that it is the republican party and its followers who have made it a point of pride in disbelieving experts and rejecting science not the democratic party. i think that’s because of the concept behind an old and famous will rogers quote which i paraphrase here– i’m not a member of an organized political party, i’m a democrat. to put it another way, there is no monolithic democratic party which requires a particular set of beliefs to be among the leadership in the way the republican party does. can you name two republicans in congress as far apart in their beliefs as say nancy pelosi and mark pryor?

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