Monday, June 11, 2012

Science illiteracy as cultural signifier

The Dish reminds us that conservative science denial is bigger than climate denial:


Notably, belief in straight-up evolution is increasing, even as naive creationism flourishes. I think Sullivan's take on this bears repeating:
I'm not sure how many of the 46 percent actually believe the story of 10,000 years ago. Surely some of them know it's less empirically supported than Bigfoot. My fear is that some of that 46 percent are giving that answer not as an empirical response, but as a cultural signifier. That means that some are more prepared to cling to untruth than concede a thing to libruls or atheists or blue America, or whatever the "other" is at any given point in time.
Right now, climate change denial is an easy way to throw red meat to the radical right. Americans (and Europeans -- most of the world, for that matter) is focused on the economy. We've had two back-to-back La Ninas coming on the tail end of the deepest solar minimum of the last century, making last year's very hot temperatures relatively cool by 21st century standards.

These short-term circumstances have been used to advance the ridiculous claim that serious climate change legislation is now and forever dead -- the politics are impossible. What usually follows from such an analysis is a plea for appeasement -- Won't we please drop this whole upsetting subject of greenhouse-gas emissions, and start talking about energy independence or local adaptation or something that is less provocative to the "God created humans in their present form" crowd?

Well, no. We won't drop it, and the graph above shows why such a tactic wouldn't work; the right wing in America is hardening and deepening its rejection of modernity. That's not a process that's being cause by provocation from the other side; when was the last time you were confronted with an angry Darwinian polemicist? Yet naive creationism flourishes, because the people who proclaim it are looking for a fight.

Thinking that you are going to win over right-wing climate "skeptics" with energy independence is like thinking you are going to find common ground with anti-abortion activists in promoting free contraception and universal sex ed -- hey, it cuts the abortion rate!

We need to win this fight, not evade it. There is a saying in chess: "The surest way to lose is to play for a draw." I think that applies here. To win the fight, we don't give up the high ground. The high ground is the truth: Our greenhouse gas emissions are warming the climate and endangering our civilization; many things must be done to confront this reality but the most important is to dramatically cut humanity's emissions of greenhouse gases.

This fight is far from over. Elections are coming, and so is El Nino, and so is the peak of the solar cycle. Climate impacts will multiply; the damage will become more dramatic and threatening year by year. The political calculus on this issue will be recalculated again and again in the coming years, with the only constant being that the further we travel into the future, the more destructive change will have happened.

How do you beat a cultural signifier? You make it too expensive in terms of how the culture is viewed from the outside. Support for segregation was a cultural signifier. Segregation lost when people peacefully but determinedly got up in segregationists' faces and forced them to declare to the nation just how ugly, irrational, and destructive their hatred was. They didn't win by changing subject. They won by turning the conversation again and again towards the truth their opponents' insisted was divisive and inflammatory.




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