The thing I love about Rolling Stone is that it’s just about the best major media source for climate change journalism. It’s bloody awesome. In a recent piece covering climate change and more, Julian Brookes nails what I say every chance I get — a functioning democracy requires an informed and engaged citizenry, and we are FAR from informed. Here’s Julian’s more eloquent intro on the matter:
“Whenever the people are well informed” an optimistic Thomas Jefferson wrote, “they can be trusted with their own government.” Sure – but what if the people have no clue?
Most of the big challenges facing America and the world today – from climate change to disease to population growth – revolve around science and technology. If we – We, the People – are going to make smart decisions on what to do about these problems, we need to have at least a rough understanding of the basic science involved. Problem is, we don’t.
The sad truth. And this could be, in my humble opinion, one of the key failures that leads to the downfall of yet another great civilization, a Titanic of a civilization that many presume today cannot sink. Anything can sink. And any civilization can collapse. And a democracy without informed citizens (or politicians) is one good recipe for collapse.
As science writer Shawn Lawrence Otto points out in a tough-minded new book, Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America, too many Americans are either plain ignorant of science or actively hostile to it, or both. And that’s as true of political leaders and journalists as it is of ordinary citizens (to say nothing of corporate leaders who see action on climate change, say, as a threat to the bottom line). We think climate change is a hoax….
To go back to Jefferson’s point, how can we be trusted with our own government – how can we take on the huge challenges we face – if we’re so poorly informed? Or, as Otto puts it: “How can democracy continue to function in a century dominated by complex science, where science affects every aspect of life?” His short answer: it can’t – unless we make some big changes, changes in how students learn science, in how journalists describe science, in how scientists explain themselves to the public, in how money functions in politics.
As you can see, this is not a simple matter of give people more information that we’re facing. Information is out there. Scientists have spent decades or more studying topics in more depth than we can even imagine. But the way information is spread throughout our society, the way money controls politics and the media, is not doing that work justice. It is not making use of that scientific work but ignoring it.
Some more highlights from the Rolling Stone piece, which was on highlights of the interview with Otto:
Scientific illiteracy in Congress
Look at the 94 of 100 newly elected GOP members of Congress who have either said flat-out that they believe climate change is a vast hoax or that they have signed pledges to oppose any mitigation efforts. And this goes against all the evidence presented to every government around the world, including our own. This also extends to people like John Boehner, who has advocated in the past for teaching creationism in science classes, and who claims to believe that climate scientists are saying that carbon dioxide is a carcinogen.
Obama’s science record
As a candidate he didn’t seem to really know very much about it, and in fact he turned down an invitation to do science debates that would have been broadcast nationally on PBS, in exchange for faith forums in which he debated religion. But he seems to have changed his perspective and he realized that science is central to most of the major unsolved problems that the United States is facing. He’s been stymied in some of his ideas by the recession as well. He made a political decision between climate change and health care, and he went for health care and put climate change off until after the 2010 elections. I think that was a strategic miscalculation that has allowed opponents of the number one science issue to coalesce in their opposition.
The role of vested interests in promoting anti-science views
Take climate change. Simple scientific observations and scientific evidence are challenging the vested economic interests that have grown around the internal combustion engine and hydrocarbons. They are looking at their entire business model being threatened by this new knowledge we have. And as a result, in the last ten years they’ve invested about $2 billion setting up phony think tanks, doing bogus science, and spending money on lobbying and advertising efforts trying to set up a smoke screen to confuse the public.
The Obama bit is a bit to shallow to do his presidency’s successes and failures justice, in my opinion, but, overall, that nails our political situation today. I think Obama, from day one, has cared more about science, but has also avoided science too much in speeches and statements. Furthermore, I think he has too many ties to the same vested economic interests destroying our world, or gives in to the other side in “negotiations” far too much for his own good or our world’s. Would I vote for him again? Well, probably yes, but I also think that our top two tasks these days, politically, are to run and put real Climate Hawks in political leadership and grow a strong, direct-action, grassroots movement that demands change, more so than those billionaires with vested interests in a deteriorating world demand that things stay the same.
To read the full Rolling Stone piece, check out: How Ignorance, Greed and Ideology Are Warping Science and Hurting Democracy
Image via Shawn Lawrence Otto