Back to the Struggle Against Ignorance

It's silly season in America. As we creep closer to the start of another academic year, Congress has recessed and our elected representatives have returned home to face the voters. In a flurry of unscripted town hall meetings some of our public officials have displayed a frightening ignorance of social policy and science.

Consider the recent statements of Congressman Dana Rohrabacher (R) of California at a town hall meeting. Responding to the claim that climate change might be responsible for an uptick in the number of California wild fires, he said, as reported in the Aug, 12 edition of The Huffington Post.

Just so you'll know, global warming is a total fraud and it's being designed because what you've got is you've got liberals who get elected at the local level want state government to do the work and let them make the decisions. Then, at the state level, they want the federal government to do it. And at the federal government, they want to create global government to control all of our lives.

In that same story, Nick Wing reported that "Rohrabacher's climate change denialism and misunderstanding of science is well documented. He's suggested that prehistoric climate change could have been caused by 'dinosaur flatulence,' and that clear-cutting rainforests would eliminate greenhouse gas production."

Like Rohrabacher, Representive Paul Broun (R) of Georgia is a member of the House Science Committee. Braun, who is a physician, does not believe in the theory of evolution, a foundational scientific theory that has withstood more than 150 years of intense scientific scrutiny.

As reported by Alana Horowitz in the October 2012 edition of The Huffington Post, Representative Broun, who running for an open U.S. Senate seat in Georgia, stated:

"God's word is true. I've come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the big bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell. It's lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior.

You see, there are a lot of scientific data that I've found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I don't believe that the earth's but about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them. That's what the Bible says."

Then there is Representative Markwayne Mullin (R) of Oklahoma who believes that the food stamp program is laced with fraud, which is why he is against extending the program to help millions of low-income Americans who routinely confront food insecurity. Here is the argument he articulated to make his point at a recent town hall meeting and reported by ThinkProgress:

"So I'm in Crystal City and I'm buying my groceries... and I noticed everybody was giving that card. They had these huge baskets, and I realized it was the first of the month.

But then I'm looking over, and there's a couple beside me. This guy was built like a brick house. I mean he had muscles all over him. He was in a little tank top and pair of shorts and really nice Nike shoes. And she was standing there, and she was all in shape and she looked like she had just come from a fitness program. She was in the spandex, and you know, they were both physically fit. And they go up in front of me and they pay with that card."

Based upon an individual case of anecdotal evidence about a food stamp purchase, Representative Mullin makes a global conclusion: "Fraud. Absolute 100 percent all it is fraud... it's all over the place. And there you go, to the fact that we shouldn't be supporting those who won't work. They're spending their money someplace."

If Representative Mullin had made such an argument on an essay exam in one of my university classes, I would have given him a failing grade. As I routinely tell my anthropology students, you can't use an anecdote to make a generalization. You can't logically link one person's appearance to 100 percent fraud in the food stamp program. You cannot reliably say, contrary to almost universal agreement in the scientific community, that climate change is a hoax. You cannot use conspiracy theories to formulate public policy or govern a complex society.

Here's the rub: These statements, which profoundly celebrate ignorance, have been made by three men who wield consider power. They have used that power in an effort to slow down, if not cripple science in America. They are not alone. In Congress a majority of House Republicans, according to ThinkProgress, hold that climate change is a hoax. How can such shocking number unimaginative and ignorant people be elected to represent the American people?

From my perspective as a social scientist, the problem is a social one. As a society we seem to no longer place high value in scientific knowledge, intellectual excellence or, for that matter, artistic creativity -- three elements that have heretofore contributed to the greatness of our society. Can we get back on track?

Eternal optimist that I am, I think we can. I see the college classroom as a battleground in the struggle against ignorance. People like Representatives Broun, Rohrabacher and Mullin seem incapable, for whatever reason, of formulating an evidence-based logical argument. When the facts are inconvenient, they and many of their colleagues ignore them. How can we have reasoned debate if many of the debaters do not believe in reason?

Reason is the best weapon against ignorance. Reason is the foundation of a college education. As we return to college campuses and enter classrooms full of new students, we should acknowledge what is at stake. If we succeed, many of our students will learn how to think, how to formulate an evidence-based argument and how to articulate that argument in clear and compelling prose. If we fail, our society will eventually slip back into the darkness of unreason, as underscored by the beliefs and practices of, among others, Representatives Rohrabacher, Broun, and Mullin.

The classroom is where we get back to the struggle against Ignorance.