Cui bono?

The lead editorial in a recent issue of Science magazine takes-up something I’ve written about often through the years and, as Covid-19 continues its relentless march across the country, is now exacting an awful price: the anti-science mindset of so many Americans.

It’s baffling that as the world struggles to tame coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), a large portion of the population ignores the fact that wearing masks and practicing social distancing dampen the spread of the pandemic. Even when a vaccine for COVID-19 becomes available, the benefits of achieving herd immunity will be endangered if growing antivaccine sentiment leads some folks to refuse to get vaccinated. American science denialism, in particular, persists, even at the highest level of leadership, with a president who denies climate change and a vice president—a devout creationist—who believes that Earth is only 6000 years old.

I entered kindergarten soon after Sputnik alarmed the free world with its insolent beeps, and was part of the Sputnik generation of schoolchildren — STEM 1, so to speak. The space race was on and astronauts and scientists and engineers were public heroes, admired and celebrated.

The year I left college with 2-engineering degrees is the year that the blowback began, the year that Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority and the year that the so-called Conservative Resurgence — a sharp turn toward the most backward-looking fundamentalism — began in the Southern Baptist Convention.

I hear a lot from our readers and stakeholders about how to solve this problem of science denial. Most of them suggest that Science and science “need to do a better job at telling its stories.” I don’t buy it. For more than a century, this journal has been delivering insightful and reliable scientific information; today, our articles have the highest readership ever. Sure, we can do a better job of simplifying messages and making them accessible to more people. There is always room for improvement. But is this really the crux of this dangerous problem?

The scientific community is up against a sophisticated, data-driven machine that is devoted to making sure that science doesn’t fully succeed, and the history of this is quite clear.

Yes. And as the lawyers ask, Cui bono? Who benefits?

I see three groups.

  • Religion   Every clearheaded, well-educated adult knows that the Christian narrative is false; there is simply no educated, intellectually serious conversation to be had about it. Naturally, then, Pastor Bubba regards a good education as a threat, and that’s the reason he constantly disparages reason and science and encourages vacation trips to Ken Ham’s ridiculous amusement parks.

  • America’s geopolitical adversaries   A nation of ignoramuses — the sort of people who can’t recognize that Donald Trump is a moron, say — works to Russia and China’s advantage.

  • The left behind   Remember that high school kid who was so cool and went to work at the hardware store right after graduation and didn’t bother with college? He’s discovered that he made a bad mistake and the geeks have left him behind — and he’s pissed-off about it and not going to miss an opportunity to disadvantage the educated.

Rightly or wrongly, Sputnik was perceived as an existential threat and the American public rallied against it; there was a corresponding cultural shift toward the importance of education, especially a technical education — the hard stuff, that Periodic Table thingy that hung on the wall of the science classroom.

Will Covid-19 have a like effect on American culture? Beats me, though I don’t mind admitting that I’m not very optimistic. The good news is that it has become a subject of discussion on cable news and by people like Dr. Fauci, not just out-of-the-way blogs like Civil Commotion. The all-important next-step is going to be hard, though: the well-educated have to confront the morons head-on at the dinner table and stand-up for the importance of education and against the cost of ignorance.

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