Manufacturing ignorance

A US National Science Foundation survey recently found that a third of Americans deny the reality of evolution and believe that humans and the rest of the world’s animals have always existed in their current form and about a quarter believe the Sun revolves around the Earth.

The survey has been comparing scientific knowledge in various countries for more than a decade and tracking responses to questions about evolution, astronomy, radioactivity and other scientific facts. The questions are in true or false form and it is worth noting that some other countries do pretty badly too and that, before we scoff too loudly, we don’t know how badly Australia would fare in a similar survey although we do know, however, that the Abbott Government took more than a year to appoint a Science Minister and seems largely ignorant of the debate sparked over past decades by Vannevar Bush’s 1945 publication Science: The Endless Frontier.

The National Science Foundation survey findings can be found at and

A very good summary of the latest thinking prompted by Bush’s work can be found in the recent AAAS Presidential Address by Professor Phillip A. Sharp early last year. It is reproduced in Science Magazine Vol 346 Issue 6216 (19 December 2014) and was brought to the blog’s attention by John Spitzer. Sharp’s argument is that significant discovery and innovation will flow from “further convergence of physical, mathematical, engineering and social sciences with life sciences….” in areas as diverse as climate change and health.

The problem is the inevitable clash between this potential and the ruling ignorance. Indeed, while Noam Chomsky called one of his books, a discussion of how hegemonic views were formed, Manufacturing Consent a similar book today might be called Manufacturing Ignorance although it should be conceded that the promulgation of ignorance was implicit in the Chomsky argument.

The New York Review of Books (23 October 2014) published a review, by Priyamvada Nataragan, of two new science books and in it the reviewer referred to one example of how the conflict is working out in the US. “On June 12, 2012, the North Carolina Senate passed a law that effectively prohibited the use of any data about sea-level changes in determining coastal policy in the state. The law was drafted in response to a report from the state-appointed North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission’s expert scientists, who advised that sea-level rises of about thirty-nine inches could be expected in the next hundred years, putting coastal communities in the Outer Banks region at grave risk. The law, formulated to regulate development permits, discounts these projections and prescribes a new method—rejected by most qualified scientists—for calculating sea-level rises,” the review said.

“The law now forbids the use of any new data and allows only historical data in making estimates of the sea level rise in awarding permits in the next four years….measurements taken in 1900 will form the baseline from which only linear extrapolations to the present day will be allowed,” the review said.  Thus the interests of the development industry, the attitudes of climate change denialists and ignorance combine to create a situation similar to the Catholic Church putting Galileo under house arrest. But as with Galileo reality intrudes and a few weeks after the law was passed tide gauge records showed that the coast from North Carolina to Massachusetts had been experiencing the fastest sea level rises in North America since 1980.

Surprising? Well not when the blog recalls being told by an Irish friend that, while travelling in the US South, a kindly gentlemen asked him what he thought about the introduction of Christianity to Europe by US forces in WWII. And who can forget, as the blog’s friend Paul Adams recalled at a recent lunch, the US Republican legislator who attacked bi-lingual education on the grounds that if English was good enough for Jesus it ought to be good enough for everyone else.