…Why Americans Deny Climate Change, Embrace Creationism, Believe in Ghosts and Other Preposterous Ideas
By Dr. Joseph Chuman,
Leader of The Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County
I find it one of the most astounding and disturbing facts about Americans. It is also more than a little frightening. And that is, why so many Americans hold to beliefs that defy reason, common sense and evidence, not to mention the findings of science.
Consider the following: A recent survey conducted by Yale and George Mason Universities found that 23% of Americans deny global warming. Of those who accept it, only 47% believe that human agency plays a role in altering the climate. And the positions of those who deny global warming appear to be hardening.
More astounding, 42% of Americans believe that God created humanity as it exists a mere 10,000 years ago. By contrast, only 19% believe that human beings evolved from prior forms of life exclusively as a result of natural selection absent any divine agency. Forget carbon dating. Forget that evolution can now be demonstrated in the laboratory, or that evolution is the pillar of modern biology. Americans seem not to care. While education has a bearing on the percentages, 25% of the creationist camp includes college graduates.
A Harris poll in 2014 found that 42% of Americans believe in ghosts. And to round off this journey into credulity, an FDU survey published in January of this year discovered that one in five Americans continues to deny that Barack Obama was born in the United States.
The dark valley of unreason and nonsensical belief
I could go on and on along this journey into the dark valley of unreason and nonsensical belief.
But what vexes me, is how are we to understand it? Vexatious, it is. Our democracy and ultimately our freedom is based on an educated and, I presume, prevailingly rational, citizenry being able to make judicious decisions based on facts, reason and evidence. But if vast swaths of Americans eschew the text of evidence and seemingly are contemptuous of facts, how are they to exercise their electoral franchise toward good ends? If there is no regard for facts, evidence and reason, where can we find room for dialogue, persuasion and mutually beneficial compromise, the life blood of democracy? Without these basic tools, social peace and ultimately freedom are at great risk.
But, again, how are we to understand this cult of unreason? There are, no doubt, many causes. The poverty of education has much to do with it – education that is deficient in teaching critical thinking skills. The influence of religion, particularly of a very conservative kind, which has become such a powerful agent in American life, is a major cause.
Seeking explanations: the role of “culture”
But I don’t believe these explanations are sufficient. I would add to them the influence, of what for lack of a better term, we can refer to as culture. We presume that people are rational in order to maximize their happiness, to acquire certain goods that they would not have unless they so acted and made choices based on fact. In this sense, to act on reason and evidence is sound policy to enhance our advantages in life. We employ our reason when it comes to choosing a medical procedure, making a business venture, selecting which product we will buy. Given a choice to make decisions based on facts, evidence, and reason, why would anyone elect to do otherwise?
The explanation, I believe, rests on the powerful yen people share to be part of a group that holds common values, even if those values fly in the face of reason. “Man does not live by bread (or reason) alone.” He, or she, lives in order to feel a sense of belonging with those who hold common values; a sense of belonging that will shore up his/her identity, place in the social order, and sense of meaning.
These cultural and psychological drives, I contend, can supersede the desire to maximize self-interest, materially understood. They can overwhelm the impulse toward reason and rational consistency. They speak to the complexity of human beings to act out of motives that are not readily explicable by reasoned analysis.
For my address of May 3rd, I will give it a try, however. My title is “What’s Reason Got to Do With It?: Why Americans Deny Climate Change, Embrace Creationism, Believe in Ghosts and Other Preposterous Ideas.” I hope you can join me.