I spent a large portion of this week trying to understand why seemingly reasonable people allow themselves to believe in unreasonable ideas like FEMA camps, Vaccine Truthers, Climate Change Deniers and–most confounding of all–Flat Earthers (start at about 10:00 min). I’ve discovered many opinions ranging from Cultivation Theory to the failing educational system in America coupled with the high valuation of entertainment.
The apparent rise of anti-intellectualism in America is a complex problem requiring perhaps many different solutions, but the argument I found particularly compelling was from historian Richard Hofstadter who claims (in part) that many Americans value practicality over enlightenment. This has caused many high school graduates to choose vocational training over going to a 4-year college (or to enter the work field immediately). It has further caused many college students to avoid the humanities (who can get a job with an art-historian degree?) However, Hofstadter and I agree, that studying the humanities is a very important part of developing critical thinking skills, creativity, and tolerance for new ideas and people.
I myself carefully guided my college career toward the practical imbibing the arts only as a reward, a luxury I just couldn’t give up. Though I do believe that I was being responsible by making sure my degree was marketable, I do not agree that the humanities are worthless skills. Instead, those skills must be translated into resume speak. Just like your (probably unused) high school algebra added to your brain in a possibly unquantifiable way, books, music, art, philosophy, history add to your brain in unquantifiable yet critical ways. They make you a smarter, better, more interesting, person capable of distinguishing fact from fiction.
To prove it, I’ve demonstrated the usefulness of art with my above tongue-in-cheek list. Look how my art classes in college prepared me to write a science-degree thesis. Isn’t critical thinking, part-to-whole and whole-to-part flexibility, and empathy qualities that you want in an employee, boss, or government representative?
Usually, I try to ignore idiocy because I find it a frustrating waste of time to convince willfully ignorant people to believe me and the rest of science. But while responding to rapper B.o.b’s flat-earther comments, Neil Degrasse Tyson said something to change my mind on this occasion:
In a free society you can and should believe whatever you want… but if you have influence over others, as would successful rappers or even presidential candidates, then being wrong becomes being harmful to the health, the wealth, and the security of our citizens.
As the next generation of Emergency Manager tasked with protecting the health, wealth, and security of our citizens, I’m finding a careful balance of practicality and enlightenment more essential than ever. We just can’t afford to be wrong on issues of climate change, vaccines, or the shape of our worlds.
PS: I read a lot of material that didn’t make it into this blog, but I think is worth your time. See it below:
- Climate Change
- Guardian: Presidential candidates on Climate Change
- Guardian (2014): Congress = anti-science?
- Politifact: Are Republicans climate change deniers?
- Environmental and Energy Study Institute: Fact Sheet, polling Americans on Climate Change (2014)
- Gallup poll: American views on climate change (2015)
- Huffington Post: many articles on gap between scientists and public
- Salon: Vaccine Trutherism
- Anti-intellectualism in America
- Huffington Post, 2015, opinion: “America’s Embrace of Ignorance”
- Psychology Today, opinion: “Fighting Back Against Anti-intellectualism”
- The Guardian, opinion: book banning contributing to anti-intellectualism?
- The Daily Beast: On Richard Hofstadter
- Scientific American: critical thinking is like a muscle