Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Sachs on Anti-Intellectualism

Jeff Sachs, probably the leading economist of development in the US today, and highly influential, just released an editorial on the last decade's trend in anti-intellectualism, connecting Sarah Palin to the trend.

I think it goes beyond that. As a Brit with 20-plus years in country and therefore an unofficial anthropologist of American culture, I can easily bear witness to the fact that you only have to step outside your door and interact with people to find the American anti-intellectual trend. A trip to the barber shop, the waiting room at the Jiffy-Lube, or the supermarket check-out, will quite ordinarily turn up someone who wants to tell you some conspiracy, deus ex machina, about how the world runs, all of their own making, while the great efforts to figure out how the world really runs, in social science, economics, biology, geophysics, sometimes seem virtually unknown in popular culture.

This despite (or perhaps because of) cable and satellite TV widely available with hundreds of channels, many carrying superb scientific content, and despite (or perhaps because of) a liberal press system that surely must be the most diverse and unfettered by libel or government interference of any in history.

By comparison, the UK system I grew up with thirty years age (four TV channels, a handful of national papers, seemingly few specialist magazines, and draconian libel laws) seems thoroughly deprived and trammeled, like the two-up/two down houses many of us Lydgate Lane Primary kids lived in. A spartan existence. When I were a lad....

But, as Tapton School showed us later, we were both more educated and educable. Most of us were, at least. But in this country, even the brightest kids from the best schools can be quite ignorant of science when they arrive at college.

(Believe me, I've been educating young Americans about science for long enough. I should know.)

But how can this be so?

One explanation is the BBC. With only two, and then three, TV channels in 1960s and '70s Britain, two of them government-run, it was inevitable myself and my school friends would study science in front of the tube. This wasn't an accident. When did Reithianism become a bad word?

Another explanation is that American conservative anti-intellectualism is one obvious outcome of a country founded at least partly on religious separatism and extreme protestant exceptionalism, and remains very long-lived indeed. The Pilgrim Fathers were less bastions of freedom, more religious dictators, iconoclastic and austere. The Scopes Trail is in direct descent from the Salem Witchcraft trails, and the Know-Nothing Party is alive and well.

Sarah Palin may co-occupy the same 50 states as the best and most widespread scientific program in history, but that doesn't mean to say she has ever been part of it, or even educated in what it has, can and will do. As such, she's more commonplace than exception.

The American Anti-Intellectual Threat

By Jeffry Sachs

NEW YORK – In recent years, the United States has been more a source of global instability than a source of global problem-solving. Examples include the war in Iraq, launched by the US on false premises, obstructionism on efforts to curb climate change, meager development assistance, and the violation of international treaties such as the Geneva Conventions. While many factors contributed to America’s destabilizing actions, a powerful one is anti-intellectualism, exemplified recently by Republican vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s surging popularity.

By anti-intellectualism, I mean especially an aggressively anti-scientific perspective, backed by disdain for those who adhere to science and evidence. The challenges faced by a major power like the US require rigorous analysis of information according to the best scientific principles.


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