Saturday, August 22, 2009

Social Determinants of Ignorance

In a very disconcerting sign of the times, a recent poll found that nearly half of Americans were accepting the fear mongering and fallacious charges against health care reform. One of the most concerning findings was that forty-five percent of respondents thought that the current health care reform proposal would likely "allow the government to make decisions about when to stop providing medical care to the elderly." While I am aware that this charge is out there, I assumed (wrongly, as usual) that any responsible person would try to verify this extreme and dangerous claim.

This got me thinking more broadly about how easily the public is misled and where this comes from. I have heard many people blame the individuals themselves for their ignorance on these issues; and I will admit I do have some sympathy for that view. However, taking a more sociological view, I am forced to look beyond the individual and examine the social nature of these misunderstandings. This brought me to some recent findings on beliefs about evolution.

The Pew Research Center recently released a study that contained some pretty depressing findings regarding the public's knowledge (or beliefs) regarding science. They found that eighty-seven percent of scientists agree with the statement that "Humans and other livinging things have evolved over time due to natural processes." For the general public this number dropped to a dismal thirty-two percent. In the study they also break down the findings demographically which provides some interesting insights and show clear social patterning across age, eductation, and religious beliefs or lack thereof. The social patterning and the clear lack of widespread scientific thinking amongst the majority of society speaks to something more structural than individual.

Part of the problem certainly lies within the education system, but clearly, many people who end up being scientists began in the same schools as those that will go on to believe Obama wants to kill your grandmother. Thus, improved education alone would likely only serve to close the gap somewhat. It would seem a more lasting solution would have to involve making scholarly and academic findings more approachable. Allowing people to be involved in education throughout their lives. Until Americans can tell the difference between a legitimate reliable source and the ramblings of conspiracy theorists, or fear mongers, we will continue facing these one-sided debates. Debates where the facts are on one side and anger, fear, and ignorance are on the other. I don't mean to belittle anyone's opposition to health care reform, as I have written previously about its inadequacies. However, a real, informed debate about health care simply isn't possible in the U.S. because the knowledge gap is so big. Providing people the tools to close that gap and setting up structures to do so would reap benefits far beyond the political sphere.

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