OK, so maybe the title is a little overly dramatic, but I do think that the majority if problems in this country do stem from a lack of education. While we in the atheist community do tend to focus more on the lack of education among the religious right, I think that this is a problem that afflicts the entire ideological spectrum. Let’s start by looking at some motivating examples.
The most obvious point of contention due to lack of education is, in my opinion, evolution. The evidence for the big bang, the age of Earth and the universe, and the origin of life are not debated, at least not by the vast majority of scientists. A large portion of the public, however, disagrees. 54% of the public believes that life evolved into its present form, and only 32% believe that life evolved without the aid of a designer. This stands in stark contrast with the 97% of scientists that believe life evolved, and 87% believe that life evolved naturally. Digging through the results more leads to some not-so-surprising observations. The more religious a person is, the more likely they are to believe in creationism, and the more educated a person is, the more likely they are to accept evolution. (1)
Another point of contention that follows close on the heals of evolution is anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change (ACC). The consensus isn’t as unanimous for ACC as it is for evolution, but it’s still pretty clear. Looking at the same survey cited above, we see that 94% of scientists say that the earth is warming, and 84% say it is anthropogenic. In contrast, 85% of the public say the earth is getting warmer, and only 49% say that it is anthropogenic. ACC follows the same trends as evolution, but the political correlation is much stronger than it is with evolution. This isn’t really surprising to me, since ACC doesn’t have strong religious implications. (1)
Those on the conservative side of the spectrum aren’t the only ones suffering from a lack of education. Here are some examples from the liberal side of the spectrum.
The biggest area where I see the a lack of education clouding public discourse from the left is with food. Food is a complicated issue, more complicated than evolution and ACC. Nonetheless, there is a lot of misinformation that stems from lack of education. First let me say that there are real problems in the food industry that need to be addressed. Animal rights are better, but still have a ways to go, and the food industry still has a lot of problems with transparency too that desperately need to be fixed. That said, the approach taken by many on the left to combat these problems is ill-informed. Nowhere is this more apparent, in my opinion, than in documentary Food, Inc. A good friend of mine works for an independent food testing lab and has a graduate degree in Food Science with a specialization in food safety from whom I have learned a lot about the science of food. Long story short, Food Inc. is only about 20% to 30% accurate. As an example, let’s compare two scenes from the movie. There is one scene where they show pigs in a slaughter facility that are sealed in this large metallic enclosure, and then they slide out of the other end, unconscious. It’s unsettling to watch, if you don’t know what’s going on. Later, there is a scene where an organic rancher is slaughtering chickens outdoors by slitting their throats, without any such contraption. The movie sets up the second scene as the superior method, but the reality is much different. When pigs are slaughtered, they are first knocked unconscious using carbon dioxide (this is the shot shown in the movie), then their blood is drained, usually by slitting their throats (3). The basic killing mechanism is the same in both scenes, but the “evil” food company adds the extra step of knocking the pigs out first. Dying from blood loss is an extremely painful way to die, and rendering the animal unconscious first is considerably more humane. Yet this specific step intended to make the slaughtering of pigs more humane is displayed as inhumane and evil, and the inhumane method is exalted, simply because people don’t understand what they are watching.
Another food issue where there is a spectacular lack of education is food irradiation. Most people fear food irradiation because it contains that word “radiation” in it. However, it is actually quite safe, once you learn the science behind it. Food irradiation uses Cobalt-60 as it’s radioactive source. This is key because Cobalt-60 release gamma radiation, not alpha radiation (e.g. uranium-235) or beta radiation (e.g. plutonium-239). Gamma radiation differs from alpha and beta radiation in that it emits a photon instead of a nucleon (proton and neutron) or electron/positron. It’s actually more closely related to X-Rays than it is to alpha and beta radiation, even though the name doesn’t sound that way. For more information on types of radiation, Ars Technica has a great writeup here (4). Food irradiation works by exposing the food to a Cobalt-60 source. Critical point: the food never comes into direct contact with the Cobalt-60! Instead, the food comes into contact with the gamma particles emitted by the Cobalt-60, which cease to exist once they are absorbed. In other words, the food does not become radioactive, which is the important fact that most people are ignorant of. The EPA has a great analogy: food irradiation is like shining a flashlight on food. It only becomes contaminated if you stick the flashlight itself in the food. (5) It’s really sad too that people are so afraid of food-irradiation, because it could pretty much eliminate pathogenic bacteria in food. Salmonella, Listeria, E. Coli 0157:H7, and the like would become a thing of the past, just like vaccinations did to small pox in the US.
I picked these four examples because I think they are representative of the issues each side struggles with as a whole. The right tends to struggle with topics that disagree with their religion/world view, for rather obvious reasons. Whether directly or indirectly, learning the truth would shatter their world view, and so not only do they not educate themselves on these topics, they actually go out of their way to attack our understanding of said topics. That they are willfully ignorant makes the problem much worse because it’s not just a simple matter of informing them of the truth.
The left, on the other hand, tends to struggle with issues of health and well-being. I think that these views come about from a desire to make the world a better place, and a general mistrust of corporations (which is admittedly warranted to a certain extent). This desire to “save the world” combined with a distrust of authority tends to encourage viewing the world in terms of black and white, when it is anything but. It also tends to make people much more susceptible to emotional arguments, which makes understanding the complexities of an argument all but impossible.
Are these two groups equivalently uninformed, and are they equally dangerous? I don’t think so. The former intentionally discourage education, and even views it as the enemy. The latter is merely misguided. Nonetheless, all of these problems are caused by a lack of education, more specifically a lack of scientific education. If people were better educated, we wouldn’t still be dealing with these issues. When dealing with people ignorant of science, I often think, somewhat sarcastically, “If only this person had a Ph.D. in a scientific field.” Obviously that’s not possible; most people simply aren’t capable of the rigor of science, but wouldn’t it be nice. I firmly believe that most of the problems in this country are due to people’s lack of education, and the solution is more education, somehow.
As an aside: I originally started writing this post in response to a blog post by Roger Ebert about a dumbed-down version of The Great Gatsby, one of my all-time favorite books. (8) After doing some digging, the situation is more complex. These dumbed-down books are targeted at people still learning English, which implies people who are non-native English speakers, but an interview with the author leaves room for doubt. (9) The facts of the case turned out to be too nebulous to do a thorough discussion.
(1) “Public Praises Science; Scientists Fault Public, Media: Scientific Achievements Less Prominent Than a Decade Ago.” Pew Research Center. 9th July, 2009. Available: http://people-press.org/2009/07/09/section-5-evolution-climate-change-and-other-issues/
(2) “Evolution.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolution
(3) “Pig Slaughter.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pig_slaughter
(4) Timmer, John. “Know your nukes: understanding radiation risks in Japan.” Ars Technica. 26 March, 2011. Available: http://arstechnica.com/science/news/2011/03/know-your-nukes-understanding-radiation-risks-in-japan.ars
(5) “Food Irradiation.” Environmental Protection Agency. Available: http://www.epa.gov/radiation/sources/food_irrad.html
(6) “Food Irradiation.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_irradiation
(7) “Stanford University.” Wikipedia. Available: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_University
(8) Ebert, Roger. “Gatsby without greatness.” Chicago Sun-times. 6th July, 2011. Available: http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/2011/07/_did_it_seem_to.html
(9) “An Interview with Margaret Tarner.” Macmillian Readers. Available: http://www.macmillanreaders.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/07/MargaretTarnerInterviewTranscript2.pdf