Throwback Thursday: The new Know-Nothings

Earlier this week, I read a column in The New York Times by Paul Krugman titled "A Plague of Willful Ignorance" and later the same day a Washingon Post column titled "The U.S. is falling behind its peers. Americans - if not their leaders - are starting to notice." The columns pricked my memory. Hadn't I written something along those same lines a few years ago? A search through the blog archives revealed that my memory was correct. Almost eight years ago in 2012, I had written this post about "The new Know-Nothings." Little could I have guessed at the time to what levels these Know-Nothings would sink. They have left their nineteenth-century forbears in the dust when it comes to willful ignorance.


Thursday, September 27, 2012

The new Know-Nothings

I was reading a story about Bill Nye, the Science Guy, a couple of days ago when I came across a sentence that literally made me groan out loud. It said, "In June, a Gallup poll revealed that 46 percent of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form about 10,000 years ago." So much for science and the fossil record. So much for critical thinking. These people prefer to accept the Bible as their scientific and historical text and not worry their little heads about any more complicated explanations. Oh, well, I guess we should just be relieved that the percentage wasn't even higher.

As the story pointed out, the United States stands alone among modern industrialized states in this Know-Nothingism. It's only in the most backward and theocratic places on earth that you would find such a high percentage of people who refuse to acknowledge evolution as settled science.

The same disheartening assessment can be made regarding human-caused global warming. The United States is the center, the hotbed of denialism.

Indeed, a denial of evolution and a denial of global climate change seem to go hand-in-hand. Both refusals to accept the facts established by science involve a kind of magical thinking. Dinosaurs and humans walked the earth at the same time and Noah carried two of them onto the Ark! God is looking out for us and will not allow the earth's systems to be destroyed by human negligence; therefore, global warming cannot be happening. Both thought processes, of course, absolve humans of any responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

In this march back to the Dark Ages, Texas Republicans proudly lead the way. Earlier this year, they came up with a party platform that sought to ban the teaching of critical thinking skills in schools! Their reason was that critical thinking causes people to focus on behavior modification and, according to them, it has "the purpose of challenging the student's fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority." Heaven forbid that a fifteen-year-old should be forced to reexamine his/her "fixed beliefs" or that s/he should question whether father really knows best. 

This refusal of a large percentage of Americans to think critically and rationally about issues facing them and the country certainly goes a long way toward explaining many of the problems which our society has. It truly is enough to make one despair of the future. In fact, Bill Nye himself seems to despair of the adults whose brains are already ossified, but, in a video that is making its way around the Internet, he asks them please not to impose their beliefs on their children.

It seems a reasonable argument to me. Let the kids think for themselves and make up their own minds. Somehow, though, I doubt it will be persuasive to that 46 percent that the Gallup pollsters counted.


  1. This is an important post. The modern denial of science is flabbergasting and it is real. In the case of climate change it is endangering humanity.

    Right wing science denial is by far the biggest problem for several reasons. I will just add however, that many scientists and those who interpret science have been complaining above science denialism coming from the left. It is mostly in the form of Blank Slatism. Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, Russell Blackford’s The Tyranny of Opinion, and the book that I recently read, Steve Stewert - Smith’s The Ape that Understood the Universe have all detailed the issue.

    1. Refusal to even consider evidence that might contradict your pet beliefs really is the mark of a closed and stagnant mind.

  2. Thanks for reprising this really well-written piece, Dorothy. i admire your writing skills and I concur with everything you have said in your article. i just read it to Miriam and she said, "Forward it to me!" Well done!

  3. Sometimes I feel such despair for the world.

  4. I wonder what 46% of the people believed before the flood. I think a lot of the current day denial of science is based on fear, which of course includes a denial of responsibility for causing the problems we have or doing anything to change the way things are. The question remains: who or what keeps people in fear? I have to lay that responsibility on those who want to keep the upper hand, whether it be the rich, certain politicians, certain religious leaders, etc. Apparently those individuals are doing a good job of it.

    1. If Gallup did the same poll today, I wonder what that percentage would be.


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