Not quite seven signs of the apocalypse

Wacky newsA 2014 story on Salon, titled 7 things Americans think are more plausible than man-made global warming made its way around Facebook again, recently. It lists seven statistics about things Americans believe in more than they believe that human activity has caused climate change. It got a lot of shares and likes.

Climate change is, of course, fact, and as Peter Schickele once said, “Fact is fact. You can’t argue with fact…”

If you accept those facts, it seems a scary read: seven signs of the apocalypse… But before you start calling for a wall across our border to keep the crazies from migrating north, read on.

First, these figures were selectively pulled together to weigh against the American belief in human-caused climate change, not to present a coherent overview of American thought or education. They may be true, but they are not unbiased. And there is little to no correlation between these issues. As Darrell Huff wrote in his 1954 book, How to Lie With Statistics:

Even if you can’t find a source of demonstrable bias, allow yourself some degree of skepticism about the results as long as there is a possibility of bias somewhere. There always is.

Climate change is a hot topic during the presidential primary nomination campaign because Americans are split along party lines: Republicans are non-believers and Democrats are believers (see here). It is not so much a matter of belief in or understanding of the science than it is an issue of ideology. But we never get to know the what party the respondents support.

We will never know if people don’t believe in climate change because that’s what their party tells them to believe.

There are other similar partisan lines: immigration, taxes, medicare, gun control, for example, that are ideologically-based beliefs, rather than based on any research, data, or sometimes even common sense. However, the Slate piece draws in several disparate items – none of them election issues – in its article. Do they relate to belief in climate change? Not really.

The first statistic: 77 percent of Americans believe in angelsThat’s actually down from another poll taken five years earlier that found 81% of Americans believe in angels. But it means more than three our of four Americans believe their imaginary playmates are real beings.

Scary, maybe. Silly, yes. Embarrassingly gullible, I agree. And probably due to the widespread acceptance of New Age woo hoo online. But what does it have to do with climate change? (read my digression, below…)

Other items noted in the Salon article include:

    • 1 in 4 Americans believe the sun revolves around the Earth.
    • Only 60 percent of Americans believe in evolution.
    • 51 percent of Americans don’t trust the Big Bang theory.
    • Only 44 percent of Americans are confident that vaccines don’t cause autism.
    • 48 percent of Americans think the Civil War was about states’ rights, while only 38 percent of Americans believe it was over slavery.
    • 55 percent of Americans believe that the Founding Fathers established this country as a Christian nation in the Constitution.

The last two are particularly American. Both can be easily refuted by fact, but for some folk, facts only interfere with their already determined beliefs. However, they are probably the results of poor education in history, not related in any way to climate change. The video below shows that who you ask matters (and knowing that data helps others draw conclusions):

The items in the list may somehow relate to the levels of education although we are never given such information about what sort of schooling any respondent has in the basics of astronomy, biology or history, so we have no data to weight any of these figures against it.

Perhaps education is a correlation: people who are well educated will tend to believe the science of climate change instead of the ideological rhetoric against it. But simply because someone doesn’t understand the Big Bang theory or is hazy on their history doesn’t really have anything to do with how they understand climate change. It is disingenuous to associate them.

That anyone today would think the Sun revolves around the Earth… well, that’s just plain stupid. Someone that dense would probably vote for Donald Trump. Is that how it relates to their belief in climate change?

The Big Bang is a challenging theory even for the cognoscenti. Not everyone reads Steven Hawking to get a grip on the current state of cosmology. Even simple explanations stretch the mind. But not understanding one aspect of science doesn’t mean people won’t understand another.

Understanding evolution in America is, of course, confounded by religious myopia that leads to a flawed, literalist and selective interpretation of the Bible. We see a lot of that in the USA: creationism gets heavily promoted by religious wingnuts like Ken Ham. He may be weak in science, but he’s gangbusters in self-promotion and media attention.

Based on what I’ve seen of the primaries, there are more fundamentalists in the Republican camp where climate change is disbelieved, so that might be a correlation. But we are not given any data on the religious or political associations of the respondents, so we cannot know for sure.

The anti-vaccine movement is like the anti-GMO movement: based on scare-tactic pseudoscience promoted by celebrities and other glitterati who lack both the education and knowledge (and likely intelligence) to understand what they rave on about. They do know how to make money from the gullible and to gain free publicity as they fleece them.

Turning to wingnuts like Gwenyth Paltrow for advice on medicine, health, food, nutrition, exercise or body care – or asking Vani Hari for advice about food – is akin to asking your goldfish to explain the Fibonacci sequence.

Actually it’s worse, because these people are dangerous: they’re helping spread disease, unhealthy practices and bad nutrition, not simply lies and misinformation. But a lot of people – not simply Americans – turn to the glitterati for such advice. And thus the anti-GMO and anti-vaccine conspiracies have grown.

Still, falling for popular beliefs or jumping on these anti-science bandwagons may be stupid and dangerous, but climate change has its own bandwagon, created through the politicizing of the issue. And I cannot see how a worry about autism from vaccinations has anything to do with climate change.

I hesitate to draw the line in the metaphorical sand at science. To suggest there are people who believe in or understand the science on one side and those who don’t on the other is too simplistic. Other elements motivate beliefs; social, family, politics, religion, friends, education, wealth, even social media and online pressure.

While it’s entertaining to read stories like these, they are not science, or good statistics. They are like the tabloids: stories cobbled together for shock and awe, but really have no relevant data in them about the actual issue they try to frame the story around.

Perhaps a more informative (and less histrionic) piece is the Pew Research article on Americans, Politics and Science Issues, from July, 2015. It opens by saying that political ideologies have set the tone for these issues:

One of the key trends in public opinion over the past few decades has been a growing divide among Republicans and Democrats into ideologically uniform “silos.” A larger share of the American public expresses issue positions that are either consistently liberal or conservative today than did so two decades ago, and there is more alignment between ideological orientation and party leanings.

The climate change deniers are a threat to our well-being, and I share concerns over the number of people who side with them. But the way to win them over is not by finger-pointing at their other beliefs – no matter how ridiculous they appear. What the article lacks is any suggestion how to change the numbers, how to educate people in climate change science better.

Perhaps it could have ended with this simple but elegant explanation of the process from Dr. Michael Ranney of Berkeley University who wrote:

(a) Earth absorbs most of the sunlight it receives;
(b) Earth then emits the absorbed light’s energy as infrared light;
(c) greenhouse gases absorb a lot of the infrared light before it can leave our atmosphere;
(d) being absorbed slows the rate at which energy escapes to space; and
(e) the slower passage of energy heats up the atmosphere, water, and ground.


A digression about the American belief in angels and other imaginary friends: Canadians are not that much less gullible. According to a story in Maclean’s magazine in 2015, 62% of Canadians share similar belief in angels. But, says Angus Reid, chairman of the Angus Reid Institute,

“I’m not convinced what we’re seeing there is a fervent religious belief in the existence of angels. I don’t think it’s religiously rooted as much as it’s rooted in pop culture.”

That’s not particularly less worrisome. Angels associated with religion generally come from some basis in scripture and can be argued back to the authority of those words. Whether you believe in religion or not, whether you believe in the authority of scripture, angels or their equivalents are integral to religious heritages worldwide; part of numerous religious mythologies, including Christianity.

Angels in pop culture, on the other hand, are cut from their religious anchors and allowed to fly around into all sorts of superstitious, anti-science, wingnut notions. They end up just more anti-intellectual New Age woo-hoo, like ghosts, superfoods, magic crystals, essential oils, homeopathy, paranormal, reiki, chemtrails, psychics, UFOs, anti-GMO hysteria and fortune telling.

An AP/GFK poll found more than 40% of Americans who don’t attend religious services also believe in angels. That’s because of New Age woo hoo: not an improvement over religious belief. In fact, it’s probably worse because gullible people who fall for one woo hoo tend to fall for a lot of it. It’s contagious. Religious people tend to stick to one faith and not take up the mythologies or superstitions of another.

Yet despite sharing some elements, these sides are at odds with one another. Look, for example, at this piece on the Last Hiker blog, titled, “Adult Coloring Books and Mandalas, A Warning For Christians.” The author warns:

Focusing on mandalas is a spiritual practice where you merge with “deities”–this practice opens the door to demons… f the enemy can get a Christian to stare at a mandala because they are coloring it, he can have them absentmindedly focus their attention on the image and they will unknowingly open up their subconscious to this image in almost the same way.

Really? This is an adult writing this piffle? Or some brainwashed child? Demons and devils and orcs, oh my!

But wait, it gets funnier (if you can laugh at superstitious gullibility… which I can). The post links to an even wackier post on another site that warns meditation is a “pathway to the occult.” Which then says meditation can “channel” your consciousness into other imaginary, supernatural entities and that’s bad for devout Christians. Wait, I thought channelling was New Age woo hoo not religious belief…

No, I’m not making this stuff up. Layers and layers of religious piffle interspersed with New Age woo hoo. And that’s where a lot of those angels come in. Channelled, I suppose…

However, look at the results of a 2004 Gallup poll that showed 56% of Canadians believe in angels. Has the number of Canadian believers in imaginary beings risen in the intervening decade? It doesn’t seem to be paired with a corresponding rise in religious belief. Does that actually mean a rise in New Age woo-hoo?

That would be extra scary, but given the spread of pseudoscience and wingnut ideas on social media, it doesn’t surprise me. The internet is an incubator for woo hoo.

Rather curiously, the poll showed only 37% of Canadians believe in the devil. One poll shows 56% of Americans believe in the devil, not surprising given Americans are generally more religious (in a fundamentalist, Christian manner) than we are.

Lucifer, for all the metaphorical and allegorical value he offers to literature, is like the Little Mermaid and Santa Claus, but is more religiously anchored. Demons are seldom seen in New Age woo hoo which somehow fills its universe with happy unicorns, benevolent fairies, and angels that help you pick lottery tickets – without the Evil One and his minions to stir things up. That suggests that Reid was right: the belief in angels is tied in large part to modern claptrap rather than religion.

Angels, demons, fairy godmothers, the devil, invisible pink unicorns, Santa Claus: imaginary friends and mythical beings are part of the natural development of children and their imagination. Most children grow out of them – or should.

It may be a sign of the intellectual apocalypse, when adults continue to believe in this stuff. What is it in our culture, our social structure that has so many adults still maintaining elements of their childhood? Religious belief can’t entirely account for it. Social media has to be brought into the equation. But maybe it’s something in the water.

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