PAUL HOLMES: Americans' tendency to support faith over facts can't be ignored by public affairs pros

If ignorance is truly bliss, the era of American dominance in world affairs will likely end with a big stupid grin on its face.

If ignorance is truly bliss, the era of American dominance in world affairs will likely end with a big stupid grin on its face.

A recent Gallup poll found that only slightly more than a third of Americans believe that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution has been supported by the facts. Meanwhile, almost half (45%) believe that God created human beings pretty much in their present form about 10,000 years ago.

Meanwhile, a New York Times/CBS poll finds that almost two-thirds of Americans (65%) would like to see creationism taught alongside evolution in the country's science classes, while 37% want creationism to be taught in place of evolution.

In other words, despite all the talk of a knowledge economy, we live in a society that is unique among Western cultures in its hostility toward knowledge and its belief that empiricism is an unsatisfactory method for arriving at the truth. It is a society in which contradictions between belief and facts too often conclude with a rejection of the facts.

By contrast, only 7% in the UK believe the bible represents a literal account of the creation of humanity.

We're seeing the consequences of this faith-based perspective on the world play out in school-board meetings around the country, where evolution is denounced as "just a theory" (demonstrating either ignorance or willful disregard of the scientific meaning of the word theory).

Why does this matter to PR people?

First, it ought to be of deep concern to anyone in the pharmaceutical industry, or any other industry dependent on a clear understanding of how science works. A society that elevates primitive superstition above intellectual rigor is not likely to produce its share of the great minds of tomorrow.

It ought to be a concern, too, to anyone whose products are likely to be challenged on safety grounds - from chemical companies to food companies to power generators - because studies focused on how people perceive risk show a clear link between scientific illiteracy and exaggerated perceptions of the danger inherent in new technologies.

It's not particularly surprising that when it comes to public affairs most companies are focused on more immediate concerns, like the threat to the pharma industry posed by re-importing cheap drugs from overseas. But they would be advised to look long and hard at American attitudes toward science and begin to address them.

This is not a matter of donating a few philanthropic dollars to schools. Industry as a whole needs to take up scientific literacy as a cause, to explain why the scientific method is important, and to ensure that America doesn't continue its current slide into a new dark age.

  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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