Science Acceptance: The Urban-Rural Divide

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At first glance, it might seem like urbanites would have a leg up on rural communities when it comes to science acceptance. Urban dwellers are generally better educated, which in the past has translated to greater wealth (1, see Notes below), and that translates into less thinking about basic needs and more about cultural issues.

That isn't really the case when it comes to science acceptance, though. Instead of being better educated, urbanites are more likely to accept fad medicine; more likely to believe organic food has no chemicals; less likely to vaccinate their children; more likely to believe electric cars are more efficient than gasoline-powered ones; and more likely to believe natural gas fracturing is polluting water.

Want to learn about the potential of Big Data for optimizing a process? Ask a farmer. Ditto for when it comes to operating a business on razor-thin margins and using science to make good food grow with less environmental strain and less water on less land than was ever possible in the past.

Then there is the urban and rural divide on tackling disease.

The Zika virus, a quaint anomaly for decades, is suddenly in the news because of links to birth defects in children in South America. It is a vector-borne disease, so mosquitoes carry it. Cases in the United States have been limited to people traveling to areas where it is raging. So far.

But we have some of the same mosquitoes in the United States so plans are already being made to combat it. Immediately after it hit the news, some urban elites began a strange refrain about preventing its spread here; anything but DDT. It won't work because one mosquito is resistant, some wrote, while others said the cure would be worse than the disease. Even some academic science bloggers, who really should know better, chimed in. Create a vaccine instead of killing the bugs!

Who doesn't agree? Rural people, the ones most likely to be impacted by the mosquitoes and thus the disease. They are just fine whacking mosquitoes with chemicals and many of them know there is no ecological daisy chain where losing a few mosquito species would make any difference at all in our ecology. Urban elites still believe in the century-old philosophy that there is a "balance of nature" in which, as Ron Bailey writes in The End of Doom, "Each participant in the climax ecosystem supposedly is fitted tightly into niches as a result of coevolving together. Once achieved, the climax state is exquisitely balanced unless disturbed."

Scientists know that's not true, it's often simply a matter of who gets somewhere and survives. Just because disease-carrying mosquitoes have survived does not make them important. Yet the belief holds, much like fear of DDT does. DDT is feared because it was banned, and the thinking by urbanites is that it must be harmful or government would not have banned it. Farmers know better than most how flawed that reasoning is. Government gave over personal information on farmers and their employees to environmental activists, after all, a violation of privacy laws. Political bodies do all kinds of crazy things.

DDT was banned over 40 years ago, after a book called "Silent Spring" had made it famous. Joni Mitchell complained about it in a song, the public became concerned and it was soon gone. People today think that the Environmental Protection Agency did it but that is not really true. The EPA was instead created to formalize the ban and to make sure future products were not similarly banned due to political grandstanding. For the most part, they have been successful. Urban elites who run environmental groups have been trying to duplicate the success of the DDT ban, by inventing scares about products like alar, glyphosate and atrazine. The only one of those not used is alar, but that is only because the manufacturer withdrew it after a manufactured controversy by the CBS program "60 Minutes" (which the American Council on Science and Health famously debunked.) Glyphosate and atrazine have been re-registered numerous times, because the EPA requires data when it comes to claims that chemicals cause harm.

Who is not chemophobic the way urban elites are? Rural people. The marketing hook for 2-4,D after World War II was that it could "replace the hoe" and farmers, the ones working the hoes, have embraced science ever since. Urban people are terrified of chemical spraying, rural people know it is essential.

Writing in The Morning Sun, Bruce Edward Walker speaks what a lot of rural people are thinking when he complains that political elites canceled a contract with a mosquito pesticide vendor due to environmental concerns. What is the dreaded toxin? Permethrin, which acts like the chrysanthemum flower and was first registered in 1979 as a safer alternative to DDT and was re-registered in 2006. It's so safe it's sprayed in restaurants (Note 2).

Even the the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which declared sausage a carcinogen with a straight face, found permethrin was "not classifiable as to its carcinogenicity to humans" in 1991.

If IARC undertook that study today, it would likely find a way to make it a carcinogen, but that is due to changes in the make-up and goals of the committees they pick, not because of any risk.

Rural folk have always looked to science for progress, urban elites once did too. Maybe Zika will get everyone looking at data objectively once again.


(1) That gap has narrowed. In the early 1990s, politicians discovered that people with a college degree made more money than those without, so the solution was to give everyone a college degree. To do that, they made student loans unlimited so everyone could get a degree. Now, at least when it comes to income-debt ratio, a college education is no great bargain.

(2) The EPA keeps a ban on DDT in the U.S. but it shows foreign governments how to spray it, including inside homes.