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Eine andere Welt

Nov. 14, 2014 by | Comments (44)
INSIGHT is not a political blog. However, the travelogue format Dr. Prothero has used here is inherently personal, and certain scientific topics discussed in the post (such the understanding and communication of climate science) are intertwined with political and social trends. I’ve decided to post this opinion/travel piece as written, with the note that the author’s political views are his own.—Editor.

I’ve written again and again on the old SkepticBlog site and in my book Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future about the problems of science deniers in the United States. The U.S. is unique among the developed nations in the world in having a significant percentage of the population that embraces such anti-scientific ideas, despite our huge amount of money spent on education and science literacy. Indeed, we are the only developed nation in the world which has an entire major political party advocating scientific nonsense like this.

Thus, I was fortunate in the first week of November to find myself spending 7 days in Berlin, away from the political maelstrom occurring the U.S. Officially, I was presenting my research at the 74th Annual Meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology, my main professional meeting (and my 37th SVP meeting in a row). But instead of being isolated from the host country in a hotel, and relying on English-speaking tour guides (as most Americans do), I spent the week as a guest of my buddy from grad school, Dr. David Lazarus, a Curator at the Museum für Naturkunde (natural history museum), and his wife, Dr. Barbara Kohl. David is still a U.S. citizen, raised in Minneapolis but he has lived in many parts of the U.S.; for the past 30 years he has lived in Germany and Switzerland. Thus, he has an interesting perspective on life in the U.S. and in Europe, which I found valuable. I also immersed myself in the German lifestyle, taking public transit to my destinations, exploring the neighborhoods of Berlin, and doing it entirely with my rusty Deutsch from college. When you immerse yourself in another culture, you get a very different perspective on your own—and it’s not just better command of the language, and learning how customs are different. It can be a truly eye-opening experience.

First of all, Germany and nearly all the developed nations in Europe have absolutely no significant influence of creationists or climate deniers or other types of pseudoscientists. In fact, they are shocked and incredulous that one of the two political parties in the U.S. has been captured by anti-scientists, and that it  has so much power and influence (especially after the last election). Instead of our polarized and dysfunctional politics, the Germans  have a right-center party, the CDU (about as liberal as the U.S. Democratic Party), and a left-center party, the SPD, plus a strong Green Party and a number of smaller parties. These parties often cannot get a majority of seats in the Bundestag by themselves, so they must form coalitions and compromise to keep the country going—something inconceivable in our polarized system in the U.S. with almost no moderates left. The current Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is a member of the CDU, but she was trained as a scientist (Ph.D. in physical chemistry at the University of Leipzig, and also fluent in Russian and English). Having an advanced degree as a scholar is a mark of great achievement in Europe, and Europeans hold their scholars and scientists in highest respect. Merkel is not the only leader to earn an advanced degree, and in fact Europeans tend to vote for intellectuals and scholars and scientists, so much so that a few have claimed fraudulent credentials to enhance their election chances. There is none of this stubborn anti-intellectual streak that the U.S. so shamefully exhibits, where the ignorant scorn the people with education and it’s actually a liability in American politics to seem too smart. Instead of the respect they deserve, American climate scientists who become public figures in the climate change debate have been attacked by members of Congress, had their funding and research scrutinized by political hacks, and suffered through death threats.

As a consequence of the political events of the 1960s and later, most of these northern European countries have invested in the welfare of their citizens. They have universal health care that is excellent, generous medical disability, maternity, and other leaves, paid vacations, excellent free education (including college education), generous retirements, and cradle-to-grave security. Germany and most of the northern European countries (along with Canada and developed Asian countries like Japan and South Korea) dominate the Human Development Index, and the top 15 of the PISA rankings of math, science, and reading. By contrast, the U.S. is down about 28th to 30th on this ranking. In almost every measure of the health, opportunity, and well-being of its citizens (such as the Social Progress Index), Germany ranks near the top, while the U.S. is much lower in ranking. Germany does not have the huge extremes between the rich and poor that the U.S. does, ranking among the best countries in the world in income inequality, where the U.S. is below average. Yet this “evil socialism” has not hampered Germany at all. It remains the economic giant of the EU, and one of the most prosperous countries in Europe. As always, the trains run on time. Heck, they even had a transit strike while I was there—but it was a very civilized strike that only struck a few lines. It ended up being just a mild inconvenience, not the kind of strike that paralyzes the whole country.

In particular, Germany (like much of northern Europe) has responded to the oil embargoes of the 1970s by investing heavily in solar, wind, and other forms of green energy and technology, putting it in the top 5 countries of the world in the Climate Change Performance Index in 2013, and the top 6 in the Environmental Performance Index. The U.S., by contrast, is one of the world’s worst polluters per capita and and one of the biggest energy hogs per capita.  Germany leads the world in having almost 75% of its electricity produced by renewable sources, with one of the highest percentages of usage of wind power in the world, and also significant solar and hydroelectric power as well. Thanks to the horrors of the acid rain that nearly destroyed the Black Forest, Germany has moved away from mining its extensive reserves of dirty “brown coal” in the western regions, and no longer pollutes its atmosphere as it once did. My hosts reflected this transformation. They have one car (a Prius hybrid) which they rarely use, because public transit gets them to work and nearly everywhere else they need to go. A high percentage of Berliners need no car at all. They have energy-efficient heating in their well-insulated home (which was warm and cozy even though cold weather was already there), and of course recycling is everywhere.

Taken together, these things explain a lot of the reasons why climate denialism has no place in Germany, or indeed in any other developed country other than the U.S. (and, sadly, Australia at the moment). But the lack of a strong creationist influence on the culture is probably due to the low religiosity of the country. As Phil Zuckerman found out when he lived in Denmark, and others (such as Greg Paul) have noticed, nearly all the northern European countries (especially the Scandinavian countries, Germany, and the U.K.) have become almost entirely non-religious and secular, even if they have a nominal state religion (such as Anglicanism in England). Germany and the Scandinavian countries are at the top of most lists in terms of their lack of religion (especially fundamentalist religion). Zuckerman, Paul, and many others have hypothesized that the stable secure lifestyles engendered by cradle-to-grave protection makes people less religious, but whatever the reason, there is no influence of fundamentalism or creationism in any of the developed countries of Europe (or Asia, either). As Amanda Marcotte wrote in Salon online:

There’s a strong correlation between the happiest countries in the world and the least religious countries in the world, and along with Sweden and Denmark, Norway rates at the top of both lists. The two measurements have a complex relationship with each other. People likely look to religion less when they want for less, for one thing, but it also may be that atheism flourishes in nations where people demonstrate high levels of commitment towards a socially just government and shared economic benefits. If you have faith in your nation and your fellow citizens, putting faith in religion as well might just seem rather pointless.

Sadly, as the battles over health care showed, most Americans are not only completely unaware of how people in other countries live, but completely uninterested in learning anything from them as well. To most of the world with universal health care, it seemed truly bizarre that Americans were fighting over something which nearly all the rest of the developed world already has. Americans are now becoming notorious for their naive jingoism and insularity, and not knowing or caring about what the rest of the world is like. We hear pundits bragging about American exceptionalism and supremacy, while the statistics and polls I cited above show the opposite is true. (We are #1 in military spending and in a lot of things we should not be proud of, such as income inequality and poverty for a nation as rich as ours). I see this in my own students, who hear the word “Germany” and immediately think of Nazi stereotypes from movies and TV. Whenever I mention a geologic term that comes from German or French or some other foreign language, I find that none of my college students has taken French or German (or sometimes ANY foreign language). How can we conduct informed debates about policy, and understand our place in the world, when we live with stereotypes or ignorance of most of the rest of the world’s people?

Standing at Checkpoint Charlie, the gateway through the Berlin Wall, 25 years after the Wall came down

Standing at Checkpoint Charlie, the gateway through the Berlin Wall, 25 years after the Wall came down

Meanwhile, I was grateful to be in Eine andere Welt (“another world”) for a week, having an eye-opening experience. I first visited Berlin as a high-school student in 1971 on a summer tour of Europe, and saw much of West Germany as well as passing through Checkpoint Charlie in a tour bus to see Communist East Berlin up close. This time, I had the good fortune to be there on November 8-9, 2014, the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I walked from Checkpoint Charlie along the now open streets where the Wall used to be, eventually reaching the Brandenburg Gate and the heart of the city. Later that evening, they had grand ceremonies commemorating that momentous event, with fireworks, laser shows, and speeches by their leaders. There was also a grand concert of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with the Berlin Opera Orchestra and Chorus, singing Schiller’s immortal words that Beethoven used in his last great work:

Alle Menschen werden Brüder

All men become brothers.

Donald Prothero

Dr. Donald Prothero taught college geology and paleontology for 35 years, at Caltech, Columbia, and Occidental, Knox, Vassar, Glendale, Mt. San Antonio, and Pierce Colleges. He earned his B.A. in geology and biology (highest honors, Phi Beta Kappa, College Award) from University of California Riverside in 1976, and his M.A. (1978), M.Phil. (1979), and Ph.D. (1982) in geological sciences from Columbia University. He is the author of over 35 books. Read Donald’s full bio or his other posts on this blog.

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