Jeff Nesbit (opens in new tab) was the director of public affairs for two prominent federal science agencies. This article was adapted from one that first appeared in U.S. News & World Report. Nesbit contributed the article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) released an interesting, thought-provoking report recently on anti-Semitic views around the world. It was based on answers to 11 questions posed to tens of thousands of people in nearly 100 countries.
The main finding — that a quarter of the populations in these countries harbor anti-Semitic views — spurred considerable controversy. Commentators across the globe either praised ADL for its focus and findings, or condemned the group for creating "loaded" questions designed to lead respondents toward anti-Semitic views.
"Instead of designing a neutral questionnaire that would compare anti-Jewish attitudes to negative attitudes about other religions or ethnicities, it asked a series of 11 questions that stacked the deck in favor of anti-Semitic answers. It then defined you as an anti-Semite if you answered yes to six of the 11 questions," Noah Feldman wrote in Bloomberg View.
"The results might tell you something about relative degrees of anti-Semitism in different places — surprise: Saudis have a more negative attitude toward Jews than Danes do," Feldman wrote. "But other than the rhetorical effect of announcing that a quarter of the world’s people are anti-Jewish, the poll offers precious little in the way of actual knowledge."
However, overlooked by nearly every story about the ADL study was an equally disturbing finding that speaks volumes about why so many complicated or controversial political issues like marriage equality, climate change, gun control, healthcare reform or civil rights are hashed out in hysterical, mindless or irrational ways in the public square.
Half of the people in the world have never heard of the Holocaust, ADL found.
And in the other half — the ones who have at least heard of the Holocaust and the truth that Adolf Hitler ordered the deaths of 6 million Jews — a third of this group simply did not believe the Holocaust happened. To this group, the Holocaust is a lie, a myth, a hoax or a conspiracy by those with a political or ideological agenda.
This level of ignorance of the truth of history is mind-boggling. But it’s also the basis of deep conspiracy theories in lots of other areas where facts, evidence and science should settle a dispute or question and lead to rational or civil discourse — but doesn't.
If half the world has never heard of an event central to the course of political affairs since World War II — and a significant portion of the remaining population simply denies the factual reality of that event — then how can society reasonably expect rational, evidence-based dialogue in public arenas around an issue like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Sadly, that’s what this other, overlooked finding from the ADL global survey tells us. When so much of the public either doesn't know about big, important facts — or willfully dismisses them as hoaxes, lies or conspiracies — then we have essentially lost any ability to separate fact from fiction and resolve disputes based on evidence.
There are plenty of examples of this in other areas. A quarter of Americans don't believe tens of thousands of leading scientists who have now essentially ended the question of whether climate change is real, starting to happen now, and mostly caused by carbon-pollution sources.
Science has also largely settled central questions about human sexual orientation, substantive genetic differences between races in the human species, mental illness as a disease, or the efficacy of vaccines. But that hasn't stopped irrational political disputes in these areas — even as the level of scientific certainty and knowledge has deepened.
It does beg the question, though: How is it actually possible that half of the world has never heard of the Holocaust, and that a very large portion of the remainder denies that it ever even happened? What, exactly, do they believe happened at Auschwitz, Dachau and Buchenwald?
We're fortunate in the United States that teachers generally hew closely to fact- and evidence-based curricula — though this is starting to erode as anti-science, ideological agendas creep into studies in areas such as evolution and climate change. Our curricula at least give Americans a fighting chance at baseline knowledge of essential facts important to a functioning democratic society.
I was lucky. I had an inspiring World Affairs teacher in my public high school in Fort Wayne, Ind., who chose to teach us the histories of Nazi Germany by re-enacting the Nuremberg trials. Largely because no one else wanted the extra work, I volunteered to serve as the lead prosecutor of the Nazi criminals during our mock trials.
During the course of preparing for that mock trial in the classroom, I was forced to read volumes of history on what happened at those concentration and extermination camps in Nazi Germany throughout World War II.
It left a permanent impression, and I am thankful to that teacher for the gift he gave me. Reading through factual accounts of what happened during the Holocaust allowed me to build a moral and legal case against the Nazi war criminals in a mock trial setting — but also created a genuine hunger for knowing the core truth: science and facts behind public issues that are not rooted in religious, political or ideological beliefs. It's why I became a journalist.
There is a trite, overworked saying that the truth will set you free. That is certainly useful in most cases — unless, of course, you don’t know it, ignore it or simply don't believe it.
That's why the ADL findings, in the end, are so unsettling. If most of the world doesn't know or recognize central, factual realities like the Holocaust, how can we reasonably expect the public to support political, moral or legal actions that depend on at least a basic understanding of the scientific or factual basis of things?
It's a difficult question — with no satisfying answers.
Nesbit's most recent Op-Ed was "Climate Change, in Real Time." This Op-Ed was adapted from "Did the Holocaust Exist? Scary Number of People Say 'No' or Not Even Aware," which first appeared in Nesbit's column At the Edge in U.S. News & World Report. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on Live Science.