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 Americans remain the most politically ignorant populace of any mature democracy, with the views of the average American far removed from the mainstream of science. Consider that upwards of half the US population believes that human beings were created by God “pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so”, and another third believes in intelligent design, fully eight in 10 Americans deny what is today referred to as “reality-based” science. If the numbers are this high for such a fundamental principle of modern science, it’s not surprising that Americans are so easily confused by more complex debates on other crucial public policy issues, from healthcare to drug policy.

Of course, the term “reality-based” science should be redundant, since what is supposed to differentiate science from ideology, faith or economic and political interests is precisely its grounding in observable events occurring in the real world. But as we learnt during the Bush administration, reality apparently isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and in fact those in power often scoff at the “reality-based” world of facts and non-partisan, empirical argument.

Most Al Jazeera readers have no doubt come across the famous Bush administration quote, since attributed to Karl Rove, making light of what “we” – he and other masters of the universe – derisively referred to as the “reality-based community”. Rove defined this community (mostly composed of supposedly left-wing journalists, academics, scientists and activists) as being composed of people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality… That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do”.

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There are several reasons behind this dynamic. The first has to do with the immense power industries such as the chemical, petroleum, agribusiness and tobacco industries, have had for more than a century to shape public opinion and knowledge in a manner that directly contradicts science. As David Michaels showed in his 2008 book Doubt is Their Product, about the power of the tobacco industry to sew confusion over the extent of the danger posed by cigarettes to the health of smokers, when immensely wealthy and political powerful corporations have unlimited funds to discredit mainstream scientific consensus it produces a level of cognitive dissonance among the public.

When faced with such contradictions, the majority will more often than not to turn against, or at least ignore, science rather than turning against the corporations trying to fool them, at least for a while. Corporations are selling them products which, at least in the short term, make them feel good or make their lives easier, while scientists are invariably demanding that people make exceedingly difficult changes to most every facet of their lives (what they eat, smoke, drink, drive, wear, use in their homes) or face personal and collective disaster. Until disaster is staring them in the face, most people would rather ignore reality and continue with negative behaviour.

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Given the corporate takeover of American politics (and education), it’s not surprising that both political parties are treating citizens much as corporations do – trying to get them to buy programmes and policies that are either ineffectual or harmful to the long term health of the country, even if they channel significant resources and wealth to some sectors of the economy and segments of the population.

President Obama can make the case that he has expanded health coverage for millions of Americans will at least hold the line as on reproductive health – even here, the reality is that the number of uninsured Americans has grown during his presidency, while roughly half of women who require publicly funded reproductive services don’t get them. But the reality is that on most of the major issues, from bailing out banks to the drug war, energy policy to climate change, arms sales to foreign policy more broadly, the difference between the two parties is much more rhetorical than it is substantive.

The President’s half measure and willingness to “compromise” with Republicans has done little more than slow down a car that was speeding towards a cliff. It might take a bit longer to get to the edge, but the momentum of decades of irresponsible policies will ultimately push it over nonetheless.

The mainstream media is little better than the government, refusing to connect the dots that link so many policies together into a toxic system. I experienced this dynamic first hand last week when I appeared with the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman on the HuffPo Live, the new web-based network of the Huffington Post. The topic was America’s addiction to Saudi oil, and how it has long impacted US foreign policy in support of one of the most oppressive regimes of the last century. Friedman, who explained that he’s writing a book about current US energy policy away from reliance on fossil fuels – ironic for a man who’s most famous book argues that everyone can and should drive a Lexus and still keep their olive trees – admitted to host Ahmed Shihab-Eldin that US-Middle East policy is “all about oil”.

When both I and Eldin pointed out that oil policy is inseparable from the policy of arms sales and aid totally hundreds of billions of dollars, he admitted to this fact, but explained that he was only looking at the energy part of this equation. But the idea that Americans can address their addiction to oil without addressing military industrial complex that has been its complement for well over half a century, and produces tens of billions of dollars in profits for powerful corporations who are at the heart of the power system, is ludicrous (Americans buy about $30bn worth of Saudi oil every year, which is largely offset by the tens of billions of dollars the Saudis and other Gulf countries spend on US weapons in return.)

The larger “weapondollar-petrodollar coalition” of major oil and arms corporations and governments that are major purchasers or recipients of US weapons is as powerful today as it was at the height of the Bush administration and continues to have a stranglehold on the US government, one that is only strengthened by the power of other major sectors such as chemicals and agribusiness, whose products and practices are also incredibly harmful to the overall health of the country, and the planet. And so the President has continued to push for disastrous arms sales to some of the most repressive countries on earth, from Saudi Arabia to Honduras, with Israel, Egypt, Bahrain and Pakistan – to name but a few countries – in between, while increasing both imports of Gulf oil and domestic oil production through the environmentally disastrous fracking; all rather than break the US’ addiction to guns and oil.

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