The Triumph of Ignorance

Ignorant politicians are elected by ignorant people. US education, like the US health system, is notorious for its failures. In the most powerful nation on earth, one adult in five believes the sun revolves around the earth; only 26% accept that evolution takes place by means of natural selection; two-thirds of young adults are unable to find Iraq on a map; two-thirds of US voters cannot name the three branches of government; the maths skills of 15 year-olds in the US are ranked 24th out of the 29 countries of the OECD(3).

But this merely extends the mystery: how did so many US citizens become so dumb, and so suspicious of intelligence? Susan Jacoby’s book The Age of American Unreason provides the fullest explanation I have read so far. She shows that the degradation of US politics results from a series of interlocking tragedies.

One theme is both familiar and clear: religion – in particular fundamentalist religion – makes you stupid. The US is the only rich country in which Christian fundamentalism is vast and growing.

Full Story: monbiot

(via Robot Wisdom)


  1. It may not be as simple as religion. Here in the UK we’re not so smart, either; or at least, we seem to value ignorance in the same way.

    And we don’t have the fundimentalist uprising that the US has.

  2. I have a suspicion that the anti-intellectualism that has been spread and settling throughout the english speeaking world is a result of the deepening entrenchment and ubiquity of televission since the 1960s or so. It’s just about the worst medium in the world for conveying complex ideas because it delivers information on the non-stop conveyer-belt (no pun intended) of a frame-rate. So it’s a hot medium, I guess, that intensifies one mode of perception and encourages a passive intake of bite-sized data.

    Also, people seem to be really into being emotionally provoked. Complex breakdowns of developing situations aren’t easily digestible as such.

  3. The left, and only the left, assumes (a) most people are capable of being intellectuals (b) most people desire to be intellectuals. Situations that might falsify both of these claims are the everyday world today and all of human history.

    Anti-intellectualism is found in the Cultural Revolution, in Fascist Germany, in Cambodia… that is, in socialist or national socialist countries. Perhaps the left is pro-intellectual when out of power and anti-intellectual when in power.

    Religion and crime and low intellectual curiosity co-occur (how many naturalists vs. supernaturalists get Nobel Prizes? How many atheists vs. theists are in prisons? Do these ratios reflect the general population?) but co-occurance is not necessarily cause or effect.

    But most important of all is letting go of the idea that ‘the masses’ prefer smarts in themselves or their leaders. Nice when it happens, but it is the exception and not the rule.

  4. Indeed, emotional reactions seems to be good to get people moving, but it doesn’t really help them to learn in depth about the complexity of the problem.
    Kids need to be thought to question things, themselves included, in schools for starters.
    Why knowing things makes the world so much bigger and complex, but also far more interesting.

  5. @shadowfirebird – As a outsider I find it hard to assess the intellectualism or anti-intellectualism of the UK. But sure seems that at least in the realm of politics, anti-intellectualism is less rampant. In this case perhaps we can point to the parliamentary system, where politicians politik mostly within their party and within parliament rather than in the public sphere writ large?

    @Trevor – Point well taken about left-wing anti-intellectualism. I’ve met my share of anti-intellectual leftists.

    Point also taken about the futility of making “the masses” into intellectuals. But the question remains: why all the hostilities? Why can’t we expect “the masses” to desire intellectual leaders?

    Sam Harris wrote: “mericans have an unhealthy desire to see average people promoted to positions of great authority. No one wants an average neurosurgeon or even an average carpenter, but when it comes time to vest a man or woman with more power and responsibility than any person has held in human history, Americans say they want a regular guy, someone just like themselves.”,3068,Palin-average-isnt-good-enough,Sam-Harris-Los-Angeles-Times

  6. Regardless of religion, there will probably always be some populist appeal to the idea that people that are smarter than you are not better and, in fact, are probably suspect in some way or other. If THEY weren’t doing something underhanded, then, obviously, WE would be more successful.

  7. Klintron wrote: “the question remains: why all the hostilities? Why can’t we expect “the masses” to desire intellectual leaders?”

    As to why the majority are hostile to intellectuals and intellectualism, I have some tentative answers but will save them for a conversation some day.

    As to what we can expect in the future, for better and for worse the only answer is ‘change.’ I can say that up to this point the majority are hostile to intellectuals and intellectualism and I have a few ideas why but there is no way of knowing what comes later or even what we should expect. See ‘The Poverty of Historicism’ by Sir Karl Popper.

    I’ve read that one characteristic found in anti-semitism and not in other forms of discrimination is that Jews are hated because they are better, not worse. The claim is made Jews control the world and that is why they must be put down. Other forms of discrimination are based on others being inferior, a burden.

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