FIAT IGNORAMUS

If you can spare 90 seconds, take the Pew Center's News IQ test. Or don't and just keep reading.

As I have stated repeatedly over the years, and as you are already fully aware, Americans are stupid. We already know this. Every conceivable way of measuring what Americans know about politics, government, and current events leads to the same abysmal conclusions. It is easy to take a survey like Pew is offering and point to alarming findings such as the fact that 84% of Americans know that Oprah likes Obama and 28% know that more than 4,000 troops have died in Iraq. Oh, that liberal media!

This is not new. Every 12-18 months, usually on a slow news day, another media outlet or polling organization rolls out a new but essentially identical set of data; lots of adults don't know who represents them in the Senate, which party controls what, where the Pacific Ocean is on a map (seriously), and so on. Several landmark studies in political science (notably Philip Converse's "Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics," 1964) and countless best-selling books (including Rick Shenkman's new Just How Stupid Are We?) have cashed in on telling the same story. Americans, aided by absolutely vacuous news media, are stunningly ignorant.

The data cited by these authors, both popular and academic, are doubtlessly accurate. Nonetheless the conclusions commonly drawn – we're too stupid to dress ourselves without assistance let alone wield democratic power – are controversial. Just how much, and more importantly what, does one need to know to participate in the political process? It would not be hard to support an argument that much of this has little relevance to opinion formation. Critics, in other words, assert that these tests of political/civic knowledge are essentially tests of trivia.

Does a person need to know the Senate Majority Leader – or find Louisiana on a map, or whatever – to form a negative opinion of one presidential candidate or the other? Is knowing the number of Senators relevant to understanding the motives and justifications for the war in Iraq? Objectively, no. At the same time, it is also obvious that some facts (whether or not WMD were found in Iraq, which nations were most responsible for 9/11, how many troops have died in the war) are very relevant to drawing accurate conclusions and forming intelligent opinions.

The reality about the relationship between basic civic knowledge and our electoral system centers around two dynamics. First, there is a threshold effect. It's not necessary to get 12-for-12 on the Pew quiz in order to be an informed voter and there's probably no effective difference between getting 9 or 12. There is a number, probably hovering around the mean, at which someone shows enough knowledge to form opinions that are not completely random. Going beyond that doesn't help a whole lot (although more is obviously better for other reasons) and dipping below it probably reveals comprehensive ignorance. Second, very high or very low scores are essentially measuring political interest; it's not possible to pay any attention to politics and be unaware of the Congressional majority. Conversely, it's not possible to know minute points (the names of Senate Committee Chairs and so on) without paying a lot of attention.

The conclusion I usually draw, and the sense in which I mean "stupid", is that Americans are vacant. True stupidity would be an inability to learn this stuff, and that certainly does not exist. Listen to sports talk radio for 10 minutes. You will hear callers, people who probably couldn't name their Senators for a million bucks, rattle off the batting averages of the entire starting nine of the 1986 Mets. Americans, in short, are simply chock full of information about meaningless things – Survivor, shoe shopping, celebrity romance, football, cars, and so on. Those things are all fine and good (see the sidebar for a set of baseball links I read every day). Survivor and sports are supposed to be our brain candy, our hobbies. Instead, they are the entirety of what we know. These subjects have become to the American mind what junk food has become to the American diet: what should be an occasional indulgence in the interest of pleasure and relaxation has become the whole menu.

14 thoughts on “FIAT IGNORAMUS”

  • Nice post. I liked the point you made in the last paragraph. It's absolutely stunning to see people whose political knowledge is nil and who can't express a political opinion without stumbling on one logical fallacy after another, then go on and offer quite nuanced, sophisticated, and passionate arguments about the merits of the designated hitter. Which begs the question, of course, why do so many people not find politics (as well as science, literature, art, and so on) as stimulating and fun to argue about as these other distractions? And is this primarily an American phenomenon, or does it derive from something inherent in human behavior, perhaps some limit to our cognitive abilities?

  • Thank you, yes: vacant describes it perfectly. We COULD, collectively, know about our government (and our geography!); we're capable of it, but we apparently just don't care. Or…we're being very carefully, thoroughly, and skilfully distracted. It IS a hell of a lot easier to fuck around with a country when the citizens aren't really paying attention.

    But I want to know, Ed: what was your score on that quiz? Did you get a 12 out of 12?

    (I'll go first: 11/12)

  • Great post Ed.

    I often ask myself why it is Americans seem to not be interested in politics (or even voting for that matter). At some level I think it's complacency. While I know a lot of Americans are struggling to get by, there are still a lot who are able to put enough food on the table and keep up with the rent or mortgage.

    With food and shelter covered, and with little to rag about outside of taxes and gas prices (which are high becuase they're taxed, duh!) I think John and Jane Public don't feel compelled to pay close attention to politics and government because they don't realize that either has more than an entertainment valued impact on their day to day life.

    All they feel they need to know (which seems to be reinforced by the MSM) is the GOP stands for letting them keep more of their money and for making sure there's a flag and a crucifix in every public classroom.

    And for the mouth-breathers on the other side, it's comfort enough knowing the Dems will fight all the stuff the other guys stand for.

    In order to understand the differences we all know are there, you do have to have some level of intelligence and capacity to understand nuanced differences in foreign policy, macro-economics, sociology, a little hard sciences and a grasp of justice in a theoretical sense.

    This doens't require a college education, but it does require that you actually go to school, pay attention, and be held accountable for understanding what is presented to you.

  • As long as we're reporting scores, I got a 10. I don't have enough invested in the Dow to know where it's at right now ( I thought 10k)… and while I remember seeing the fireworks in Kosovo earlier this year, I still got that one wrong…

  • A related point is whether an oblivious voter (vacant, in the political sense) would change voting preferences if given a proper review of civics / current events. I've seen some indication that they won't. Opinions about candidates and issue are often formed quickly, based on a gut level reaction, and there's little that can be done to reverse them. And the vast majority of Americans don't have anything resembling a coherent position on major issues, let alone an all encompassing philosophy. This New Yorker article is a pretty good review of competing theories (with plenty of references to Converse's work), and the long-standing fact of American political illiteracy: http://www.newyorker.com/archive/2004/08/30/040830crat_atlarge?currentPage=1

  • By the way, at the risk of pushing the discussion into a somewhat unrelated direction, did anybody else notice the rather large gender gap? I was quite shocked by this, and am wondering if it reflects some general discrepancy in political knowledge between the sexes (which conflicts with my own experiences), or if it has something to do with the nature of the questions.

  • I don't know what to make of the gender gap.

    Overall, we must remember that men are more likely to have college degrees than women. That probably contradicts our experience because our generation is the first to send more women to college than men. In other words, if you're between 18 and about 35 the odds of being in college or having a college degree are slightly in favor of women. But the 35+ category is a lopsided advantage for men if I recall the numbers correctly.

    To the extent that college degrees are predictors of this kind of knowledge, I think that might explain it. You could also argue, with less empirical data to support it, that there are some factors of socialization and gender bias in the media that discourage women from taking in hard news as regularly as men. Anecdotally I don't think it's hard to watch an hour of Fox News and conclude that the programming is geared toward a male audience.

  • I scored a 10/12. I was really surprised that I scored better than 83% of all the test takers… I thought most of the questions were easy. I think I missed the questions regarding which nation has recently declared independence from Serbia, and the Dow Jones one… although I knew it wasn't 10k or 12k since our economy is in the shitter right now.

  • As a elementary school teacher I'll toss in my two cents. I can talk passionately to my students about the Hoosiers and how great IU is, or argue that Duke has a better basketball team than UNC ( I teach in NC), but to argue in favor of a political view, even if it is just to make a point I risk angry parents, an angry administration, and perhaps an angry superintendent.

    In a lot of homes, sports or movies or music are discussed around the dinner table, but talking politics – that's "impolite". No wonder we don't know anything about politics in this country. We're encouraged to stay silent about opinions in front of company – I'll bet most college students arrive on campus having never had a debate or in-depth discussion about politics.

    Students learn the 'facts' they don't learn to defend or discuss their beliefs.

  • I really agree with ec. I've lived with some of the same girls for the past two years I've been in Bloomington; some would probably even be considered my best friends. We talk about almost everything from who we shack with to how class was today, but I can't tell you that we've once had a political conversation. Politics is a tricky subject even with people who know everything else about you. Any hint of a political conversation in my house usually ends in a slammed door before it really begins. Thus we've learned to fill our heads with every winner of America's Next Top Model or how many kids/what the names are of every one of Angelina Jolie's children instead of the Senate majority leader's name or how many troops have died in Iraq. That information is safe to know and can be used in polite conversation. It's the easy way out and a lot of the people I know take it.

  • rick reuben says:

    12/12

    I credit the internet for making me an active hunter of news and for cutting my television viewing about 90% over the past 15 years ( although I think people that watch network TV news only would get at least 10/12 ).

    They should give these tests at ATM's and give people an extra dollar if they score well.

Comments are closed.