I once heard Noam Chomsky make a funny and somewhat prescient point during a radio show – it may also appear in his books, but I'm not sure – about American intelligence. He said that he firmly believed that Americans have the mental capacity to understand politics, inequality, the media, and all of the various and sundry problems of contemporary America. His evidence, he noted half-humorously, was AM radio sports talk call-in shows. He noted that people who probably cannot name their Congressman or describe what the 1st Amendment says can easily rattle off facts with amazing detail about the 1985 Bears or the batting averages of the 1961 Yankees. In other words, we are not dumb but our priorities are badly out of whack. We know a lot about things that are irrelevant and we spend our available time educating ourselves about frivolous things – sports, TV shows, celebrity gossip, and so on.

For many years I felt like this anecdote summed up our problems quite nicely, so much so that I referenced it in class more than once. We have a world of information at our fingertips and we choose to spend hours on Facebook or staring at LOLcats. We have libraries full of free books and we would rather watch TV. We could watch the news but instead we watch When Animals Attack 5. Over time, though, the more I thought about his quote the less true it sounded. As a devoted sports fan and one-time writer for an online sports forum, I have more than enough direct experience to contradict his suggestion about sports fans. Go ahead and browse an online comment section for your favorite sport, especially if it is something low-brow like soccer or football. The overwhelming majority of what is said makes absolutely no sense. Most of it is worse than YouTube comments. Likewise, those sports call-in shows do not prove anything like what ol' Noam suggests. Facts are either recited incorrectly, distorted, or ignored altogether. Arguments are incoherent, childish, and bilious. In short, it isn't a bunch of people devoting their non-negligible intellectual skills to a topic of little relevance. It's just a bunch of retards screaming, fueled by anger and entirely uninterested in making sense. It would be bad enough if Chomsky was right and we all understood sports but not politics; the sad reality is that we don't know jack shit about either. That guy who can't explain why he hates Barack Obama is not the slightest bit better able to explain why he hates Brett Favre or the commissioner of Major League Baseball.

It is highly likely that in the past few days you have been forwarded a link to a Pew survey establishing how little Americans know about religion. The media and smug types like us love these surveys because they make us feel superior and they confirm what we already believe about the world around us. "Ha ha! Can you believe that 35% of adults can't name (the Vice President / which party controls Congress / the religion of the Pope or Dalai Lama / etc)!" In the recent Pew survey, people who claim to be Catholics can't explain basic dogma – like, the kind of stuff 8 year-olds learn in Sunday School – and Protestants can't pick Martin Luther out of three choices when asked to identify the leader of the Reformation. So that person you know at work or in the neighborhood who can't make a rational argument about anything social or political but is obviously quite religious…well, there's a decent chance that he or she sounds every bit as stupid talking about religion.

Concurrently, Matt Taibbi dropped his Tea Party piece over at Rolling Stone, focusing heavily on how his subjects are utterly incapable of processing the most basic information that contradicts their rage- and fear-driven worldview. You can't explain to them that there are no Death Panels, that white Christian men are not an oppressed minority, and that a person who works for the government and has a wife on Medicare should not be publicly protesting "the out of control welfare state." They stare back as though they have been bonked over the head by a cartoon mallet, the glass-eyed, empty look of a person who, at the most basic and insurmountable level, simply does not get it. It is the look of a person totally incapable of processing the notion that something he or she believes might be incorrect.

The real issue, and I mean the real, honest-to-god Problem With The World Today, is that Americans as a nation are dumb. Really fucking dumb. The Pew survey, the Tea Party, or the afternoon baseball call-in show on WFAN underscore the point that Americans will fail a quiz about any topic you can throw at them. Americans will make crappy, emotional, illogical arguments about whatever subject holds their interest, from the Supreme Court to the World Cup. We have systematically devalued and dismantled education in this country to the point that the Japanese, Europeans, and so on aren't just beating us at math and science. They can beat us at essentially anything, because most of us can't comprehend things we read, retain simple facts, or construct an argument that adheres to the basic rules of logic. We are ignorant of the past, the present, and even our own professed belief systems. We often bemoan apathy, our national lack of desire to understand the government, law, economy, or politics. But the problem is not simply that we don't want to know; if our slipshod grasp of the few things in which we do profess an interest are any indication, we wouldn't get it even if we tried.

64 thoughts on “THE HEART OF THE MATTER”

  • I agree that ignorance is the greatest enemy — it certainly screws up a democracy. But that mainstream Christians know so little about their religion doesn't bother me a whit, of course; the whole point of faith is belief without proof (i.e., ignorance.) If they were calling themselves mathematicians, I would expect them to know something about math. But fans (of football, religion, what have you) only need to like it. The requirements end with interest, just as you don't need to dance to like Dancing With the Stars.

  • I don't think this is anything new. Americans (and most of the people in the world) are, as a whole, not that bright. Before the destruction of the fairness doctrine and before the rise of comments sections accompanying every news story, these cretins were limited to talking shit with their buddies. Responsible journalists censored their idiocy and actually sought out informed opinions and researched facts to base their news articles on.

    Americans, more than any other advanced country, feel a sense of smug superiority in the infallibility of our inate knowledge that we gleened from, uh, well fuck off, I'm an American and therefore the smartest and richest kind of person on the globe.

    There is no respect given to any education that won't contribute to the bottom line of your future corporate master. The humanities and philosophy are only for future Starbucks baristas. Learning for the sheer joy of learning is a waste of time and money in the minds of most.

    There will always be stupid people but we shouldn't have to listen to their opinions in public.

  • And people often ask me why I don't vote.

    I do them the courtesy of reminding them that their votes are, these days, more than likely cast on an electronic voting machine, one of a broad class of computing systems that are, collectively, the butt of pretty much every joke in the computing security world. That the very system for recording their votes is so easily hacked as to render any vote count stored on it completely and utterly meaningless (no, really. [] They've been hacked to play Pac Man without ever touching the tamper-evident seals, rigging elections is a far simpler task).

    But that's just the calm and reasoned objection to the giant waste of time that is going to the polls. The real reason I don't bother is because I'm acutely aware of the fact that for every intelligent, carefully-considered and -reasoned vote that I or anyone else casts, there are thousands of votes cast by raving retards without so much as an iota of proper consideration involved. That even if I did spend the time and energy involved in spending all day at the polling place to enter what is almost assuredly a jacked datagram into a laughably insecure voting computer, it wouldn't matter in the first place because there are thousands of morons behind me that not only vote with whatever party they've been told to vote with — they don't even know *why* they're doing it.

    In the end, education is only what you make of it. Other countries take their education far more seriously than we do. I have the combined pleasure/displeasure of working for a multi-national company based in the UK, the most obvious result of which being that most of the higher-ups are of British descent. And in talking with one of my British superiors, we arrived on the topic of education. Most American students don't have their major decided until Sophomore year of college — hell, some still don't even then. But according to my coworker, across the pond they've got themselves locked into a definite course of study by the age of 16. And of course we all know the differences in the way languages are treated — over there, in many countries, students take multiple courses in foreign languages all throughout their academic careers, become fluent in at least two and sometimes more by the time they graduate.

    Over here in the US, you're lucky to find a high school student that can read and write proper English, let alone any other language. They may be able to drawl out some amazingly rudimentary French or Spanish, but they are in no way prepared to actually go live in a country that speaks one of those languages. They only reason they get by in *this* country is because most of society has gotten so used to pathetically bad grammar and spelling that people get a pass when they're fucking awful at it.

    And they're not even aware of their own staggering ignorance. I'm sure we all remember "Get a brain! Morans!" And he was one of the few bold enough to actually write a sign.

  • I agree that rationality or experience isn't important in faith or fandom, but isn't the problem here the fact that this way of thinking has completely taken over what should be rational subjects.

    Certain people like to think that poor brown people are cause of everything that's wrong in their lives and the country, they want to believe in death panels and their status as an oppressed minority. They don't care about facts or logic and react to someone refuting the stupidity of their arguments and offering a logical counterargument the same way I react to someone explaining why the Dallas Cowboys are the awesomest team evah!!!

    Where you stand on certain important things shouldn't be based on the same thought process used when determining when you stand on a Twins-Yankees series.

  • John,

    You're a bright guy but you lost me at "and people ask me why I don't vote."

    In most states, you can request an absentee paper ballot that may be subject to mail fraud but is still a tangible piece of evidence that is harder to destroy than an electronic voting machine.

    While there may be thousands of knuckle draggers voting against you, your vote will cancel out one of theirs. Democracy isn't perfect but if you choose not to participate, you still made a choice – one more vote for the other guy.

  • @Nunya: I don't subscribe to the "every vote counts" mantra, as I am aware of the volume of evidence to the contrary. There is evidence of voting machines used in actual elections whose voting records were tampered with, either resulting in elections decided on inaccurate counts, or elections decided with certain districts thrown out and summarily disenfranchised.

    As I said, the "thousand morons to one good vote" argument is just my most salient personal problem with the deal. The clincher is the fact that, historically speaking, your vote has a significant chance of literally not counting.

    Recall how Florida was stolen in… 2000, IIRC? Partly by putting legitimate voters on felon lists and fraudulently disenfranchising them. Their votes never counted.

  • Following a link in — gasp! — Facebook, I read about Pew's U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey in Laurie Goodstein's article in the on-line New York Times , which begins:

    "Americans are by all measures a deeply religious people, but they are also deeply ignorant about religion."

    In a comment to the linking Facebook post I wrote:

    The first sentence of that article, only slightly amended, could easily be the topic sentence of innumerable stories: "Americans are by all measures a deeply religious people, but they are also deeply ignorant about [fill in the blank]."

    In this post, Ed just filled in the blank with "everything."

  • @John – I'm with Nunya. Your comments here are always worth reading, and this one is no exception. But in a participatory democracy (even in the hope of one, as a far off, pie-in-the-sky goal) the participatory bit is really kinda important.

    Out there in the big bad world, people risk fucking DEATH to make their vote. In rigged elections. That said people know are rigged. But they do it anyway.

    I am lucky enough to live in a country with compulsory voting. Just as well, too – our version of the Democrats (read: better than our version of the Republicans, but still shit) just barely scraped a majority. I have to think that had it been non-compulsory, the Christians and xenophobes and lackeys of the mega-rich would have voted, but the hippies and students and builder's labourers? Not so sure…

    Do you recycle? Car pool? Obey road rules when you're driving? All of the effects of these actions are unbelievably incremental, and your efforts can be cancelled out in an instant by some one else being a dickhead. But is that a reason to not do them?

    Apologies. This comment got long on me, but it is not meant as a rant or a smackdown. Just my two cents. Rounded up.

  • Ed, I underwent the exact same change of heart toward the idea expressed in that exact same Chomsky line. For me it happened as I started getting into SABR and reading FJM. Thank you for putting it into words as I never could.

    As I've put it to intellectual friends who hate sports, "If you think reading political journalism/talking politics with people is rough, imagine how it'd be if the 100 million dumbest meatheads in the country cared about politics with a life or death passion. Yeah, that's sports discourse."

    Better education would certainly help the problem. I think it's more a matter of quality than quantity. Plenty of people with years of education are still mind bogglingly unable to think critically, coherently, and pragmatically because those things were never emphasized. But, honestly, I don't think other nations have more political sanity because their populace is better educated. I believe the difference is more abstract: America's unique political culture plus the political structure that arose from it. Overseas they're pretty much as dumb as we are, but we've decided to let the dumbfucks run the show.

    In America we suffer from a particularly extreme case of over-glorification of the democratic ideal. Even in resolutely egalitarian cultures like France, the mythos of The Common Man just doesn't seem to have the same power it does here. In politics, as in no other area of society, we have no tolerance for even the slightest bit of elitism. Cerebral types who advocate unpopular policies or have the temerity to point out facts are decried as arrogant. Our culture is committed to the premise that nobody is more qualified to make political judgments than anybody else about anything.

    Our political structure with its direct election of a powerful executive and especially primary elections, reflects this attitude. In other democracies, party leadership is much more insulated from popular pressure. There's a sense that the various semi-coherent political parties lay out the options for voters to choose from. Here, the parties are just broadly affiliated empty vessels filled with the popular will. And so, the uninformed ravings of the multitude are made relevant.

    Nunya put things nicely. I'd wager there are just as many irredeemable morons in Denmark or Japan as there are here. And I imagine humanity has always been made up of mostly morons. What's different is, here and now we listen to them, give them voice, empower them, even glorify them. In doing so we've watered down the discourse, put politicians in a position where they feel compelled to pander, and developed a clownish political class. We've left salvageable morons with no incentive to intellectually work themselves out of that condition and would-be wonks with strong incentive to stay out of politics. And we've done all this at a time when the problems our society faces are increasingly complex and esoteric.

  • The gray matter is there, I believe, but for the last sixty years there has been an abaolute assault on the average American's brain by mass media. We now have several generations of people who have been stupified by the Idiot's Lantern- television and its electronic descendants. They have been trained to be consumers, not citizens.
    Aldous Huxley wrote a letter to George Orwell after 1984 was published. In it he wrote that it would be far more likley that the elite of the future would teach the proles to love their chains through psychological means and dope rather than outright coercion. Some aspects of Orwell's vision have come to pass but I think Huxley was closer to the mark.

  • The most interesting explanation I have seen for our national malaise is that anti-depressants and other medication have turned us into a nation of zombies.

  • Harsh, unflinching self appraisal is, ideally, honest. But overwhelming pessimism is unforgivable. Just my two cents…

  • On a positive note, The Singularity is unlikely to occur.

    There is little chance of a superintelligent computer or AI like Hal or Skynet being created. Humans have a brain three times the size of a chimpanzee, ten times the cortex area, at least two levels of magnitude greater in neuronal linkage and astrocytal complexity,and we are barely one rung up on the intelligence ladder. This suggests a law similar to diminishing returns.

  • Put another way, to paraphrase Mark Twain:

    "Man is the only animal that can choke on his own vomit. Or needs to".

  • On the contrary, heydave, I commend Ed for this relentlessly pessimistic post. One cannot despair enough when considering the current state of American intelligence.

  • The ability to think isn't an inherent characteristic, it's a skill and a practice. Most of us can't dig a ditch or weld a joint because we don't do that kind of work (though my farmer grandfather could and did). Well, just as our complex economy has allowed us to escape that work (and never learn the skills) of digging ditches or welding, it has also allowed us to escape the work (and skill) of thinking. That's why McArdle (in yesterday's post) is so intent on always writing against Obama's side, whether it's consistent or not. Her role is to do "the thinking" for her audience, and she happens to be insecure enough to want to ensure they aren't tempted to do some DIY thinking, just because some cognitive dissonance slipped in. And you think because it's your damned job.

  • Americans have always been somewhat emotional, if you really read about the social and political writing behind the revolution, you find that the crown had not really been unreasonable in policy. His response to the unrest created people whom contemporaries considered insane extremists, was horrifying, and he managed to turn opinion even further in that direction. American propaganda at the time was liberal with the facts and appealed to the ethos of the people at the time.

    It doesn't matter what you THINK about the American people's intelligence, we live in a democracy. This is why left-wing elitists always fail to produce results, if all these people are stupid perhaps we should have an aptitude test to vote, or some other means of removing electorate hostile to your principals. That or appeal to them emotionally. The human mind has precious little time for logical expression, and most of it is used on a man's daily life where it effects them the most. Most people don't spend all day pondering politics.

  • This would be exactly why after a year of driving a car with leather seats and drinking expensive wine I came FLEEING back to a grad student position making about $15k/year. No salary is worth having to deal with the stupidity of people in corporate America – and I worked at a company that was allegedly one of the best in its industry. The best part of being back in academia is that I occasionally get to have intelligent conversations with other human beings. It's awesome.

  • Once upon a time we had literacy testing as a qualification for voters. Unfortunately, we in the South used it selectively as a method to disqualify Black Americans at the ballot box.

    I always liked the idea in its pure form.

    However, I understand that all wisdom and knowledge is not bound up in the ability to read, write, and cypher – but the intelligent and wise people that the basics testing would discriminate against would truly be a minority.

    Probably some Northern or Western state would have to lead the way on this revival.


  • comrade x makes the point I've made here before, and it's part of our race to the bottom. Not mentioned yet is the anti-intellectualism in this country, which wasn't present with the founders, but has since mushroomed, abetted in spades by consumer culture over the past 50 years. In the far east and Europe, professors are held in high esteem, practically worshipped by the man-on-the-street; c.f. "pointy-headed intellectuals" here. And with all the recent national attention given to our poor schools (we're behind Botswana in math, etc.), no one seems to address the general lack of respect for education as a profession. You won't hear much about this problem of our antiintellectualism in national media, which is perfectly happy to keep us stupid, so long as we buy their sponsors' crap.

    All this is to acknowledge another dimension of the problem, but hardly to point to a solution.

    I can't resist commenting on the outrageous irony of a situation that presents us with an internet which puts at our fingertips a Library of Congress x 100, huge reserves of human knowledge. illustrated with videos, even. And, for the moment, free. Maybe you need at least a B.A. to help sort out the responsible from the half-baked, but it's a huge asset to have fallen into our laps at this, perhaps the terminal, stage of our culture.

  • Gee, thanks. That was a fun read! As a high school government and history teacher, I think maybe I'll go get a drink at 10AM.

    Hemlock anyone?

  • As the wonderful Tim Kreider put it, "I'm sorry, I realize this makes me sound like a snob but that is because I am a snob. I believe I am better than other people. That may sound conceited, but when you look at the other people in the world, it's not saying much."

    Andy Brown: The ability to think isn't an inherent characteristic, it's a skill and a practice.

    Indeed. It has little or nothing to do with intelligence–the problem is hardly that Americans are dumb; it's that Americans are irrational. It doesn't matter how smart you are if you just use those smarts to come up with elaborate justifications for not changing your mind in the face of contradictory evidence. On the bright side, that means there's no inherent reason that Americans couldn't, with practice, become well-informed and reasonable people. On the other hand, it means that the only reason America is not a shining beacon of rationality is because we choose not to be, which is kind of depressing.

    Elder Futhark: On a positive note, The Singularity is unlikely to occur.

    Why is this a positive note? (I'm seriously asking; I don't have a particularly strong opinion on the subject.)

    Humans have a brain three times the size of a chimpanzee, ten times the cortex area, at least two levels of magnitude greater in neuronal linkage and astrocytal complexity,and we are barely one rung up on the intelligence ladder. This suggests a law similar to diminishing returns.

    The first half of that argument is well-quantized, but "barely one rung up" hardly is. It's true that we've hit a number of limits with biological brains–our skulls are large enough to make birth dangerous, great plasticity means we start out helpless and stay that way for years on end, and these gigantic brains chew up between a fifth and a quarter of the energy we metabolize–but how can you quantify the difference in intelligence between a chimp and a human? Sure, you can do a variety of yes/no tests (do they recognize themselves in a mirror?), but comparing humans to chimps is hardly possible in anything but the vaguest of fashions.

  • Humans has a whole are not smart.

    This is reverse American Exceptionalism at its finest. You obviously don't think American is the smartest population in the world, but its YOUR country so it has to be "exceptional" somehow, so it must have the dumbest population in the world.

    Is living in a mediocre country really that painful for your ego to handle?

  • Monkey Business says:

    Someone earlier in the comments section mentioned that there used to be literacy tests for voting. They were co-opted by The South for the purposes of discrimination against the newly freed slaves, most of whom were illiterate.

    If some state today proposed a test of basic knowledge of facts about politics and the political process as a requirement to vote in a general election (not a primary), I'm convinced the GOP couldn't win an election in that state.

  • Hm.

    I'd agree, of course, with most of Ed's sentiments. Most people would rather be comfortable than think clearly, so any thoughts that disturb their constructed reality [think Lacan] are discarded.

    However: complaining about anti-intellectualism using a link to HuffPo?


  • People are not dumb — they're scared and comfortable. I work with people who watch Fox News and listen to stupid talk radio and are at least open to Tea Party views. Little by little I have been chipping away at a veritable forest of ignorance and misunderstanding of basic things, usually in conversation with a boss fifteen years older than me. They have been offered a complete world view which makes everything make sense and requires no thinking or work past that, and they gladly accept it because life as an adult is hard and complicated and they'd rather relax than sort out truth from lies or educate themselves further about shit I consider basic. (Not just politics or history, but science, psychology, philosophy, and anything else you care to name, I have to introduce.) I am sorry for them, and I resent them because they have more money than me and it enables them to back up their "I am successful, therefore everything I've done/believe is correct" fallacy, and I do try to educate them whenever I can because they're nice people who frequently have "aha!" moments when I explain something obvious I learned in freshman sociology. The capacity is there; the life circumstances just make it unlikely that people will crawl out of their ignorance and apathy.

  • I once had a friend, a lifelong Catholic aged 60-something at the time, express complete surprise when I told her that Catholic doctrine precluded suicides (such as her brother) from being buried in consecrated ground. She insists he was buried in consecrated ground, and while I have no proof to the contrary, it would surprise me, unless (a) her priest is very non-dogmatic, or (b) her priest just assumed that my friend murdered her brother in order to get around the doctrine.

  • First, I notice that Ed and many of the posters seem to want to make this about America. Could it just be that humans are flawed creatures with finite mental skills, who rely on heuristics and mental shortcuts, who have limited attention spans, and who prefer to waste their leisure hours on frivolous pursuits? I'm not saying this to defend Americans, by any means, I'm just genuinely interested in understanding the root of the problem. I'm guessing that there are probably many interesting theoretical insights generated by psychologists or neuroscientists that would be more useful at elucidating the problem than declaring everybody a retard.

    That said, I would probably still agree more with Chomsky's original insight than I do with you on this point. I spend a lot of times on sports forums, and I find that most of the comments are actually pretty well structured and full of excruciating detail. I've noticed it at family reunions, where I can talk intelligently about sports for hours with many of my relatives who spout the usual Fox News soundbites when then topic turns to politics. I've noticed the same thing at some of the blue collar-type jobs I've worked at various times in my life. Of course, the simple explanation for this might be that sports is simply easier to understand, or form an intelligent opinion about, than politics. But I'm still amazed at the complexity of some of the arguments I've heard people make about sports, or some other form of entertainment, only to hear those same people make the most asinine political statements a few seconds later.

  • I'm sorry – was there a point to this recitation of the patently obvious (beyond the health benefit to the spleen, of course)?
    We're humans; change is invisible except via occasional lightning-illuminated snapshots when we suddenly realize that We're So Fucked! Some of us sometimes see the handwriting on the wall (does that story come from some pre-Biblical tradition, I wonder?), but then the story of Cassandra is pretty old too. We're lucky, in a sense – we're getting to live through the periodic human 'descent into totalitarianism' for ourselves in a more vivid and immediate way than the dry recital of boring facts in some book that most of us aren't ever going to read anyway. Now that we're safely past the tipping point, we can enjoy the ride, secure in the knowledge that in future histories it will seem entirely inevitable. Whee!

  • @Cat (whose summary of many of the opinions here is the most politely succinct): "Humans has a whole are not smart."

    I'll be the lonely voice of dissent on this matter. Humans are ridiculously smart at things they apply themselves to. Really. It's absolutely incredible the kinds of problems even individual humans are capable of solving. And collectively? We are problem-solvers without equal or even competition.

    Whence the problem of our incurable ignorance? Lack of application or awareness of need is my best guess. We convince ourselves and each other that we don't need to go down a given road (usually through the application of retrograde primate politics), that a given project is unneeded, that the "dirty/heathen/alien" other who may need to benefit in order for all to benefit is unworthy of being benefited.

    This lack of application/awareness manifests itself as the ignorance Ed (and so many of the rest of you) is railing against. The only saving grace is that ignorance is curable. Teh stoopid? Nae so much. I sure wish I had a clue what the cure for ignorance was aside from complete and utter collapse of the current house of cards.

  • Sophia reminds me that we are not only willfully ignorant, we're dishonest too. I used to think that the American people, however obtuse, when presented with the FACTS, would knuckle down and act appropriately. Reagan proved me wrong, then Dubya. Even presented with the facts, we frequently bury our head in the sand. Being dishonest is a huge impediment to sorting through various claims, and it's the one that flatters us most ("It's morning in America,") or upholds the status quo ("global warming is a myth") that sways us. "Us" being far too many of us, enough sometimes to tip the balance.

    Coming back to my anti-intellectual theme, another aspect is that the ignorant and dishonest citizen, unlike his/her European or Asian counterpart, has contempt for erudition or expertise and not only refuses to be guided by it, e.g. in elections, he/she refuses to take any instruction from it. Paul Krugman has an opinion? Bring on Michelle Malkin to refute! Even if the opinion representing the overwhelming consensus of scholars, scientists, etc. makes it to the table, it can be discounted because we don't listen to narrow academic specialists who talk in polysyllables, don't look good on camera 3 and don't seem like people we'd like to have a beer with. Those scholars in their ivory towers don't know about the REAL world, after all.

    More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly. –Woody Allen

  • From what I read, it looks like that what really happened is that deeply religious people only know about their religion and are ignorant of others, whereas atheists/agnostics have a better breadth of knowledge.

    "On questions about the Bible and Christianity, the groups that answered the most right were Mormons and white evangelical Protestants.

    On questions about world religions, like Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Judaism, the groups that did the best were atheists, agnostics and Jews."

    I'd also disagree with your point about sports fans generally not know what they are talking about in general. Seems to me that it is closer to being true that people who follow sports very closely have acquired a lot of information about their sports, athletes, salary considerations, and statistics. That is part of what makes them so insufferable. Maybe they can't use this information to make coherent arguments, or offer more than a non-sequitur, but they have the info.

  • There was a time when polls like that were good schadenfreude. Not anymore. At this point, I'd rather be just like everyone else than be on a death ship driven by retards who don't know what they're talking about.

    @Andy Brown:
    Yes. For most people, talk of "talent" or "skill" is a cop out for laziness. Just work with what you've got. Grit your teeth and THINK.

  • For the second scare quote, I meant "intelligence." I believe in learned "skill." I think focusing on "intelligence" is ultimately a waste of time that could be spent learning a skill.

  • grendelkahn,

    Well, sometimes I'm a rainbow.
    And sometimes I'm uranium (or some other kind of element).
    And sometimes I'm a pair of brown shoes.
    And sometimes I'm the stars above,
    or the one that you're pointing at right now.
    And sometimes I'm a spy.
    And sometimes I'm bone dry
    but never ever did I ever think
    that it's worthwhile to reply.

  • Tim H.,
    In my more pessimistic times, I think the same can be said of Liberals/Progressives at the hands of Democrats. That in no way takes away from the thrust of your comment, but it does go to the heart of the problem with the two party system.

    Also, we are dumb.

  • Ed- this is completely off topic, but what the hell. I was perusing your archive and ran across a review of the Helmet album Size Matters. As a huge fan of that band I was compelled to read the review. You mentioned the album Aftertaste, which I thought was a decent album. Once Stanier and Bogdan left, it went down hill. I haven't cared for any of the post Aftertaste stuff at all, which is sad, because I really dug those guys back in the day.

  • I lost you at "one-time writer for an online sports forum." Heh, I'm a one-time writer for an online political forum.

    Seriously, maybe the undeniable stupidity that plagues our nation is a function of our slavish devotion to the immediate emotional pay off of pop culture, including sports, which offers an insurmountable distraction from anything resembling an intellectual discourse.

  • Aslan Maskhadov says:

    As an American who has moved to Europe, I can assure you that Europeans can be just as stupid and ignorant as Americans. Sure, there are the standardized test scores, but then again, Aspies score well on standardized tests.

  • Anecdotal evidence aside, I am sure they are just as stupid as WE. But to blame it on the person is to look over the structure.

  • " I used to be indecisive, but now I'm not so sure." We seem to be spitting out intellectuals with an 8th grade reading comprehension level. But, by god they know their sports.

  • justin, you can check out the full survey results if you want to see the results in a bit more detail, or take the religious-knowledge quiz yourself. (I fully confess that I had no idea who was involved in the First Great Awakening.)

    Elder Futhark: but never ever did I ever think / that it's worthwhile to reply.

    Or to get my handle right, apparently. I've certainly been told. And it was in a thread about how intellectually lazy Americans are! Delicious! That's metonymy, isn't it? You making up your own facts and, when asked to explain, relying on snappy rhetoric to distract from the fact that you're not saying much?

  • Paul W. Luscher says:

    Well, to steal from Thomas Jefferson:

    "Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God hates Darwin Award winners…"

  • yank that lever says:

    Ah, the 'every vote counts' canard. Your presidential vote has, depending on your state, about a 1 in 50 million chance of counting, in the sense of deciding an election. If only vicitimized idiots play the progressive slots or buy megamillions lottery tix, what are you geniuses doing voting – under party supervision, yet, for canned, prescreened alternatives that do nothing for your rights or standard of living?! Voting is a busybox for helpless babes in corporatist woods.

  • The ability to accept that something you believe might be incorrect is astounding. I can think of about a million examples on this topic, but the most ridiculous has to be when I worked for an oilfield contractor in an arctic region. Their biggest specialty was building ice roads — road literally made out of ice — for exploration. The obvious problem with this is that shorter winters lead to a shorter period of time where a road made out of ice can exist without melting. There was even a graph posted on the bulletin board which clearly depicted the shortening frozen seasons in the area since the 1970's with an obvious downward trend. Despite this, everyone there was a climate change denialist.

    In their defensive reaction against anything that might raise difficult questions about the industry they worked in, everyone there was actually perpetuating the problem that will eventually put their company out of business.

  • I often want to tell America what my teachers always told me: you're smart, you could do so much better if you just *applied* yourself.

    Your post makes me so sad. I find most of what you write to be incredibly on point and insightful. Ginandtacos is like my new political Bible since I'm too lazy to research original sources and form my own opinions.

    I work in a deli for this British family. They've been in the country for five years and they're really just your average family, but they have such a natural kind of common sense and useful education that I find myself so surprised that they don't come from a wealthy background or hold a lofty degree of some kind. The wife said she's never seen such strangely shaped bodies as she has in America, but that a friend of hers back home has started to comment on the level of obesity in England. The number of churches on every corner shock them, too. The (white) cleaning lady in our building didn't know timezones existed outside of America, which bewildered us both.

  • The problem I have with "Americans have become stupid" is that we have always been stupid. Not that long ago, the vast majority of Americans believed that black people were inherently inferior. Now, not so much.

    Regarding any single issue, stupidity can recede when confronted with a lot of hard work.

  • There are three things I notice particularly about America and politics. (I lack the experience to know to what extent they apply in other countries.)

    1. We have an inordinate belief in

  • Hmmm… apparently the comment system does not like curly quotes. Let's try that again…

    There are three things I notice particularly about America and politics. (I lack the experience to know to what extent they apply in other countries.)

    1. We have an inordinate belief in "common sense" — as if anything that is true should be explainable in one minute to a person with no particular background in the subject. It's almost a pervasive kind of magical thinking: that any intelligent person (and most people do believe themselves to be smarter than most people) can understand the important points of anything with no particular training, effort or time.

    2. We are encouraged to have an opinion about everything political. If the war in Iraq comes up as a subject of discussion, saying, "I haven't really studied the situation, so I don't know if we have a good reason to be there or not" isn't a response most Americans would be comfortable giving… though I suspect it must be true in most cases.

    3. Our political system gives most of us no practical reason to apply our intellectual resources to politics. Voting is much like rooting for the home team — it might look good to your friends and give you a sense of satisfaction and social membership, but it has no plausible chance of affecting any outcomes. Other than occasionally at the municipal level, "participatory democracy" is beyond the realm of practical possibility for the vast majority of over-worked Americans — it takes far too much time and effort to leverage one person's commitment into any meaningful effect. I'm sure most Americans put more real thought into what car they will buy next than for whom they will vote: which is as it should be, because the former choice will make a difference to them! If we could find a way to restructure the democratic system so that the vote one cast made an individual difference — rather than being one drop in a vast ocean — I think we would see people get politically "smarter" rapidly. One day, perhaps, someone will think of a way it can be done, so that individuals have an individual stake in the quality of their political decisions. Until then, frankly, I think there is little hope that democracy will do much better than it is doing now. Nothing now conditions us to learn to make "better" (in the sense of results) political decisions… only to have "better" (in the sense of socially functional) political opinions.

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