Susan Jacoby argues that America has entered the “age of unreason.”

February 16, 2008 | By | 13 Replies More

In this interview on Bill Moyers’ Feb 15, 2008 show (see the video here), author Susan Jacoby argues that we are now struggling with ignorance as a political crisis.   She argues that we are obsessed with small personal facts at the expense of important issues.  Most Americans don’t spend the necessary time to have a legitimate base of knowledge from which to make important decisions.

Yet politicians dare not address this crisis of ignorance.  They won’t talk about the political significance of public ignorance, even though it is the widespread public ignorance of basic facts that “makes serious deception possible and plausible.”

Jacoby offers quite a few anecdotes.  One of these anecdotes is about Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s radio addresses during World War II.  Roosevelt urged his listeners to go get a map and to look at the map while he talked about the significant events of that war.  It’s hard to imagine any political figure doing that today.  Jacoby cites statistics indicating that only a small number of today’s high school graduates have any idea of where the various countries of the Middle East are located on a world map on which the country boundaries are drawn.

She takes it as a truism that our political culture is a reflection of our general culture. We don’t want to learn anymore.  We go to websites and we attend lectures only when we want to hear information that reinforces what we are ready know.  Only a small minority of people are any longer willing to learn from people with whom they disagree.  Jacoby blames this on the reduced attention span of Americans.It also has to do with the number of Americans who exercise critical thinking.  One-half of Americans believe in ghosts.  One-third of Americans believe in astrology.  One-half of Americans do not believe in evolution.

Jacoby party blames the media.  The news media presents “truth as equidistant from two points.” For example, evolution and creationism are presented as two equally valid viewpoints by the news media.  Jacoby calls this tactic “dumb objectivity.”She cites a shocking statistic (put forth by Stephen Prothero in a book called Religious Literacy): one-half of Americans cannot name Genesis as the first book of the Bible. This lack of information is shocking because huge numbers of Americans claim that the Bible is the most important book in the world.  Here’s more shocking statistics: 15% of Americans do not understand that the Earth revolves around the sun.  Most Americans don’t know how many Justices are on the United States Supreme Court.

The ignorance goes on and on, and it is imperiling our democracy.   It makes you wonder what we are spending our time doing.   Here’s a hint:  you can find multiple magazine racks like this at most supermarkets.

grocery-store-magazine-at-checkout-aisle-lo-res.jpg

(Photo by Erich Vieth. Click to enlarge image).

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Category: American Culture, Education, Politics

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (13)

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  1. Skblllzzzz says:

    "Here’s more shocking statistics: 15% of Americans do not understand that the sun revolves around the earth."

    Interesting: So 85% of Americans do understand that the Sun revolves around the Earth.

    That's 100% bad. Shocking indeed ;-(.

  2. xxxx says:

    "15% of Americans do not understand that the sun revolves around the earth. "

    well, count me ignorant.

  3. Travis says:

    Under the more shocking stats, I believe you meant to write earth revolves around the sun.

  4. shocked says:

    "Here’s more shocking statistics: 15% of Americans do not understand that the sun revolves around the earth."

    Truly shocking.

  5. Pat Whalen says:

    How little most people know about what is going on in the world around them has been an on going joke for as long as I remember (and I'm not young). Does she offer any evidence that it is any worse now?

    "We go to websites and we attend lectures …"

    Is there any evidence that those who go to web sites and attend lectures" are generally not informed?

  6. Erich Vieth says:

    Now that I've been properly, repeatedly reminded–and now that I've checked a few recent editions of astronomy journals, I've corrected the mistake. Yes, the Earth actually goes around the sun.

  7. Edgar Montrose says:

    A few years ago, I watched an official from the local school district, in a televised newcast, complain that improvements in the quality of education were necessary because half of the students in the district performed below the 50th percentile.

  8. Dan Klarmann says:

    Why do you think I keep posting alerts like this one?

  9. Dave says:

    > 15% of Americans do not understand that the sun revolves around the earth.

    How much you want to bet that those 15% voted for Bush?

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Dave: My first reaction was that you were being unfair to the Bushies. After all, I've met many liberals who don't think things through very well.

      Then I recalled that many people still believe that there was a connection between Al Queda and Iraq, despite the total lack of evidence, and that most of those who believe this voted for Bush (based on their baseless belief).

  10. Hgus says:

    @dave

    "How much you want to bet that those 15% voted for Bush?"

    I think this is a very interesting question.

    I would like to see if how tied these results were.

    For example- Of the 15% who believe that the sun revolves around the earth, what percentage of them believe in ghosts, or don't know what the first book of the bible is or believe that global warming is a hoax?

    The 15% who believe that that the sun revolves around the earth – are they wrong on every issue? Are they considered "likely voters"? For which party do they vote?

    15% of America is a huge number. More than 45 million people. After all, Obama only got 63 Million votes in the last election.

    I guess if these 45 million people don't vote, or are evenly divided amongst dems and reps, then i guess it doesn't matter much.

    But i suspect that is not the case. I suspect that these dummies are likely voting for one particular party.

    I will let you guess which one that is. But then again, wouldn't it be nice for some actual analysis of the numbers so we didn't have to guess?

  11. Up The Stairs says:

    You write an article about American's being stupid, and within it you write this non-sensical sentence. So, who is stupid?

    "We go to websites and we attend lectures only when we want to hear information that reinforces what we are ready now."

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Up the Stairs. I made a spelling error in one of my thousands of posts. I guess I'm "stupid." I'll correct that spelling error so that I cease being stupid.

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