Just how stupid are Americans?

| July 3, 2008 | 80 Replies

About some things, Americans are incredibly stupid. For instance, I’ve kept an eye on science and religion related ignorance for years. 15% of Americans don’t know that the Earth revolves around the sun. Half of the people in the United States (an allegedly “Christian Nation”)  can’t name Genesis as the first book in the Bible.

There are a lot more statistics where those came from. If you’d like to read a few dozen zingers, read Rick Shenkman’s article in Alternet, “Ignorant America: Just How Stupid Are We?” There are some real head-shakers in Shenkman’s article. Several might have you wondering whether we should require citizens to pass rudimentary intelligence tests in order to vote. Shenkman’s compilation of stupidity had me wondering this. I know that this is an extremely controversial idea based on the way it has been misused in the past. It is clear, though that huge numbers of people have no idea how their government is designed to work, who is running their government, the basic characteristics of the scientific method, the basic facts of the religions to which they cling, or rudimentary principles of geography, history or economics. Now really . . . should such a person vote? This question makes me squirm.

I’m not really suggesting that we should take official government action to keep people from voting based on their intelligence levels. On the other hand, reading Shenkman’s article makes me wonder whether our “Get out the vote” campaigns should be focused on getting people to vote only if they know something other than their favorite TV shows and sports stars. Rather than “get out the vote,” perhaps we should have “vote only if you’re informed” campaigns. Here’s one of Shenkman’s many statistics that especially got me thinking in this entirely unacceptable way:

In the election of 2004, one of the hot issues was gay marriage. But gauging public opinion on the subject was difficult. Asked in one national poll whether they supported a constitutional amendment allowing only marriages between a man and a woman, a majority said yes. But three questions later a majority also agreed that “defining marriage was not an important enough issue to be worth changing the Constitution.” The New York Times wryly summed up the results: Americans clearly favor amending the Constitution but not changing it.

What is stupidity? Early in his comprehensive article on the lack of comprehension, Shenkman designates the five types of stupidity:

First, is sheer ignorance: Ignorance of critical facts about important events in the news, and ignorance of how our government functions and who’s in charge. Second, is negligence: The disinclination to seek reliable sources of information about important news events. Third, is wooden-headedness, as the historian Barbara Tuchman defined it: The inclination to believe what we want to believe regardless of the facts. Fourth, is shortsightedness: The support of public policies that are mutually contradictory, or contrary to the country’s long-term interests. Fifth, and finally, is a broad category I call bone-headedness, for want of a better name: The susceptibility to meaningless phrases, stereotypes, irrational biases, and simplistic diagnoses and solutions that play on our hopes and fears.

Although the article at the top of this post, “Ignorant America,” is full of compelling statistics, it (like many articles documenting American stupidity) is also riddled with many questions that confuse trivia for knowledge. How important is it for most Americans to know the name of the Secretary of Defense? Isn’t it possible that someone can be rather up to speed about America’s military policies without actually knowing the name of the Secretary of Defense?

America is obsessed with trivia and it is not unusual for trivia to masquerade as something important for tests that purport to measure intelligence. Knowing lots and lots of facts, though, especially the inert facts common for trivia buffs, is not the same thing as being intelligent. If these two things (knowledge and facts) were equal, we would regularly have great insights and discoveries occurring as a result of Trivia Nights, yet I don’t believe that has yet happened even once.

The problem with many intelligence tests is that they only measure ability to recall bits of information rather than detecting true understanding, much less wisdom. For this reason, many of the questions used to illustrate how “stupid” we are resemble the same problems found in many formal “intelligence tests.” A thorough review of those problems with IQ tests can be found in Stephen Jay Gould’s Mismeasure of Man (1996).

I recognize that we all have our focus when it comes to understanding the world. Someone who is dedicated to one field of study might not know as much about other fields of study. It is also important to remember that all of us have huge gaps in information. If we have dedicated our lives to understanding nanotechnology, how much are we actually going to know about the history of classical music ? If you work as a professional athlete, should we really be expected to know all five of the specific legal rights granted by the First Amendment? (Did you know that one of those rights is the right to petition the government?). Having written this, I think it’s more likely that those who truly excel at a field tend to be rather well-rounded.

There’s probably more than a few people who would insist that the scientific method is the be-all and end-all of intelligence because of its insistence on proof. There is an uneasy truce between belief and proof, however. In the area of religion, belief is often said to be justified even in the absence of proof. But don’t forget that even very smart people find an irresistible urge to believe many things that they cannot prove.

Here’s another caveat for those who walk around wagging their fingers (like I do) at the large number of “stupid” Americans. Howard Gardner has put forth a strong argument that there were actually multiple intelligences. He holds that the concept of “general intelligence” is highly suspect and that there might not be such a thing as GI. There are those who are incredibly talented at reading the moods and motives of other people (he calls this interpersonal intelligence), but who don’t do well at mathematics. There are people who are terrifically talented in musical ways (e.g. Hillary Hahn), but might not be very good at biology (I’m not suggesting that Hillary on is not good at biology– because I am deeply infatuated with Hillary Hahn, I assume that she is excellent at everything she does!). Many of us do know some “absent-minded professors” who can talk for hours on esoterica such as Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative but who seem inept at coping in the real world on a day-to-day basis. In the category of super-intelligent, I would quickly place my plumber (who can talk knowledgeably about almost anything, it seems) and a carpenter who has done work at my house, who has a superhuman grasp of his profession. I can’t imagine being as good as he is at the many arts of transforming a house, even if I trained for 20 years at the foremost “carpenter school.”

Having recognized these caveats, I am nonetheless saddened that there are hundreds of Americans I have personally met who seem to be almost completely ignorant of most things and who don’t seem to care. They live eternally in the present (like young children) and they have no interest in knowing the cultures or accomplishments of other people living in other places. Why is it important to know about humans living in different places and in different ways? Because we are part of a massive global economy where our local actions, in the aggregate, have massive global consequences.

Many of these un-curious Americans have well-paying jobs–some of them are even wealthy. Their idea of traveling is to take their own culture with them, for instance, to seek out “hot” tourist spots and to patronize American restaurant franchises like Hard Rock Cafe while visiting foreign countries. And that’s assuming that they have any inclination to travel at all in the first place. Many of them don’t see the need to travel or to know about the cultures of others.

I am not intending to criticize those who have never had the means to study seriously or to travel widely. For instance, I have spoken to many people who clean the offices where I work. It is common for these folks to have to work two and sometimes three jobs to make ends meet. There is no way that such a person would have the opportunities to expand his or her intellectual life because they are working way too many hours cleaning up messes made by people like me. The targets of this rant are those people who have every opportunity to become more knowledgeable about the world but who have turned it down repeatedly.

How is it that so many Americans have gotten as stupid as the Shenkman article suggests? It sometimes seems that somebody is so incredibly un-curious that you wonder how it is that he or she didn’t self-destruct many years ago? It happens to me on a regular basis. I am surrounded by people who haven’t the faintest idea how an automobile works, or how electricity works, how the body works or how government works. I’m not insisting on a sophisticated knowledge of these topics, but a simple working knowledge. For instance, what is the difference between direct current and alternating current? What are the constituent gases of water? In a very simple way, describe what is happening inside of a nuclear power plant to create the energy? What are the three basic branches of American government? There are all too many Americans who don’t know and don’t care.

A week doesn’t go by when I haven’t met someone who does not know how to make change with coins or has no idea how to outline and write a simple coherent letter. I constantly meet people who simply presume that every other person A) does or B) should think the same as them. This matters, because many of these uncurious people do presumably vote (It’s probably more polite to use “uncurious” rather than the pejorative “stupid”). And it’s obvious to me that many people fear the concept and promise of biological evolution without knowing what evolution is. They express political opinions on energy policy without having any working knowledge of the geopolitics of petroleum. They take stands that homosexuality is “unnatural” without realizing that humans are animals or that hundreds of other species are, to some extent, homosexual. They take strongly held religious positions without any idea about the origin of the Bible, the changes made to the Bible the immorality of many sections of the Bible or the thousands of contradictions in the Bible.

How has this happened? Perhaps one factor is that we’ve worked so hard to make our surrounding world “smart” is that we don’t have to be smart. To be a cashier at McDonald’s, you don’t have to know much mathematics. The pictograph-laden cash register and the other parts of the McDonald’s corporate system do most of your “thinking” for you. The idea that we’ve made our world intelligent so that we don’t have to be intelligent was explored at length by Andy Clark in a book called Being There: Putting Brain, Body and World Together Again (1997):

We use our intelligence to structure our environment so that we can succeed with less intelligence. Our brains make the world smart so that we can be dumb in peace . . . It is the human brain plus these chunks of external scaffolding that finally constitutes the smart, rational inference engine we call mind. Looked at that way, we are smart after all—but our boundaries extend further out into the world than we might have initially supposed.

[Being There, p. 180] Americans have worked very hard to design environments that allow us to survive even if we’re not very bright. I suspect that we are now suffering because we have so successfully created such a world where we don’t have to be very smart.

We are now entering a dangerous new era, however, where our “smart” world (a world that can only function on cheap oil) is no longer so smart. Not only is out system failing to mesh with the new reality–individual humans are no longer very smart, because for decades our “smart” world has allowed many of us to sit around without much mental effort and to reap the harvests of smart technology and cheap oil: endless amusements, cheap food, indoor climate control at the push of a button, the ability to call on the miracles of modern medicine to compensate for the abuses we give to our bodies. Our smart technology has trained us to be un-smart and un-curious. I really do suspect that countries that haven’t had it as good as America (with regard to technology and availability of cheap energy) are now better positioned than America to thrive in the coming years of expensive energy, where personal initiative and inventiveness will again be of higher value to most people in most places.

I need to bring this post to a close, though I don’t have any satisfying conclusions. Rather, I am haunted by the thought that too many of us are failing to work to make the most of our opportunities to understand our world and improve the world. Perhaps this kind of behavior is based upon an emotional attitude. I’m thinking of the famous quote by Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Maybe our approach to knowing (or not knowing) the world does boil down to an emotional attitude, an attitude that can sometimes equate with nihilism. For many of us, I’m afraid, the unexamined life is worth living.

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Category: American Culture, Education, ignorance, Meaning of Life, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science, snake oil, Technology

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 and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Fantasy world | Dangerous Intersection | February 28, 2011
  1. David Wadlow says:

    I understand the sentiments you express in this post. It is a disturbing puzzle. At the risk of stating the obvious, rampant stupidity is dangerous to a society. I think there is also a tendency towards an arrogant type of stupidity that comes with being a citizen of a powerful country – as if it’s OK to be dumb – a sort of might is right dumbness.

  2. IR amuricun says:

    The stupidity of Americans knows no limits.
    Everyday, somewhere in America, stupid is being re-calibrated to express the new standard by which stupid should be judged. If it wasn’t for the US, the first quarter of the bell curve would not be needed.
    If being fat, lazy, and stupid appeals to you, move to America. The land of operstupidity.
    If you think you can accumulate debt forever without consequence, move to America.
    If not knowing a thing about the rest of the world appeals to you, move to America.
    Come to the USA, we don’t have an IQ test to get in.

    • Frances says:

      This made me laugh out loud. Now everyone else in the room is looking at me like I’m a nut because I can’t explain what I laughed without insulting them.

  3. Erich Vieth says:

    In this 2009 video Bill Maher weighs in on how stupid Americans are:

  4. Scott Howdeshell says:

    A fine post and the Maher clip there in the comments is an excellent digestif…

  5. Karl says:

    Many Americans are so “stupid” they can rationalize factual lies to actually be true in their way of thinking and believing and thus make them a part of their value system.

    Trying to say we are one nation, but without a common moral framework is ludicrous. What’s good or evil, and right or wrong is more important than presumed “knowledge” about the physical world. It is not physical laws that decide how a person will use them either to their advantage or against another person, or even another group of people.

    It seems too many people think they can rely on science to back up their value system, when all human science can actually do is organize one’s ideas and beliefs into a presumably rationalized cohesive framework. This is how we can so easily discard scientific evidence that doesn’t fit with our value systems. It is also why most of us will only look for evidence to support our value systems as well.

    • Jim Razinha says:

      I would say anyone who thinks there can be a “common moral framework” falls into the “ludicrous” category. Even all of the myriad factions of Christianity can’t agree on such. We have some words printed on our currency that do not reflect my value system, but I am a citizen of the USA and accept, begrudgingly, the clinging to primitive superstitions no matter what I think of them because my moral framework allows for such beliefs in others. I also do not watch the supposedly most watched “news” network, which seems to want to stamp out its own (hypocritically) “moral framework”, though to not hold what they spout near and dear is close to unAmerican where I live.

      I find myself more convinced as I get older that Gould was right with his non overlapping magisteria.

      But you do make a good point about discarding scientific evidence that doesn’t fit – anthropogenic climate impact being a textbook case.

  6. USA blows goats says:

    America should be sterilized.
    So they can’t breed more stupid into the world.

    • Frances says:

      We’re sterilizing ourselves with obesity. My mother in law accused me of being un-American because I’m a vegetarian. I’m seriously considering defecting.

  7. DaveDave says:

    One prophetic movie: Idiocracy (2006)

  8. Kelly says:

    I can’t stand people who live to tear Americans down. I’m glad you feel so superior…

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Kelly: We have a national crisis on our hands. Apparently, you would rather go wave the flag than sound an alarm. I don’t believe that there is any chance of addressing this problem until we recognize it for the serious problem it is.

  9. Richard Head says:

    Not all Americans are stupid. Statistically speaking, there must be at least one smart one.
    Not all Americans are complete idiots. Some parts are missing.
    If clues were shoes, all of America would be barefoot.
    America will never have a war of wits with any other country because they are completely unarmed in that respect.
    A bowling ball is sharper than most Americans.
    The only thing going through an Americans mind is a gentle breeze.
    One good thing about Americans. They are immune to mind control. You have to have a mind to be controlled.
    If you analyzed the DNA of an American, you wouldn’t see a double helix. You would see a long series of granny knots.

  10. Tim Hogan says:

    Richard Head; when you think of yourself as a wit, you are only half right!

  11. Richard Head says:

    Sounds like Tim Hogan needs a diaper change.

  12. Erich Vieth says:

    German school children are also shockingly deficient in knowledge. Half of GERMAN schoolchildren do not know Third Reich was a dictatorship – or that East Germany was Communist
    Most pupils unaware of past were from North Rhine Westphalia – the region worst affected by bombing outside Berlin. Forty per cent are unsure whether current government is democratic

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2166557/Half-GERMAN-schoolchildren-know-Third-Reich-dictatorship–East-Germany-Communist.html#ixzz2C5EPahlN

  13. Zach Allen says:

    To say that this post is tearing down America is ignorant. I love this country and have been overseas to fight for it twice, but there is something terribly wrong with the lack of interest people take in important issues that we are currently facing. I saw someone get interviewed for a documentary recently where they were asked what the amount of the federal deficit was currently at. There answer was ” 3 million dollars.” To say you love your country and not be concerned with the lack of awareness in the general public would be the real tragedy. We currently could not even elect a leader who wanted to make necessary changes because they would be so dramatic that the American people would turn on them. We can’t have the best of both worlds. When you get yourself in a difficult situation life requires you to suffer in the short term in order to achieve long term success. I will continue to love this country and do as much unbiased research as I can to try and do my part to help the current dilemmas that we face. I know there is a lot of intelligent people in our country as well, including the author of this article. Thanks for posting this it was refreshing to see my own thoughts put into words, and I enjoyed reading it.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Thanks, Zach. I agree that this is an important first step to have the courage to recognize the problem. Only then can we start fixing it. Search this site for “innumeracy,” and you’ll see a lot more on how math-challenged we are.

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