Americans are by no means the most intelligent bunch. Shortly after WWII and some prominent decades of intellectual prowess that led to world-changing events like the moon landing, our country began to cognitively erode in the critical areas of science, engineering, math, and technology, or STEM. What preceded this erosion, and what will always be present, are irrational, conspiracy-laden beliefs which our human evolution has made frustratingly hard to leave behind.
Our brain is set up in such a way that patterns underpin most everything that we encounter. This is how our early ancestors were able to make it through this dangerous existence. A proto-human that was unable to recognize weather patterns, distribution of flowering fruits, or migration habits of game animals would surely be at a disadvantage to a rival who did not have these intellectual obstacles. The consequence of this fundamental pattern seeking however, is that humans today apply this behavior to absolutely everything. I know that you have experienced at least one occurrence of this before. Have you ever thought that you saw a representation of an object in the clouds, or thought you saw a face in that all black-and-white static TV channel? Obviously, clouds do not form in the shape of dogs or ice cream cones. This is a layover from our evolutionary propensity to find patterns in everything.
My point is this: this obsessive and mostly sub-consciousness pattern seeking, applied to our modern world, leads to wishful, superstitious, and supernatural thinking. This then brings us back to Americans. Our culture is a grand example of the sometimes unfortunate pattern finding that we are all programmed to do. This behavior has intertwined with our culture in such a way so that there is always room for a convenient conspiracy theory, or disagreement with checked and verified scientific evidence.
Especially in America, there is a certain meme that has emerged that says it is OK or cool to be ignorant. Since it has been drilled into our squishy brains that America is the greatest country on Earth, much of our culture is content with a disregard for other cultures, places, and ideas. This ignorance also professes a distrust of science and its method, keeping America behind in the race to produce more productive, inventive, and creative leaders in the STEM areas mentioned above. What we will see below are examples of this ignorance resulting from our programmed non-critical cognition; from accepting evolution and heliocentrism, to harboring belief in conspiracy theories like Sarah Palin’s “Death Panels”, Saddam’s involvement with WMD’s, to basic knowledge like geography and government/religious structure. (I will be leaving the more political topics to Newsweek).
To mark the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, the pollsters over at Gallup conducted a survey of Americans concerning their belief in evolution. What is heartbreaking is that only 39 percent of Americans believed in the theory. I say heartbreaking because the evidence has become overwhelming. The theory is as strong as any other in modern science, which has as many testable claims as gravity or thermodynamics. If you still have hang-ups about it, I try to quell many misconceptions of evolution here. I think that much of the distrust of the fact of evolution is due to the intellectual cock-blocking of various religions and their creation myths. Even fundamentalist religions have accepted the scientific evidence that dinosaurs existed, and the entire body of evidence for dinosaurs is just one facet in the larger body of evidence for evolution! That is to say, the fossil evidence for dinosaurs also agrees with all evolutionary rules. Hopefully, a more scientifically concerned public will leave these myths behind and proceed with modern biology. The good news: only a quarter said they didn’t believe it; the remaining portion either didn’t have an opinion or didn’t answer. (Also, only 55 percent correctly linked Darwin’s name with the theory.) However, it appears that views may, um, evolve: younger people believe in evolution at far higher rates than older ones.
It seems obvious that it’s not a good idea to put too much stock in witchcraft. But it turns out that 21 percent of Americans believe there are real sorcerers, conjurers, and warlocks out there. And that’s just one of the several paranormal beliefs common among Americans, according to Gallup: 41 percent believe in ESP, 32 percent in ghosts, and a quarter in astrology. These numbers have remained somewhat consistent for a long time. These people haven’t changed their mind since the Enlightenment, and it is surely a layover from our pattern-seeking past. I think that our brains find it more reasonable to rationalize that board creaking underneath our bed as a monster because of another hardwired response called the “fight or flight” response.
Any of our ancient ancestors who did not take threats seriously, or who took to long verifying a potential danger, would have a disadvantage in an environment where many times that quick-acting fear kept you from being a saber-tooth tiger chew toy. Like our pattern-finding, this “fight or flight” response has consequences for modern humans. We now sometimes find it more reasonable for a ghost to be moving the silverware slightly, or for a coincidence to be something supernatural, than to accept the natural explainability of the circumstance.
[Newsweek] “From Facebook to faith: that’s how a spurious rumor became part of the national dialogue. On Facebook, Sarah Palin wrote in August 2009 that Obama would institute a “death panel” as part of health-care reform. Soon pundits and politicians were demagoguing the issue into common currency. Even in August 2010, one year after the initial burst and five months after health reform was signed into law, the belief lingers. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 40% of Americans mistakenly believe the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act creates a panel that makes decisions about end-of-life care”.
Saddam’s WMDs and 9/11 Involvement
[Newsweek] “Even years after claims that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction or had links to the September 11 attacks had been debunked, not all Americans were convinced. In a June 2007 NEWSWEEK poll, four years after the invasion of Iraq, 41 percent believed Saddam was involved in 9/11—even though President Bush had said otherwise as early as September 2003. Wild views on 9/11 are in fact still rampant. In September 2009, Public Policy Polling found that a quarter of Democrats suspected Bush had something to do with the attacks. Meanwhile, many Americans also remain convinced that Saddam had WMDs, even though inspectors haven’t found any in the seven years since the invasion. Still, as of 2006, half of Americans believed that, according to Harris. Who knows where they got that idea?”
Almost 400 years of evidence later and 20 percent of Americans were still sure in 1999 that the sun revolved around the Earth. This is chiefly due to the factors that we have already discussed. Simple ignorance will explain this belief, as will the lack of education (because it is subjectively apparent that the sun goes around the Earth). But again I believe that this is due to religious interference. The Catholic church tried, almost 400 years ago, to bury the evidence that Galileo had collected that contradicted the teachings of the church. Because a religious upbringing and education is what the vast majority of Americans receive, it is not surprising that the arcane church position is still held true. Tradition be damned; it is more intellectually valiant to abandon discredited theories, admit fault, and move on. A 3,500-year-old book was wrong, for a fact, because we can actually see the planets moving around the sun, so move on! Besides at least 20% of people you meet are pretty dumb anyway.
History of Religion
If mutual understanding is the key to tolerance, we’re in trouble. According to NEWSWEEK’s 2007 What You Need to Know poll, barely half of Americans were correctly able to state that Judaism was older than both Christianity and Islam. Another 41 percent weren’t sure; in case you’re in that group, here goes: Judaism is the oldest of the Abrahamic faiths, followed by Christianity—which reveres the Jewish prophets (including Moses, above)—and then Islam, which reveres the Jewish prophets and also hails Jesus as a prophet. But who cares about Muslims and Jews right? We’re Americans! (and assumed Christian, and intolerant). This lack of knowledge for other religions is only the tip of the iceberg. Long after a handful of religious extremists attacked New York, the general tendency of the American public towards all Muslims is largely hostile.
It may also be surprising to you that the group that scores the highest in terms of religious knowledge and intelligence are atheists.
Supreme Court vs. Seven Dwarfs
[Newsweek] “It’s hard to imagine what inspired the pollsters at Zogby to ask the question, but the answer is striking: in a 2006 poll, more than 75% of Americans could name at least two of the seven dwarfs, while not quite 25% could name two members of the Supreme Court. NEWSWEEK’s response is a split decision, if you will: on the one hand, Disney is as much a symbol of America as the high court, and those dwarfs are adorable. On the other hand, it should be easy to name only two out of a pool of nine options. Objection sustained!”
[Newsweek] “Lost? Don’t ask an American. 63 percent of young Americans can’t find Iraq on a map, despite the ongoing U.S involvement there. 90 percent can’t find Afghanistan—even if you give them the advantage of a map limited to Asia. And more than 33 percent of Americans of any age can’t identify the continent that’s home to the Amazon River (above), the world’s largest” (SPOILER ALERT: it’s South America; it even has “America” in the name you dummies).
Three Stooges vs. Three Branches
[Newsweek] “What a bunch of knuckleheads: according to Zogby, the majority of Americans—75 percent—can correctly identify Larry, Curly, and Moe as the Three Stooges. Only two out of five respondents, however, can correctly identify the executive, legislative, and judicial branches as the three wings of government”.
Freedom of Religion
Who needs constitutional constructionism? Not one in three Americans, apparently: that’s the proportion that said in a 2008 First Amendment Center poll that the constitutional right to freedom of religion was never meant to apply to groups most folks think are extreme or fringe—a 10 percent increase from 2000. In 2007, two out of five Americans told the FAC that teachers should be allowed to lead prayers in public schools despite the fact that the founding fathers were secular, and intended for a secular republic. Contrary to belief, this is not an officially Christian nation. You can see several years of the reports here.
President Obama’s Religion
[Newsweek] “Opponents of President Obama have been spreading false rumors about his religion for quite some time. Recently, however, it seems that the number of Americans who believe these untruths is on the rise. Among respondents to a Pew poll, 18 percent believed Obama was a Muslim, up from 11 percent in March 2009. A Time magazine poll last week found similar results: 24 percent believed he was a Muslim, while only 47 percent correctly identified him as a Christian. There’s some evidence that the best indicator of belief that Obama is a Muslim is opposing him politically, casting doubt on the accuracy of the results. Then again, it wouldn’t be the craziest thing Americans believe, would it?”