Other nations are noticing that the people of the United States and science aren’t on good terms.
In a scathing article in Maclean’s, writer Jonathan Gatehouse asks if the most powerful nation on Earth has lost its mind?
In South Carolina, he says, a school girl’s attempt to have a state fossil was derailed by debate over evolution. He also cites the ongoing dispute against vaccinations, the collective shoulder shrug surrounding domestic spying, the banning of classic books in schools, and, of course climate change.
“Everywhere you look these days,” he writes, “America is in a rush to embrace the stupid.”
There’s a reason, he says, that politicians turn to poor grammar when they want to appeal to the masses.
They don’t appear to be getting much smarter as they age. A 2013 survey of 166,000 adults across 20 countries that tested math, reading and technological problem-solving found Americans to be below the international average in every category. (Japan, Finland, Canada, South Korea and Slovakia were among the 11 nations that scored significantly higher.)
The trends are not encouraging. In 1978, 42 per cent of Americans reported that they had read 11 or more books in the past year. In 2014, just 28 per cent can say the same, while 23 per cent proudly admit to not having read even one, up from eight per cent in 1978. Newspaper and magazine circulation continues to decline sharply, as does viewership for cable news. The three big network supper-hour shows drew a combined average audience of 22.6 million in 2013, down from 52 million in 1980. While 82 per cent of Americans now say they seek out news digitally, the quality of the information they’re getting is suspect. Among current affairs websites, Buzzfeed logs almost as many monthly hits as the Washington Post.
The advance of ignorance and irrationalism in the U.S. has hardly gone unnoticed. The late Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter won the Pulitzer prize back in 1964 for his book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which cast the nation’s tendency to embrace stupidity as a periodic by-product of its founding urge to democratize everything. By 2008, journalist Susan Jacoby was warning that the denseness—“a virulent mixture of anti-rationalism and low expectations”—was more of a permanent state. In her book, The Age of American Unreason, she posited that it trickled down from the top, fuelled by faux-populist politicians striving to make themselves sound approachable rather than smart. Their creeping tendency to refer to everyone—voters, experts, government officials—as “folks” is “symptomatic of a debasement of public speech inseparable from a more general erosion of American cultural standards,” she wrote. “Casual, colloquial language also conveys an implicit denial of the seriousness of whatever issue is being debated: talking about folks going off to war is the equivalent of describing rape victims as girls.”
That inarticulate legacy didn’t end with George W. Bush and Sarah Palin. Barack Obama, the most cerebral and eloquent American leader in a generation, regularly plays the same card, droppin’ his Gs and dialling down his vocabulary to Hee Haw standards. His ability to convincingly play a hayseed was instrumental in his 2012 campaign against the patrician Mitt Romney; in one of their televised debates the President referenced “folks” 17 times.
But one scholar contends this isn’t a uniquely American thing. It’s a reaction to voters’ inability to change the direction of things and set policy. He asks whether citizen “engagement” really matters anyway.
“If your vision of democracy is one in which elections provide solemn opportunities for voters to set the course of public policy and hold leaders accountable, yes,” Larry Bartels, the co-director of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt University, wrote. “If you take the less ambitious view that elections provide a convenient, non-violent way for a society to agree on who is in charge at any given time, perhaps not.”
(h/t: Christopher Tassava)