The Myth of the Ignorant American


People love to talk about ignorant Americans. Especially on the internet, we like to picture some unwashed, glassy-eyed behemoth squeezed into a shirt that says “These Colors Don’t Run”, trundling across Wal-Mart in a motorized shopping cart.

And while obesity, sloth, and poor fashion sense don’t have anything to do with a lack of education necessarily, the implication is as clear as you can make it. Particularly relative to our refined European neighbors, Americans are superstitious, medieval boors who think dinosaur bones are a Satanic deception.

And to be fair, we do have a curious belligerence toward scientific ideas that are uncontroversial everywhere else. With characters like Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum on center stage in American politics, one might be forgiven for making a few uncharitable assumptions about Americans in general.

But here’s where it gets weird: Americans love science.

A higher percentage of Americans qualify as “scientifically literate” (able to answer basic questions about science and the scientific method) than their peers in Europe, Japan, and Russia. According to the National Science Foundation, the average American also holds a more positive view of science and scientists; they’re more likely to visit informal scientific institutions like museums, planetariums, zoos, etc., and to describe themselves as “very interested” in new scientific discoveries.

Americans file more patents, write more grants, and publish more peer-reviewed scientific papers per capita than the EU, Japan, or Russia. Of the world’s top 20 universities, all but 3 are American (that depends a little bit on who you ask, but the consensus is surprisingly strong).

The average American is still scientifically illiterate–but only because the average person is scientifically illiterate.

Interestingly, 86% of Americans describe scientific education as “absolutely essential” for one reason or another–but only 53% know how long it takes the Earth to orbit the sun. In other words, we’re crazy about science–as long as somebody else is doing it.

I’ll admit, it’s a little hard to believe that Americans could be as scientifically aware as our friends across the pond. After all, they haven’t been arguing about where dinosaur bones come from for over a century.

But while pseudo-scientific beliefs based on Biblical literalism are in decline all over the Western world–and Europe is definitely way ahead of us on that score–those ideas are not being burned away in the brilliant light of reason. They’re just being replaced with other pseudo-scientific beliefs.

Most Europeans accept, for example, that the Earth isn’t 6,000 years old; but they’re just as likely as Americans (or more) to believe in homeopathy, astrology, ghosts, elves, ESP, and the long-discredited theory that vaccines cause autism. (I was personally affronted to learn that the average European considers homeopathy “more scientific” than economics. Harrumph!)

So superstition is not the exclusive purview of Bible-thumpers; but, you also won’t hear EU lawmakers demanding that schools “teach the controversy” on horoscopes, or pressuring state hospitals to treat cancer with tinctures of cadmium salts. And there’s something to be said for that.

So why is the political climate so different in Europe?

While the average American and the average European are comparable in terms of scientific literacy, America’s intellectual landscape is far more polarized–due mostly to our embarrassingly top-heavy educational system.

While our universities are second-to-none, the state of American public education is dismal. Only 75% of Americans graduate high school, and those that do are generally ill-equipped compared to other industrialized countries. Our 15-year-olds are near the bottom of the barrel in math and science, and 62% of our high-school seniors can’t read at their grade level.

Unsurprisingly, only a few of us actually make it through that world-renowned university system, so the United States has become the most polarized, intellectually-unequal society on the planet. While Europe’s high-quality public schools and mediocre universities assure a relatively uniform distribution of scientific knowledge, American education is a “tale of two cities”, with educational outcomes cleanly divided along socioeconomic lines.

That’s why science starts fights in the US, and not across the pond.

Like so many markers of class and status, certain non-scientific beliefs have become a kind of rallying cry for people who feel disenfranchised–particularly (though not exclusively) lower-class American whites. Rejecting “elitist” science is a way to establish membership in a bullied and martyred tribe–and when you’re on the losing end of so many impersonal social forces, feeling bullied and martyred can impart some dignity to your suffering.

But the important thing is, it’s a political phenomenon, not a religious one. Populists like Michele Bachmann don’t reject the scientific consensus on climate change and vaccinations because the Bible has anything to say about those things; she rejects them because rejection of elite consensus is part of her brand. It’s a powerful channel for populist resentment, and American politicians have been making hay with it for over a century.

Note that our most vitriolic debates on science (the Scopes-Monkey Trial, IVF, climate change, etc.) haven’t come in periods of great religious revival; they’ve come in times of extreme inequality: the Gilded Age, the Roaring Twenties, the mid-70s and 80s, and the present.

European pseudo-science, on the other hand, isn’t accompanied by stark economic inequality, so it isn’t a convenient political shibboleth–and in most cases it’s mildly tolerated, and quietly believed. (Though the rising anti-vaccination movement has lately given France and the UK a taste of aggrieved, tribal pseudo-science.)

Why does all this matter?

First: Because mocking people for their lack of education is counter-productive, and it also makes you look like an entitled prick. But most importantly, life is just too short to make fun of people for not knowing things.

Second: Because reason and faith are not locked in an age-old struggle for the soul of humanity. What now seems like a natural, inevitable conflict is only about a century old, and it’s a gangrenous part of our culture that needs to be cut out–along with the persecution complex and the smirking, willful ignorance that comes with it.

The Myth of the Ignorant American

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