Over the last two years, I’ve been researching the disturbing topic of American ignorance for my new book, Think. I learned that one in five Americans think the sun revolves around the earth, that the majority of us can’t name a single branch of government, and that two-thirds of American women don’t know what Roe v. Wade is. In interviews, seemingly normal adults say they can’t venture a guess as to how many sides a triangle has, what the national religion of Israel is, or in what country Mexico City is located.
What’s going on here?
To double check the astonishing answers I’d been finding, recently I gave local college students a short survey. Among the questions I asked: How many reality shows can you name? How many Kardashians? What issues is Lindsay Lohan dealing with right now? How about Charlie Sheen?
On these questions, the students plunged right in. Their results show a thorough knowledge of the subject matter.
Jersey Shore. Real World. Big Brother. Survivor. Bad Girls Club. Bachelor. Bachelorette. American Idol. Biggest Loser. The Surreal Life. Teen Mom. Real Housewives. 16 & Pregnant. Dancing With The Stars. The Osbornes. The Voice. Giuliana& Bill. Kendra. Khloe& Lamar.
Nearly everyone correctly named at least one Kardashian, and many got all three sisters – Kim, Khloe and Kourtney — without breaking a sweat. And just about everyone correctly answered that Lohan has had alcohol and drug problems and recurring jail stints; that Sheen “lost his TV show” and “may be bipolar.”
The second group of questions asked in which countries the United States was currently engaged in wars, to name our Secretary of State and Vice-President; to name their congressperson, any current member of Congress, their governor, any city council members, and to briefly describe any issues their government is currently dealing with.
Many could not name a single country where we are currently engaged in war. Others guessed (incorrectly) that we are at war now in Iran, Eqypt, Syria, Mexico, North Korea. College students gave me wildly wrong guesses like Japan, China, Russia and Morocco.
Who is our current vice-president? “A lady,” guessed one. Most could not identify Joseph Biden, nor Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. No one could correctly name a city councilperson, and surprisingly, few knew that Jerry Brown is now California’s governor, despite our recently hotly fought election. Few could correctly name a single issue before Congress or city government.
A nagging little voice piped up in many of the students.
“F***,” one wrote on the survey spontaneously, “this makes me feel uninformed.”
A young man who rattled off four quick reality shows and three Kardashians, though he could not name any elected officials, expressed disdain for the shows, saying they were about “rich people dealing with petty drama caused, mainly, by their own childishness.” Yet he continues to watch them.
Our best and brightest are able to correctly name more Kardashians than wars we’re in. They could detail for me the problems in celebrities’ personal lives but not those in their communities or country. They know more about reality shows than reality.
“This is bad,” said another college woman, disturbed by her own ignorance. “Maybe they should have more shows about important stuff on E!”
Yes, it is bad, and it’s not limited to young people. As I outline in Think, the dumbing down of our populace is broader and deeper than I could have imagined, and it has devastating consequences.
Here are two: the Iraq war and climate change.
Just before our 2003 invasion of Iraq, nearly seven in ten Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11, according to a Washington Post poll. By June 2007, when we were deeply mired in Iraq, we knew better: only 41 percent of the American public believed that, according to a Newsweek poll. Last fall, a Pew research Center poll found that a solid majority, 62 percent of Americans, believed that our Iraq invasion was “not worth it.”
The facts never changed; only our awareness of them did.
Over four thousand American troops lost their lives and more than thirty thousand have been injured in the Iraq war. Estimates of Iraqi civilians killed range from one hundred thousand to one million.
Over the last two decades, the greatest convergence of top scientific minds in human history, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, has met four times and concluded that climate change is real, it is upon us now, and it could have devastating consequences. The IPCC won the Nobel Peace Prize, and then was endorsed by over 100 countries, including ours. Every major, reputable scientific organization has agreed, as have the national science academies of eleven countries, including ours. Not only did then-presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton confirm that climate change is scientifically real and a major threat to our children and grandchildren, but so did George W. Bush and John McCain.
Yet as the world’s scientists have produced more conclusive evidence of this grave danger to our planet, perversely, Americans have grown less aware. According to Pew, in 2007, the first year it asked Americans whether global warming should be a top domestic priority, 38 percent agreed. In 2008, the number dropped to 35 percent; in 2009, just 30 percent. In its 2010 list only 28 percent ranked it a top priority. It is now dead last on the priority list for each of the last three years.
“Am I stupid?” a UCLA biology major and star athlete asked me. No, we are not dumb. Many of us have just fallen prey to a junk media culture. It’s not too late to reclaim our brains. In Think, I outline clear steps on the road back to using our grey matter. Because — that nagging little voice? It’s our brain, telling us it wants back in the game.