"America is the only country where a significant proportion of the population believes," or so comedian David Letterman suggests we already know, "that professional wrestling is real but the moon landing was faked."
People believe these things
Lawrence Davidson characterized the arguments in Rick Shenkman's 2008 book Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing the Truth About the American Voter as saying that Americans are: "(1) ignorant about major international events, (2) knew little about how their own government runs and who runs it, (3) were nonetheless willing to accept government positions and policies even though a moderate amount of critical thought suggested they were bad for the country, and (4) were readily swayed by stereotyping, simplistic solutions, irrational fears and public relations babble." Davidson then said that this is "a default position for any population," but that it is still a concern when, for example, "polls show [that] over half of American adults don’t know which country dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, or that 30 percent don’t know what the Holocaust was." Such confusion isn't unique to the United States. "In the middle of March 2008," wrote Javier Cercas (translated by Anne McLean) in The Anatomy of a Moment, "I read that according to a poll published in the United Kingdom almost a quarter of Britons thought Winston Churchill was a fictional character."
In 2013, a poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation (reported in The Week on May 10) found that 19 percent of Americans believed that the Affordable Care Act, known popularly as "Obamacare," had already been repealed or overturned, and another 42 percent weren't sure.
In 2014, the National Science Foundation said that only a slight majority of Americans polled were able to correctly respond that viruses can't be treated with antibiotics and that 26 percent said that the sun revolves around the Earth. Citing a prior poll by this organization on this same question, Susan Jacoby wrote in 2008 that "The problem is not just the things we do not know...it’s the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place. Call this anti-rationalism...The toxic brew of anti-rationalism and ignorance hurts discussions of U.S. public policy on topics from health care to taxation." Tom Nichols, commenting on Jacoby's column in his 2017 book The Death of Expertise, said: "Ordinary Americans might never have liked the educated or professional classes very much, but until recently they did not widely disdain their actual learning as a bad thing in itself. It might even be too kind to call this merely “anti-rational”; it is almost reverse evolution, away from tested knowledge and backward toward folk wisdom and myths passed by word of mouth — except with all of it now sent along at the speed of electrons."
Since 2014, a small but growing group of "Flat Earthers" has met regularly in Fort Collins, Colo., with sympathetic meetings occurring in a half-dozen other U.S. cities. A leader recalls seeing a YouTube video that promoted the idea of a flat earth. “It was interesting, but I didn’t think it was real. I started the same way as everyone else, saying, ‘Oh, I’ll just prove the earth is round.’ Nine months later, I was staring at my computer thinking, ‘I can’t prove the globe anymore.” The article in the Denver Post says of this group: "Many subscribe to the 'ice wall theory,' or the belief that the world is circumscribed by giant ice barriers, like the walls of a bowl, that then extend infinitely along a flat plane." In 2017, searching YouTube by the exact phrase "flat earth" (with quotation marks) yields three-quarters of a million videos. In 2018, CNN reported, "a YouGov survey of more than 8,000 American adults suggested last year that as many as one in six Americans are not entirely certain the world is round, while a 2019 Datafolha Institute survey of more than 2,000 Brazilian adults indicated that 7% of people in that country reject that concept, according to local media."
In 2010, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting received funding amounting to 0.00014% of the U.S. federal budget. CNN/Opinion Research found early the next year that "Forty percent of those polled believe funding the CPB receives takes up 1 to 5 percent of the budget, 30 percent believe public broadcasting takes up 5 percent or more of the budget and 7 percent of respondents believe the non-profit receives 50 percent or more of the federal budget." The final cohort of respondents who thought it was more than half of the budget may also suffer from general mathematical or political illiteracy, but it seems nonetheless fair to say that many people have false beliefs about the funding for public broadcasting. (For comparison, when a Roper poll in 2007 accurately informed participants that the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) receives funding equivalent to about $1 per American per year, half of the respondents said this amount was "too little.")
In 2019, when asked about Arabic numerals by an opinion polling firm, a majority of Americans (56 percent) said the numerals should be excluded from the curriculum in American schools. ("Arabic numerals" are the shapes we recognize as numbers: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.) The question was designed to highlight how quickly most Americans would respond in a prejudiced manner to anything labeled "Arabic."
"There’s no shame in not knowing; there’s shame in not wanting to know. For years I’ve said this to my college students as a way of telling them that learning should never stop. But I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that, at a certain point, there should be shame in not knowing," Charles Taylor wrote in an opinion piece for the Boston Globe. He fretted over "creative-writing students who have never heard of Edith Wharton or Ralph Ellison; journalism students who can’t identify the attorney general; students who don’t know what the NAACP or the Geneva Convention are."
"The emerging narrative of this election is that Donald Trump was elected by people who are sick of being looked down on by liberal elites. The question the people pushing this narrative have not asked is this: Were the elites, based on the facts, demonstrably right?
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That Trump voters chose an easily disprovable myth over readily available facts is one sign of their willful ignorance.
And still this imperviousness to fact pales next to the racism and xenophobia and misogyny — in other words, the moral ignorance — that Trump’s supporters wallowed in. All of the condescension of which liberals have been accused can’t begin to match the condescension of the current storyline that Trump voters are too disenfranchised or despised or dismissed to be held morally responsible for their choices.
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The apologists for Donald Trump voters have given their imprimatur to a culture that equates knowledge and expertise with elitism, a culture ignorant of the history of the country it professes to love and contemptuous of the content of its founding documents."
It isn't clear from this brief column how Taylor thinks factual knowledge and moral knowledge might be related. Most people would say that moral knowledge depends on drawing conclusions that incorporate factual knowledge. (For example, you have to know whether someone else is threatening you before you can properly decide how to act in "self-defense." As another example, you have to know whether a crime occurred before you can express your opinion about it. Berel Lang wrote: "...the most extreme Holocaust 'revisionists' — Faurisson, Rassinier, Butz — do not deny that if the Holocaust had occurred, it would have been an enormity warranting moral reflection, judgment, and whatever else followed from these, presumably including condemnation and punishment; they deny only that it did occur.") Some would also say that moral knowledge is not merely a concatenation of ordinary beliefs and social agreements but that it exists in some separate sphere.
Brian Klaas' 2017 book The Despot's Apprentice: Donald Trump's Attack on Democracy provides this example of people willing to give up a democratic norm due to a false belief about how a previous election was conducted.
“According to a poll taken in August 2017, 47% of Republicans believe he [Trump] won the popular vote — even though he lost it to Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes. Even more horrifying, 68% of Republicans mistakenly believe that millions of illegal immigrants voted in the 2016 contest. And here’s the authoritarian kicker for good measure: 52% of Republicans surveyed said that they would support postponing the 2020 presidential election if President Trump suggested that doing so was necessary to ensure that only legal citizens could vote. Democracies die when presidents can postpone elections based on the mythology of a pernicious lie.”
Nearly a year later, in May 2018, 48% of Republicans still held the false belief that millions of votes had been cast illegally, and 35% said they were unsure.
And in November 2020, days after Joe Biden won the popular vote by at least 4 million votes and also won the Electoral College (with the same number of electoral votes that Trump had won in 2016, incidentally), a Reuters/Ipsos poll found that only 6 in 10 Republicans said Biden had won. The false belief grew more popular and stuck. An Ipsos poll conducted March 30-31, 2021 found that 6 in 10 Republicans believed that Trump was the rightful victor and that the election had been somehow stolen from him, while nearly as many believed more specifically that Biden had won due to some form of vote fraud or election rigging.
Some political choices are motivated by beliefs that are not merely incidentally false, but superstitious and, I would argue, horribly immoral. Newsweek reported in January 2018 that "many evangelical Christians believe that Trump was chosen by God to usher in a new era, a part of history called the 'end times,'" and, accordingly, this group "overwhelmingly support[s] President Donald Trump because they believe he'll cause the world to end." [Emphasis mine.]
Many Americans said in an August 2018 poll that “the president should have the authority to close news outlets engaged in bad behavior,” despite the First Amendment guaranteeing the freedom of the press. The breakdown was partisan: 12 percent of Democrats, 21 percent of Independents, and 43 percent of Republicans believed the president should be allowed to shut down newspapers.
Across various countries, in a 2019 study, about 10-30% of atheists have superstitious beliefs. Agnostics are a little more likely to be superstitious. Meanwhile, 30-70% of the general population, which includes religious believers, is superstitious. This shows that while atheism correlates with a lower likelihood of superstitious belief, it does not root out superstition entirely. Belief in God and belief in superstitions are separate things.
Truth ought to matter
More reasoning skills or relevant knowledge background does not always help someone arrive at the correct answer. If their reasoning is motivated by something other than seeking truth (see the definition of "motivated reasoning"), then their enhanced reasoning skills will only abet them in seeking their ulterior motive. Ezra Klein wrote in Why We're Polarized:
If the problem was truly that people needed to know more about science to fully appreciate the dangers of a warming climate, then their concern should've risen alongside their knowledge. But here, too, the opposite was true: among people who were already skeptical of climate change, scientific literacy made them more skeptical of climate change.
This will resonate with anyone who’s ever read the work of a serious climate change denialist. It’s filled with facts and figures, graphs and charts, studies and citations. Much of the data is wrong or irrelevant. But it feels convincing. It’s a terrific performance of scientific inquiry. And climate-change skeptics who immerse themselves in researching counterarguments end up far more confident that global warming is a hoax than people who haven’t spent much time studying the issue. This is true for all kinds of things, of course. Ever argued with a 9/11 truther? I have, and they are quite informed about the various melting points of steel. More information can help us find the right answers. But if our search is motivated by aims other than accuracy, more information can mislead us — or, more precisely, help us mislead ourselves. There’s a difference between searching for the best evidence and searching for the best evidence that proves us right.”
Other times, people simply don't care whether what they're saying is true, regardless of their ability to investigate the relevant facts. A 2016 survey by the Pew Research Center found that 14 percent of US adults have shared fake news despite knowing that it was fake.
But, as Daniel DeNicola wrote in "You don’t have a right to believe whatever you want to":
"Consider those who believe that the lunar landings or the Sandy Hook school shooting were unreal, government-created dramas; that Barack Obama is Muslim; that the Earth is flat; or that climate change is a hoax. In such cases, the right to believe is proclaimed as a negative right; that is, its intent is to foreclose dialogue, to deflect all challenges; to enjoin others from interfering with one’s belief-commitment. The mind is closed, not open for learning. They might be ‘true believers’, but they are not believers in the truth.
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Beliefs shape attitudes and motives, guide choices and actions. Believing and knowing are formed within an epistemic community, which also bears their effects. There is an ethic of believing, of acquiring, sustaining, and relinquishing beliefs — and that ethic both generates and limits our right to believe. If some beliefs are false, or morally repugnant, or irresponsible, some beliefs are also dangerous. And to those, we have no right.”
We care more about facts when we feel good about ourselves
“The 2000 [presidential] campaign was something of a fact-free zone,” said Brendan Nyhan, who was an undergraduate at Swarthmore at the time and who subsequently founded a political fact-checking website called Spinsanity that led to a book All the President's Spin. In his doctoral program at Duke University, he moved on to ask, as Maria Konnikova put it: "If factual correction is ineffective, how can you make people change their misperceptions?"
From Konnikova's article:
[For more examples of how this might work, see these Disruptive Dissertation blog posts. In religious thought: "The specious claim that human calamities are caused by an angry God" In political thought: "False reports that President Obama is a Muslim"]
"Until recently, attempts to correct false beliefs haven’t had much success. Stephan Lewandowsky, a psychologist at the University of Bristol whose research into misinformation began around the same time as Nyhan’s, conducted a review of misperception literature through 2012. He found much speculation, but, apart from his own work and the studies that Nyhan was conducting, there was little empirical research.
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One thing he learned early on is that not all errors are created equal. Not all false information goes on to become a false belief — that is, a more lasting state of incorrect knowledge — and not all false beliefs are difficult to correct.
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When there’s no immediate threat to our understanding of the world, we change our beliefs. It’s when that change contradicts something we’ve long held as important that problems occur.
Konnikova went on to say:
In a series of studies that they’ve just submitted for publication, the Dartmouth team approached false-belief correction from a self-affirmation angle, an approach that had previously been used for fighting prejudice and low self-esteem. The theory, pioneered by Claude Steele, suggests that, when people feel their sense of self threatened by the outside world, they are strongly motivated to correct the misperception, be it by reasoning away the inconsistency or by modifying their behavior.
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Normally, self-affirmation is reserved for instances in which identity is threatened in direct ways: race, gender, age, weight, and the like. Here, Nyhan decided to apply it in an unrelated context: Could recalling a time when you felt good about yourself make you more broad-minded about highly politicized issues, like the Iraq surge or global warming? As it turns out, it would."
It is also important to note the difference between actually believing something and merely claiming to believe it to maintain one's public image. Public image is more obviously related to one's identity and also to one's material interests. Alexander C. Kaufman provided this example:
"In December 2006, Exxon Mobil Corp. convened a two-day summit of environmental and ethics experts at a rural retreat near the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia....For decades, Exxon had funded far-right think tanks that seeded doubt over the scientific consensus on climate change. [The new CEO Rex] Tillerson and Ken Cohen, Exxon’s PR chief and chair of its political action committee, wanted to broaden the company’s political reach. One step was changing their messaging about climate change, moving away from the denial the company had been attacked for supporting....Not long after the summit, Exxon began to modify its public stance on climate change."
Sometimes what is claimed publicly is done to maintain relationships and make money. Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky on how the American mass media operate:
"But a critical analysis of American institutions, the way they function domestically and their international operations, must meet far higher standards; in fact, standards are often imposed that can barely be met in the natural sciences. One has to work hard, to produce evidence that is credible, to construct serious arguments, to present extensive documentation — all tasks that are superfluous as long as one remains within the presuppositional framework of the doctrinal consensus. It is small wonder that few are willing to undertake the effort, quite apart from the rewards that accrue to conformity and the costs of honest dissidence."
A user writing as "Exiled Consensus" in December 2018 said that it gives "too much credit" to climate change denialists to say that they are primarily motivated by science denialism.
It is equivalent to saying that cigarette company lobbyists analyze the facts, read the studies, conclude that cigarettes do not cause lung cancer, and are happy when their children develop smoking habits. Quite simply, such analysis does not occur, as author Ari Rabin-Havt explains in Lies, Incorporated. The intention of denial is to pollute discourse and sow doubt. That alone is considered a victory as it stalls action which can harm cigarette sales, or fossil fuel production. It is not science denial; rather, it is anti-profit denial, as the science is not even considered in the first place.
Or consider that Trumpist radio host Bill Mitchell tweeted in March 2020 that the coronavirus was "climate change 2.0," his way of saying that politicians were scaremongering. Mitchell is inclined to worry neither about climate change nor pandemic — or so he publicly claims. Intentionally ignoring scientists is part of his political ideology, as "GOP Climate Change Denial Set The Stage For Trump’s Coronavirus Conspiracies" more broadly (to quote a Huffington Post headline in July 2020).
Nyhan's work, by contrast, seems to be about more privately held beliefs.
Pessimism can drive down the accuracy of our estimates, according to Steven Pinker in his book Enlightenment Now:
"In a recent survey Hans Rosling found that less than one in four Swedes guessed that it [the average global life expectancy] was that high [71.4 years in 2015], a finding consistent with the results of other multinational surveys of opinions on longevity, literacy, and poverty in what Rosling dubbed the Ignorance Project. "The logo of the project is a chimpanzee, because, as Rosling explained, 'If for each question I wrote the alternatives on bananas, and asked chimpanzees in the zoo to pick the right answers, they'd have done better than the respondents.' The respondents, including students and professors of global health, were not so much ignorant as fallaciously pessimistic."
So they say
Albert Einstein said, "Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I am not sure about the former." Elbert Hubbard: "Everyone is a damn fool for at least five minutes every day. Wisdom consists in not exceeding that limit." George Bernard Shaw said it would be better to know that one does not know: “Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.” As hope, nonetheless, the words of Phyllis Bottome: "There is nothing final about a mistake, except its being taken as final."
"Why Americans Are So Ignorant: It's Not Just Fox News," Lawrence Davidson, Consortium News, April 8, 2013.
Javier Cercas. The Anatomy of a Moment: Thirty-five Minutes in History and Imagination. (2009) Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean. New York: Bloomsbury, 2011. p. 3.
"Poll: Americans way off on public broadcasting funding," Politico.com, April 1, 2011.
"Yes, there is shame in not knowing." Charles Taylor. Boston Globe. Dec. 19, 2016.
Berel Lang. Heidegger’s Silence. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1996. p. 14.
Ezra Klein. Why We're Polarized. New York: Avid Reader Press, 2020. Chapter 4.
"I don't want to be right," Maria Konnikova, New Yorker, May 19, 2014.
"Rex Tillerson Supposedly Shifted Exxon Mobil’s Climate Position. Except He Really Didn’t." Alexander C. Kaufman. Huffington Post. Dec. 26, 2016.
Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky. Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media. New York: Pantheon, 1988. p. 305.
Elbert Hubbard, quoted in The Village Voice, quoted again in The Week, Feb. 22, 2013. p. 19.
George Bernard Shaw, quoted in RefDesk.com, quoted again in The Week, July 18, 2014. p. 15.
Phyllis Bottome, quoted in the Associated Press, quoted again in The Week, June 13, 2014. p. 15.