One frequently sees newspaper articles and news reports deploring the high rate of illiteracy in the United States, the wealthiest country in the world. Certainly, literacy is fundamental; if one cannot read or write, one’s ability to learn is crippled. Compounding the problem are the aliterates, those who can read but don’t read, which leaves them no better off than those who can’t read at all.

Less frequently, one sees articles about innumeracy, the inability to deal with even simple mathematics. Innumerates cannot calculate the correct tip in a restaurant, balance their checkbooks, or calculate the proper change when they buy something. One suspects that more than a few sales clerks would be lost if their cash registers didn’t calculate the correct change for them.

As devastating as ignorance of basic reading and math is, there is another class of ignorance that is nearly as important and almost never mentioned. For lack of a word, I’ll call it unscientificacy, or the inability to understand or deal with even simple science concepts. Because they lack the ability to reason critically, unscientificates are easy prey for anyone who tells a good story.

Vaccines cause autism? That may sound reasonable to someone with no understanding of science, but to anyone who has even a modicum of scientific knowledge it’s obvious from a brief glance at the facts that there’s no correlation. Chelation therapy, homeopathy, astrology, chiropractic, aroma therapy, magic wristbands, snake-oil nutrition supplements–the list of pseudosciencey crap goes on and on. All attract large followings among the ignorant, and not a one of them is evidence-based. To the extent that any make falsifiable predictions, those predictions have been tested and found to fail.

To me, the truly frightening thing is that these credulous True Believers are allowed to vote on issues that affect all of us. Now, I realize that the universal franchise is held sacred by most people, but when I visualize a new-agey know-nothing space cadet entering a voting booth, I think the “you’re too ignorant about everything that matters to be be allowed to vote” argument should be reasonable grounds for disqualification.

Literacy tests were formerly used to restrict voting, but came into disrepute because they were perceived to be racist. Be that as it it may, it seems reasonable to me to set a bar on voting by requiring some minimum level of knowledge among voters. The ability to read and explain a paragraph of plain English text would be a good start, as would demonstrating some basic facility with mathematics and science. I’m not suggesting that we require competence in, say, differential equations or orbital mechanics to qualify someone to vote, but it would be nice to require, say, the ability to answer correctly such simple science-related questions as the orbital period of Earth or the freezing point of water. Anyone who cannot answer such simple questions can safely be assumed to be incapable of reasoning out which candidate he should vote for. Allowing such people to vote dooms us to suffer politicians elected by the stupid and the ignorant.

While we’re at it, it wouldn’t hurt to require a basic knowledge of history, at least US history. I was stunned the other day when I read a link on Jerry Pournelle’s site about a guest lecturer asking a class of graduate students in history to raise their hands if they knew who George Marshall was. Not a single hand was raised. In a class of history students in graduate school.

Hello? George C. Marshall? A five-star general and the Army Chief of Staff during WWII. The author of the Marshall Plan. Geez.

Well, perhaps I’m being too harsh. These were, after all, only graduate history students. One can’t expect them to know much about recent US history. And, even in their abysmal ignorance, they probably still know more about history than most US high school students, the majority of whom probably can’t name four of the major combatants in WWII, nor even give the dates of that war within a decade.


Ereaders blowing away tablets

A couple of months ago, I commented in passing that dedicated ereaders like the Kindle and Nook were outselling tablet computers like the iPad. Several readers called me on that, but they were using old figures. And, when it comes to ereaders and the ebook phenomenon, “old” may mean months or even just weeks.

I just saw an article on CNN that makes clear the explosive growth in dedicated ereaders. Last winter, about 7% of US adults owned an iPad or other tablet computer, while only 6% owned a Kindle or other dedicated ereader. By May, those number had changed dramatically. Tablet ownership had increased from 7% to only 8%, while dedicated ereader ownership had doubled, from 6% to 12%. Apple has sold a total of about 25 million iPads since their introduction; it’s likely that 25 million dedicated ereaders will be purchased in 2011 alone.

And we’re still on the steep part of the curve. It’s entirely possible that twice that many ereaders will be purchased this year, depending on how Amazon and B&N price their ereaders for the Christmas season. Rumor has it that Amazon will begin giving away Kindles, possibly in time for Christmas, but more likely in early 2012.

The sea change foretold by this flood of ereaders is confirmed by book sales figures. Publishers’ Weekly, a bastion of traditional publishing, does everything possible to minimize the importance of ebooks, which are a deadly threat to their core audience. And yet, even PW has had to acknowledge the reality of ebook sales matching and now exceeding print book sales. In a recent article on J. K. Rowling going indie, PW as usual tried to trivialize the importance of this critical change, but even they were forced to admit that ebooks accounted for 50% of frontlist fiction sales. The reality is that if PW admits to 50%, the real figure is almost certainly much higher.

As dedicated ereaders continue to sell in huge numbers, book sales will inevitably continue their shift from print books to ebooks. What’s a traditional publisher to do? I am reminded of Goldfinger: “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die.