By on June 28th, 2011 in culture, essays

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.


17 Comments and discussion on "Unscientificacy"

  1. Dave Browning says:

    I knew of Marshall as the author of the Marshall Plan, and I’m not even a history major. Although when it comes to World War II history, I know less about him than I do about some of the Generals under him like Eisenhower and MacArthur.

  2. Robert Bruce Thompson says:

    That’s my point. I should be able to assume that any educated adult would have at least some inkling of who George Marshall was. I can’t.

    I would be willing to bet that if you asked a representative sample of current high school students who Benito Mussolini and Hideki Tojo were, fewer than 10% would be able to tell you anything significant about either of them. Mention William Tecumseh Sherman or John Locke or Suetonius or Imhotep and you’ll get a blank expression. Ask whether Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar were contemporaries and the results probably won’t beat random chance, if indeed they know what the word contemporaries means.

  3. BGrigg says:

    What passes for education these days is atrocious. As you know I home school, so I have LOTS of opinions on this subject. The lack of critical thinking has long been an issue, and its getting much worse. Our education system seems geared to brainwashing people into sheep, rather than illuminating their minds.

  4. Robert Bruce Thompson says:

    It’s always difficult for a fish to notice the water it’s swimming in, but what we’re seeing happening now is the bifurcation of western societies into, on the one hand, a relatively small group of the intelligent, educated, informed, wealthy, and employed, and, on the other hand, a much, much larger group of the stupid, uneducated, ignorant, poor, and unemployed. Our school systems are doing nothing to help matters, and much to make them worse.

    Such societies are inherently unstable. Sooner or later, usually sooner, the downtrodden rise up and cut off the heads of the elite. I see little hope of stopping or even slowing down this bifurcation, which means the only way long-term to avoid (our) heads rolling is to increase productivity to the point that what are now luxuries are so cheap that even the dumbest, poorest citizen can afford them. The masses don’t revolt as long as they have plenty to eat and lots of shiny new toys to play with.

    Which is why I push so hard for science and technology. We need lots of smart people inventing new science and technology to stave off the revolt of the underclass. Which is also, incidentally, a good reason to legalize all drugs. Stoners can’t be bothered to revolt.

  5. Matthew Farr says:

    My own experience in AP History at my high school in Anchorage, Alaska back in the early 1980s is probably a good example of why nobody knows who George Marshall was. My teacher, Mrs. M., would wholesale skip over the chapters covering U.S. wars in the AP History book, which was excellent and reasonably unbiased for a high school textbook. Her reason? I will never forget what she said: “I don’t like war.” Apparently, she was not a student of Clausewitz, who so incisively pointed out that “War is nothing more than the continuation of politics by other means.” Marshall, at least, got it.

  6. dkreck says:

    The peasants are revolting. They certainly are. Well isn’t that why so many politicians are willing to keep pushing their social agendas? Do they care about the poor or are they just looking for support. Let’s make drugs not just legal but a right Beer and football are the opiate of the masses (toss in some pot too). What’s cheaper, the public dole or prisons?

    As you say when things get too bad and there are more poor then the elites something will happen and it won’t be pretty.

  7. Robert Bruce Thompson says:

    With the advent of the industrial revolution and the mass migration of farm workers to cities, the British government learned this lesson early and well. That’s why gin was so cheap and readily available.

    In Victorian Britain, the leaders were well aware that revolution was never far from the surface, and they consciously adopted measures to defuse it. Our politicians would do well to learn by their example. An underclass is developing with stunning rapidity in this country, and more join it every day.

    Nor are all of them stupid or ignorant. Many are reasonably bright, industrious people who’ve worked all their lives and enjoyed the good things in moderation. But their skills, such as they were, have become obsolescent if not obsolete, and now they find themselves unemployed, owning more on their houses than they’re worth, and with their retirement pensions becoming worthless. That’s a recipe for disaster.

  8. brad says:

    “a relatively small group of the intelligent, educated, informed, wealthy, and employed, and, on the other hand, a much, much larger group of the stupid, uneducated, ignorant, poor, and unemployed.”

    “Taxpayers” and “Citizens”? Sounds familiar, somehow…

  9. Liam says:

    what I can’t understand is how it seems acceptable that standards keep dropping. Its happening everywhere as far as I can see. Do the logical consequences of a continual decline in education not alarm those in power? No, don’t answer, clearly not; and again, it appears universal. I hear it here, from the UK and from Ireland. 20 years ago in Ireland, where I’m from I completed a three year diploma, now the same level of education is considered an ordinary degree. Fewer and fewer students take higher level math prior to college – its actually being debated on talk radio currently. We do appear to be in a long slow decline

  10. Robert Bruce Thompson says:

    Not so slow, I’m afraid.

    I think there are two primary factors operating here.

    First, having an educated populace is not in the interests of our masters. Smart, informed people are troublesome, and don’t like being told what to do, particularly by their intellectual inferiors. Stupid, ignorant people are sheep, and expect to be told what to do.

    Second, as I’ve been saying since soon after the phenomenon became known, political correctness is the great evil of the 20th century, which has now spilled over into the 21st. It amounts to pure thought control. It equates offense with injury, and attempts to level everything to the least common denominator.

    The first is the goal; the second the mechanism.

  11. Liam says:

    Bob, (if I may be presumptuous enough to call you that, as a long term lurker *G*) I can’t agree more regarding political correctness. It appears to me to be the best weapon of the left to date.

    As regards education, you may well be right. After all, there has to be a logical explanation for why successive governments in differing jurisdictions have failed to stem the decline.

    It always amuses and infuriates in equal measure when I hear politicians crowing about how they invested x and y into education and how our classrooms now have ipads and smartboards and who knows what else, yet each year we get less and less mathematicians and scientists, less competent foreign language speakers and more and more hot air on the airwaves.

    One consideration that hasn’t been mentioned as far as I know is corporal punishment in schools. In my schoolyears corporal punishment was abolished midway and I saw myself a decline in control by teachers in the classroom. I’m not sure teachers ever managed to find an effective substitute for the control given by corporal punishment (the abuses are another story) I suspect some of the decline can be blamed on that, but certainly not all

  12. Robert Bruce Thompson says:

    Oh, yes, there are many factors in play, and the decline of corporal punishment is certainly one of them. Boys in particular don’t really understand any type of discipline that does not involve pain.

    I remember as a small child how generally well-behaved I and other small children were. (Well, at least I made sure not to be caught.) Back then, in the late 1950’s, small kids had to watch out not just for their own mothers, but anyone else’s mother as well. I remember once misbehaving in an aisle of a grocery store when my mother was in the next aisle. Some woman who was a complete stranger to me grabbed me and swatted me. My mother arrived soon thereafter, and *thanked* her for spanking me. It was a vast conspiracy among mothers to punish any misbehaving child, their own or someone else’s. Nowadays, a mother who swats her own kid on the bottom in public is likely to be arrested, literally.

  13. Miles_Teg says:

    “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.”

    Oh come on! Don’t be unreasonable. Grad students have more important things to think about. Like gender studies.

  14. BGrigg says:

    “Some woman who was a complete stranger to me grabbed me and swatted me.”

    No doubt you deserved it. 😉

    I sometimes think we were the last generation whose parents believed anybody, other than their own kid. “Your son did such and such” merited a wallop, or a loss of privilege based on nothing more than an adult’s word. Nowadays, it’s “my precious child couldn’t have done that” even when they so obviously did.

  15. Miles_Teg says:

    My sister’s been a teacher for over 40 years and a few years ago she reprimanded a student and gave him (about 12 years old) a light tap on the forehead with one finger for emphasis. The kid’s parents complained to the school. (But nothing much happened.) I remember getting the cane a number of times in the late Sixties, and although I didn’t like it but it didn’t do me any lasting damage.

  16. bobruub says:

    I got caned well into the late 70’s. I had a football coach Brother Ignatius who directed us to run full pelt at the ball, scoop down and pick it up then kick the footy through the goals (if you’ve never seen Australian Rules Football this makes no sense, but rest assured it’s really hard to do well over and over). If you failed in either 1. running full pet or 2. picking up the ball or 3. kicking a goal you’d get a caning. Sounds cruel but we had our best season ever and to this day I can still run full pelt, pickup the ball and kick a goal 🙂

  17. Dave Starr says:

    Love the move to WordPress, Bob. Speaking of a basic “ability to reason capability” as a prerequisite to voting, here’s am outlandish idea.

    Require high schools to actually teach citizenship. A starting point is the process required of a legal immigrant becoming a US citizen. Having had the experience of marrying a woman from another country and then coaching and following along as she went through the process of naturalization I was struck by two things:

    1. How little is actually required by the formal citizenship test as well as required interviews. Any “disadvantaged inner-city-youth” could easily learn this material, if they wanted to.

    2. How hard even the existing test would be for a majority of today’s high school graduates.

    I thought I was relatively well educated regarding my own country, yet I was struck by how little I had actually been taught … not necessarily a fault of the technical side of education, but perhaps more a case of familiarity breeding ignorance.

    Personally I think the US should progressively phase in a voting competency test. The cries of racism will of course spring forth but the existing tess can show a great success rate for African, Asian, and other cultures often thought of as disadvantaged.

    The dividends to our country could be huge if we left in place the principle that those born in-country automatically became citizens, but that to actually be a voting citizen should be a privilege. After all, we routinely deny the privilege of voting to certain individuals … convicted felons, for example.

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