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.