You Won’t Believe What This Poll Found Out About Dumb Americans

Thanks to the ever-watchful Sensuous Curmudgeon, we see a new poll: Only ¾ of Americans know that the Earth goes around the sun.  Dur.  But this sort of ignorance raises important questions about what it means to know something and, crucially, what it means to not-know.

The poll was conducted in 2012 by the National Science Foundation and apparently shared at the recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  [Editor’s note: we couldn’t find the original poll results themselves, but we found reports of them from sources such as National Public Radio and Phys.Org.]

According to this survey of 2,200 American adults, only 74% correctly answered that the Earth goes around the sun.  For those of us who get depressed about the great US of A, we might take some comfort that similar results have been reported from similar polls in the European Union and China.

But here’s the kicker: There are lots of ways to not-know something.  As Robert Proctor called it a few years back, there are many different meanings to agnotology, the science of not-knowing.  In the case of this survey, we see a crucial detail of great interest to all of us interested in American education and culture.

Though Americans, Europeans and Chinese displayed similar levels of what Proctor might call “native-state” ignorance about the fact that the Earth goes around the sun, Americans had much higher levels of “non-knowledge” about human evolution.  According to the NPR report, 66% of Chinese respondents thought humans had evolved from other animals.  Seventy percent of European respondents thought so.  But only 48% of Americans did.

For those of us interested in education and culture, this suggests a different sort of non-knowledge.  Americans who don’t “know” that humans evolved from animals might simply not know it.  They might be simply, naively ignorant.  But those folks will be joined by large percentages of Americans who don’t “know” humans evolved from animals because they firmly “know” that God created humanity by fiat.

So are Americans dumb?  Yes, of course we are.  But are we DUMBER than Chinese people or Europeans?  This is where it gets tricky.  When knowledge is simply absent, that’s one thing.  But when correct knowledge is knowingly replaced by counter-knowledge, we have a much more complicated situation.

 

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1 Comment

  1. Donna

     /  February 15, 2014

    Though a lack of knowledge can make someone seem dumb, the bigger issue seems to be belief. “A state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing”.

    Reply

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