An anecdote from Jacoby's story explaining how she came to write the book is even more distressing.
But now, Ms. Jacoby said, something different is happening: anti-intellectualism (the attitude that “too much learning can be a dangerous thing”) and anti-rationalism (“the idea that there is no such things as evidence or fact, just opinion”) have fused in a particularly insidious way.
Not only are citizens ignorant about essential scientific, civic and cultural knowledge, she said, but they also don’t think it matters.
She pointed to a 2006 National Geographic poll that found nearly half of 18- to 24-year-olds don’t think it is necessary or important to know where countries in the news are located. So more than three years into the Iraq war, only 23 percent of those with some college could locate Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel on a map. (Emphasis added.)
It occurred on September 11th, 2001:
Walking home to her Upper East Side apartment, she said, overwhelmed and confused, she stopped at a bar. As she sipped her bloody mary, she quietly listened to two men, neatly dressed in suits. For a second she thought they were going to compare that day’s horrifying attack to the Japanese bombing in 1941 that blew America into World War II:
“This is just like Pearl Harbor,” one of the men said.
The other asked, “What is Pearl Harbor?”
“That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War,” the first man replied.
I'm aware that the fact such episodes cause me almost physical forms of discomfort may be a sign of a certain pedantic streak in my character; however, the extent to which people seem to hold such confused notions about basic geography and chronology leaves me no choice.
And I believe Jacoby's anecdote is largely true: a college-educated friend asked me a few years ago whether Germany had democracy or not. I was tempted to tell him about the hereditary monarch that rules over us and the onerous feudal dues that we owe to the local liege lord, but I resisted. I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that he would have believed me had I done so.
In a different context today, Dale says some very worthwhile things about scientific illiteracy and what approaches may (and may not) be useful in addressing it.
He notes correctly:
There is nothing in the furniture of the universe that makes it inevitable that mankind will, on balance, choose reality (messy, difficult, counterintuitive) over delusion (comforting, easy, clean).And a very fine example of that can be found in an article by Steven Novella at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry on the myths of the modern anti-vaccination movement. (Via A&L Daily and The Wife)
It is a depressing read in so far as it demonstrates how ineffective reason, evidence and the scientific method can be when faced with the contortions of conspiracy-minded rationalisation:
The forces of irrationality are arrayed on this issue. There are conspiracy theorists, well-meaning but misguided citizen groups who are becoming increasingly desperate and hostile, irresponsible journalists, and ethically compromised or incompetent scientists. The science itself is complex, making it difficult for the average person to sift through all the misdirection and misinformation. Standing against all this is simple respect for scientific integrity and the dedication to follow the evidence wherever it leads.
Right now the evidence leads to the firm conclusion that vaccines do not cause autism. Yet, if history is any guide, the myth that they do cause autism will likely endure even in the face of increasing contradictory evidence.
As the article demonstrates clearly (if depressingly) there is no amount of evidence from the real world that can move a truly committed believer.