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A Canadian Diagnoses America

Jonathon Gatehouse, a Canadian writing in MacLean’s magazine, diagnoses what is wrong with America. He correctly identifies the deep anti-intellectual strain in American culture, though I think he wrongly believes that it’s a recent development.

Charles Darwin’s signature discovery—first published 155 years ago and validated a million different ways since—long ago ceased to be a matter for serious debate in most of the world. But in the United States, reconciling science and religious belief remains oddly difficult. A national poll, conducted in March for the Associated Press, found that 42 per cent of Americans are “not too” or “not at all” confident that all life on Earth is the product of evolution. Similarly, 51 per cent of people expressed skepticism that the universe started with a “big bang” 13.8 billion years ago, and 36 per cent doubted the Earth has been around for 4.5 billion years.

The American public’s bias against established science doesn’t stop where the Bible leaves off, however. The same poll found that just 53 per cent of respondents were “extremely” or “very confident” that childhood vaccines are safe and effective. (Worldwide, the measles killed 120,000 people in 2012. In the United States, where a vaccine has been available since 1963, the last recorded measles death was in 2003.) When it comes to global warming, only 33 per cent expressed a high degree of confidence that it is “man made,” something the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has declared is all but certain. (The good news, such as it was in the AP poll, was that 69 per cent actually believe in DNA, and 82 per cent now agree that smoking causes cancer.)

If the rise in uninformed opinion was limited to impenetrable subjects that would be one thing, but the scourge seems to be spreading. Everywhere you look these days, America is in a rush to embrace the stupid. Hell-bent on a path that’s not just irrational, but often self-destructive. Common-sense solutions to pressing problems are eschewed in favour of bumper-sticker simplicities and blind faith.

All true, but nothing new. Richard Hofstadter identified this more than 50 years ago in his book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. What has changed is the degree to which such ignorance and preference for simplistic, bumper sticker ideas now translates into political influence and public policy. Today’s Republican party has been pretty much taken over by it.

Comments

  1. Kevin Kehres says

    Not just “taken over by it”.

    It was a conscious decision to cater to the numpties. Because they can be reliably counted upon to vote in a bloc. If you can convince them you’re on their side, even if your policies are directly and observably harmful to them, they’ll still vote for you.

    And therefore, we have the modern Republican Party and its idiot cousin, the Tea Party.

  2. dogfightwithdogma says

    I am a bit perplexed Ed as to why you draw the conclusion that Mr. Gatehouse thinks this anti-intellectualism is a recent phenomenon. A little more than mid-way through the article Gatehouse mentions Hofstadter’s book. Seems to me that he is aware this is not a new phenomenon. I suspect that what motivated him to write this piece is not that he thinks anti-intellectualism is a new phenomenon in our culture, but rather that he has noticed that it seems to have risen to new heights in the years since Hofstadter penned Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.

    I don’t think anyone could have predicted 50 years ago the staggering height to which ignorance in American culture has grown.

  3. dingojack says

    Kevin – ‘numpties’ is a bit too affectionate, I’d use ‘deadshits’. As in:
    “He [Justin Beiber] is one of the world’s great deadshits” Marty Shergold – Dirty Laundry Live 15 May, 2014.
    :) Dingo

  4. parasiteboy says

    Richard Hofstadter identified this more than 50 years ago in his book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life.

    I haven’t read it, but does he give any reasons for the anti-intellectualism?
    It would seem to me that at least part of it comes from the religious right’s pushback to the 60′s and 70′s counter culture. It seems like those that where their from the start of this pushback (like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell) are/were major anti-intellectuals.
    I also think the end of the cold war was a moment in which peoples trust in scientist dropped even more. We did not have an adversary that we were in a perpetual technological race. I am not saying that our military industrial complex hasn’t been chugging along just fine without it. But, it seems like the respect for expert opinion was dropping.

  5. Pen says

    I kind of wonder if it’s related to all that individualism that seems like such a good idea.

    On the one hand you have it producing ideas: ‘I can decide what to think all by myself.’ ‘If I can’t see it, it isn’t true.’ Unfortunately, a lot of our knowledge can only be obtained collectively. It’s vastly expensive and involves huge numbers of observations, processing, and correlating. And then there’s that weird ‘if you truly believe it, it will come true’ movement. Well, not if it breaks the laws of physics and probably not if its statistically improbable but saying that to some people is considered as offensive as a slap round the face. I’ve been thrown out of people’s houses, I tell you!

    And on the other hand, you have it producing a motivation: the trouble with a lot of things some Americans don’t want to believe is that they require collective solutions and the sacrifice of a modicum of individual autonomy and benefit to a collective good (vaccinations, climate change). And you have to relinquish control over those things, because you can’t realistically confirm every case to yourself individually. You have to take the delegated collective efforts of scientists on trust to a large extent.

  6. says

    I’d hardly listen to him. If he’s a typical Canadian (and all Canadians are), he’s always making up stuff aboot Americans. I’m somewhat of an expert on them, having seen part of an episode of The Beachcombers once, when a CBC transmission made it over the lake from their city, Mississauga.

  7. Hercules Grytpype-Thynne says

    It would seem to me that at least part of it comes from the religious right’s pushback to the 60′s and 70′s counter culture.

    Well, that’s not the explanation Hofstadter would have given, since he was writing in 1963.

  8. parasiteboy says

    Hercules Grytpype-Thynne@9

    Well, that’s not the explanation Hofstadter would have given, since he was writing in 1963.

    Thanks for pointing that out captain

    Richard Hofstadter identified this more than 50 years ago

    which would mean 1964 or earlier
    I should have been more clear that I was talking about some of the contributions to today’s anti-intellectualism as compared to what he would have written about at the time.

  9. abb3w says

    @4, parasiteboy

    I haven’t read it, but does he give any reasons for the anti-intellectualism

    He seems to mostly focus on identifying the pattern than speculating about the underlying causes — though he notes some factors which may be causal, such as a mindset lacking tolerance for ambiguity.

    If you’re interested in causation (or at least, correlation), you might look into the work of Altemeyer.

  10. says

    It should be noted that we do have a lot of those kind of people in Canada as well, including some in the current government. Our current Minister of State for Science and Technology, Gary Goodyear, is a good example. On the other hand the fact that former Canadian Alliance Party leader, and current Conservative Party member, Stockwell Day is a Young Earth Creationist generated a lot of laughter and hurt Canadian Alliance’s electoral chances, something that wouldn’t have happened in the US.

  11. dhall says

    It’s not new at all; I think a case could be made that the strain of anti-intellectualism is as old as the country itself, if not in the colonial era, as it goes along with the equally strong episodes of religious revivals. What seems more recent is the glorification of anti-intellectualism, and how proudly it’s being displayed, and how those who embrace anti-science and anti-intellect are seen as heroes by large segments of the population.

  12. colnago80 says

    Re #12

    According to Un. of Toronto biology professor Larry Moran, Goodyear is no longer the Minister for Science and Technology.

  13. says

    Well, that’s not the explanation Hofstadter would have given, since he was writing in 1963.

    Yeah, but the pushback against liberal culture and progress began in the 1930s. And that’s just the start of the most recent manifestation of US a anti-intellectualism.

  14. Synfandel says

    Only a Conservative government could have appointed Gary Goodyear, a chiropractor, to the position of Minister of State for Science and Technology.

  15. demonhauntedworld says

    It’s not new at all; I think a case could be made that the strain of anti-intellectualism is as old as the country itself, if not in the colonial era, as it goes along with the equally strong episodes of religious revivals. What seems more recent is the glorification of anti-intellectualism, and how proudly it’s being displayed, and how those who embrace anti-science and anti-intellect are seen as heroes by large segments of the population.

    Indeed, Hofstadter does trace it back to the founding of the country – more specifically, to the rise of Protestant movements that encouraged people to seek their own explanations/interpretations of the Bible rather than relying on their preachers to interpret things for them. You’d think that would have given rise to a more free-thinking culture, but what it did instead (at least in that particular cultural context) was to teach people that all sources of authority were to be distrusted.

  16. chrisdevries says

    @18 demonhauntedworld

    You’d think that would have given rise to a more free-thinking culture, but what it did instead (at least in that particular cultural context) was to teach people that all sources of authority were to be distrusted.

    That may well be true, but today’s anti-intellectualism, at least on the Right, is also fiercely authoritarian and thus may not be rooted in the Protestant movements you reference (though it surely does correlate nicely with modern evangelical, fundamentalist Protestantism). Altemeyer’s research on authoritarianism (abb3w mentioned it already in this thread) is fascinating. He even found that many right-wing authoritarian followers would support a hypothetical law proposed by the government to persecute…right-wing authoritarian followers. To their credit, some had just enough brain cells to recognise themselves as the people the written description of “right-wing authoritarian follower” applied to and didn’t support such a law, but the point is that these individuals are dangerously submissive to acknowledged authorities (the more they respect the authority, the more submissive they are).

    To be sure, many of the authorities to whom such people are beholden are using them to fulfill their own ambitions and are basically amoral individuals who will say/do anything about/to anyone if it works in their favour (people like the sociopath war criminals in the Bush II administration). Altemeyer researched these people as well. Stirring resentment of public intellectuals is a means to an end for this smaller group of people (termed Social Dominators); they’re not anti-intellectual…they’re pro-themselves. But because they will tell any lie to convince right-wing authoritarian followers that they share their values, that they’re part of the same tribe, the followers will remain absurdly loyal, even forgiving them their hypocrisy (when they are not able to successfully conceal it).

    I HIGHLY recommend Bob Altemeyer’s free book linked to by abb3w (#11). It explains so very very much about why America is the way it is, tying nicely into this discussion of anti-intellectualism prompted by the Maclean’s article.

  17. says

    “And therefore, we have the modern Republican Party and its idiot cousin, the Tea Party.”

    Unfortunately the idiot cousin has their own checkbook now, as well as the keys to the car and the liquor and gun cabinets.

    It’s interesting to me that the same people who don’t trust gummint statistics, scientific analyses and expert opinion on items such as global warming, racism, medical science and teh GAY unmenace and so forth will hang on every word they hear from people like Dr. Oz, Derpak Chopra and Lord fucking Monckton.

    “You’d think that would have given rise to a more free-thinking culture, but what it did instead (at least in that particular cultural context) was to teach people that all sources of authority were to be distrusted.”

  18. Nick Gotts says

    Could one of the deeper roots of American anti-intellectualism (we do have a fair bit of it in the UK too, but less blatantly expressed) be resentment of effete Yurpeens and their book-larnin’, contrasted with the self-reliant frontier he-men with their practical smarts a lot of Americans like to think they are?

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