Monday, January 2, 2012

Ignorance Is Bliss

WASHINGTON — Americans have trouble dealing with science, and one place that's especially obvious is in presidential campaigns, says Shawn Lawrence Otto, who tried, with limited success, to get the candidates to debate scientific questions in the 2008 presidential election.

Otto is the author of a new book, "Fool me twice: Fighting the assault on science in America," which opens with a quote from Thomas Jefferson: "Whenever the people are well informed, they can be trusted with their own government."

And if the people and their leaders aren't well informed and don't use scientific information to solve modern problems, Otto suggests, the United States could soon skid into decline.

"Without the mooring provided by the well-informed opinion of the people, governments may become paralyzed or, worse, corrupted by powerful interests seeking to oppress and enslave," he writes.

Today, he adds, Congress seems paralyzed and "ideology and rhetoric increasingly guide policy discussion, often bearing little relationship to factual reality.

Via Angry Bear:
Individuals are often confronted with information that they do not know how to comprehend or evaluate, even though this information can be of critical importance to the self (or society as a whole). In the case of energy, nearly 40% of respondents in a Public Agenda (2009) survey could not identify a fossil fuel. Nearly one third could not identify a renewable energy source and incorrectly believed that solar energy contributes to global warming. This lack of knowledge should be of concern to these individuals, as 89% of respondents worry about increasing fuel costs, and 71% worry about global warming.

The economy serves as another example.

Approximately half of surveyed adults did not know what an increase in gross domestic product meant and thought that “money holds its value well in times of inflation” (National Council on Economic Education, 2005). Worse still, in a national survey of American adults, 54% of respondents did not know what a subprime mortgage was (Center for Economic and Entrepreneurial Literacy, 2009), despite the fact that the subprime mortgage crisis was a significant contributor to the economic recession that began in 2008, and almost certainly affected some substantial portion of those surveyed. In short, it is apparent that a solid grasp of the basics (let alone the complexities) of these domains elude many people, and there appears to be a discrepancy between how much people know about social issues and their importance and relevance to one’s day-to-day life.

Given the psychological discomfort associated with epistemic uncertainty, one appealing way to deal with the anxiety of being unable to comprehend or manage information is to simply outsource personal responsibility to supposed qualified others. This strategy may, at times, be considerably more appealing than seeking out knowledge and information for oneself, which assumes that people have the time and ability to sieve through challenging, and potentially threatening, information. The amount of information available to us to sort, comprehend, and assimilate has substantially increased due to technological advances, all of which compete for our time and attention. As a result, trade-offs have been made over time whereby society’s members have forfeited a certain amount of autonomy to have these burdens placed onto systems of power composed of knowledgeable others. Society has prescribed that, for example, our health is managed by health professionals, our buildings by engineers and contractors, and, relevant to the present research, our social and economic security is managed by the government. Indeed, survey data show that 88% of adult respondents thought it was very important for politicians to have a good understanding of economics,

…only are people motivated to avoid social issues when they feel issues are complex—thus maintaining their present level of unfamiliarity— but this effect appears strongest for those issues believed to be most urgent and serious. It is at times when change is most needed, therefore, that people may become the most likely to defend the status quo and agents of sociopolitical systems. As such, the present studies suggest that rather than ensuring those in charge are maximally qualified to be in charge, and rather than remaining especially attuned to any limitations of the system, the psychological processes that are instigated when issues are seen as both severe and complex may limit any criticism of the current system and its decision-making process. And, perhaps even more critically, they may also prevent the types of behaviors, such as information gathering, that are necessary to efficacious social action (Attari et al., 2010; Larrick & Soll, 2008).

Seriously, doesn't this undermine a core tenet of democracy: well-informed citizens making collective decisions for the benefit of the majority? How can such a system work in a complex technological society with advanced forms of media manipulation, time demands, overstimulation, and an extreme level of specialization? Add to that the fact that most people are blithering idiots just waiting to be led around by the nose. Why do we pretend some ancient idea of democracy has any resemblance to what we experience in the world today? Actually, I think the above article answers that question.

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