Catastrophic Ignorance

When asked a question we cannot answer, Americans find ourselves utterly incapable of giving the obvious and most accurate response: I don’t know. What is it about those three little words that we find so offensive or embarrassing or threatening? I don’t know. (There – see how easy that is?)

American pop culture has embraced the stupid. Half of what the media beams at us is unwatchable drivel. We call that “the news”. The other half of it somehow got mislabled “reality”. Typical specimen: Kardashians. Reality? Barbie dolls have truer physiques and more stimulating conversations. The third half (only 21% of you will catch 2013-07-23-cosmosthat) is a new show on Fox called ‘Cosmos’ featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson as a high priest of science in a reboot of Carl Sagan’s series from the 1980s. Call Rupert Murdoch all kinds of names, but the man is brilliant. The ‘entertainment’ side of his NewsCorp presents 14 billion years of astrophysical history from the Big Bang to quantum physics and multiverses… while his ‘news’ division serves up ‘journalists’ lamenting how the new movie ‘Noah’ gets it all wrong about how God destroyed the 6,000-year-old Earth with a flood and all of the tens of millions of species we have in the world today, including our own, hopped on a big wooden boat and survived the holy tsunami. (You do realize that I’m not making any of this up, right?) Yessirree, old Rupert gets us coming and going, like a midway carnival barker.

“We are a way for the Cosmos to know itself.” – Carl Sagan

“Oh… how depressing…” – the Cosmos

Remember Jay Leno’s meant-to-be-amusing little segments called “Jaywalking”? Jay would take a camera crew and wander through beautiful downtown Burbank, randomly asking questions of people on the street. Questions so cunningly simple and with such glaringly obvious answers that you’d expect EVERYONE to get it right. But you would be wrong. The comic tragic genius of “Jaywalking” was how few people could answer the questions. And the real gold was mined in the guesses – when some dignity could have been salvaged with a sotto voce “I don’t know.”

Jay Leno: Who is the vice president of the United States?
Typical answers: blank stare…. Oh, wait… I know this… don’t tell me… Is it Hillary Clinton? … Michelle Obama? …That old guy. With the thing? …Is this a trick question?

Jay Leno: Who is the Speaker of the House of Reprentatives?
Only answer ever given: blank stare

Jay Leno: How many states make up the United States?
Typical answer: every number that isn’t 50.

Jay Leno: What two countries share a physical border with the United States?
Typical answer: Alaska and Hawaii? …Canada and Mexico – no! wait! Canada isn’t a country, is it? …England.

And so on. I never understood why Jay Leno thought any of this was funny. Why his giant head didn’t explode. Why he didn’t use the mic to bludgeon to death the vapid, gum-snapping ignorami. Or why any of it should ever have been aired. Unless he was trying to expose the glaring failures of this country’s education system. Hmmm. I could be wrong, but I am not aware of any Leno schools or Leno scholarships to help future “Jaywalkers” to be better informed. As I say, I could be wrong about that. I don’t know.

If you’re wondering what ignited this rant, I don’t blame you. But I do know. It was this story in today’s Washington Post. The link is below, and I hope you’ll read it. But here’s the gist of it. More than 2,000 Americans were asked, as part of a wider poll on foreign affairs, to pinpoint the nation of Ukraine on a world map with only the outlines of political borders. Here’s the result. Red dots hit the bull’s eye or got relatively close to Ukraine. Blue dots indicate a rather casual relationship with geography. Alarmingly casual.



This map speaks for itself. One in six respondents put their dot in or near Ukraine. This sort of ignorance may or may not worry you much, if at all. But it’s the next bit that should strike fear in the hearts of “Ukrainians” who live in Canada, China, Argentina, South Africa, Iceland, India, Australia, Brazil, Alaska, Arkansas or Colorado:

Those who were most wrong about the location of Ukraine were also the most likely to advocate U.S. military action there. Said differently: The less Americans know about [any place or country], then the more supportive they are of making war there. That sort of ignorance is extraordinarily dangerous, and potentially catastrophic. I hope that from now on, when pollsters ask Americans whether they support a war in X, Y or Z, they follow up by asking those folks to find X, Y or Z on a map. Maybe teach them how to use the unused maps app in their smartphones? Maybe throw in a geography lesson here and there along with the abstinence and creationism classes? I don’t know.

You can click on the map above to embiggen it. Here’s the link to the WashPo article:


The End (so far)

One comment

  1. Applause, applause. Those three words are hard for a teacher to say, but I learned to do that quickly with my college students, especially when the question concerned something not in my field. “I don’t know, but that’s a good question. Let’s look it up,” was my answer. I find I’m saying that more often with today’s geographical questions.


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