Friday, August 27, 2010

Building a Nation of Know-Nothings
This is something that I knew already.  While people have always been subject to propaganda, the sheer amount of misinformation in the media is staggering.  Try looking up simple information and you are inevitably directed to an incredibly unreliable source, wikipedia.  Unfortunately, the media probably fairs worse, depending on the source and the issue, and the rest of the internet is littered with garbage.  People make voting decisions on fabricated chain emails that would make any knowledgeable person cringe.  People lack fundamental knowledge of history and how the economy works.  They lack the skills to discriminate between good and bad bits of information.

All of this misinformation, ignorance and lack of skills does not bode well for the future.  People are chasing the phantoms of terrorists, liberals, immigrants, etc. while their livelihoods are stolen away from them - from the very people that they support.  It is a sick play to watch, even sicker when you try to talk to someone who is convinced they are right, but have no idea what they are talking about.

Fifteen years ago I had a conversation with someone who felt that unemployment was due to laziness.  So, I asked him, "Do you think unemployment fluctuates precisely with the number of lazy people in the United States?"  He replied, "Yes, I do."  I think my skull nearly ruptured from the sheer stupidity.  Such a baseless form of ignorance is hard to explain, let alone stomach in the most powerful economic nation in the world.  You think we have better economics teachers than this!  But, alas, it is not about the quality of our economics teachers but a benign neglect that feeds this ignorance.

There are no institutes or conspiracies trying to ensure the public's ignorance, but conveniently, the wealthy's strategy of enriching themselves by impoverishing the public coffers has just that effect.  Education has decidedly slipped in the United States, and the media has filled the gap.  In the gaping hole that is what people should know about our history, the media (owned by the very wealthiest in our society) flushes the fabricated garbage of corporate minds to ensure that the public remains confused and impotent as a political force.

The idea that an Islamic cultural center is a threat to democracy, the questioning of the president's birth certificate, believing that the current budget crisis arose in the Obama administration, disputing the veracity of climate change, and thinking Saddam Hussein was working with Al-Qaeda are all laughable ideas, but, apparently, worthy of discussion and debate in our society.

What makes this all so truly sad is that there is a study by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler called "When Corrections Fail: The persistence of political misperceptions" that suggests that people who are strong ideologues cling more tightly to misinformation.  In other words, when you give closed-minded people good information, they will cling more tightly to their misinformation.

This has dire implications.  The misinformation that people receive through the media and a poor education system becomes entrenched, and strengthened, when people encounter more accurate information.  In this way, people actually get dumber because they reject the good information and cling more tightly to their misinformation.  The question is, "can we overcome such incredible odds to create a better society?"

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