Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, April 16, 2007

We are so abysmally ignorant

The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press did a little news quiz for a random sample of telephone owners. The questions are pretty basic, e.g., "Who is the Vice President?" so I don't know that it's even getting at whether people have enough knowledge of public affairs to be trusted with the franchise, but it's already disturbing.

It turns out 69% could name the Veep -- down from 74% in 1989, when the occupant of that office was of far less importance. (For those of you who have gotten unstuck in time, back then it was a guy who couldn't spell potato. Now, the guy who can't spell potato is occupying the office of president. That's a kind of progress.) And only 66% can name their own state's governor. Etc. They didn't even bother ask who your representative or senators are, but anyway, only 15% of the people could correctly identify Harry Reid, although Peyton Manning and Beyonce Knowles did much better at 64% and 62%. (Who the hell is Beyonce Knowles?)

Anyway, that's not the sort of thing that bothers me the most. Almost everybody has a rough idea of who Hillary Clinton is, but only 24% of the people know that Congress passed legislation to increase the minimum wage, and only 37% knew that John Roberts is a conservative.

Yeah, yeah, let's all view with alarm and decry the state of the culture and so forth. But it's pretty obvious that the information sources that people depend on aren't giving them the information that citizens need to make any sense out of politics. It would seem to follow that more than half of those people who can identify Dick Cheney don't know about the minimum wage bill, and a good half of them don't know that the Chief Justice is conservative. Not surprisingly, the least well-informed people get their "info" from Fox News, and the best informed get it from fake news -- The Daily Show. This is actually not news, it's been found before. However, the other TV news shows don't do much better than Fox.

The really bad news is that, while knowledge of public affairs is, not surprisingly, correlated with the amount of formal education people have, rising educational levels in the past quarter century have not translated into a more knowledgeable citizenry. We're staying in school longer, but we're coming out more ignorant. And the reason, of course, is that TV news is sucking our brains out.

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