Sunday, November 2, 2008

Post No 63a: Book Which May Be of Interest: "Just How Stupid Are We?"

Just saw a discussion, on C-Span Q & A ( featuring Richard Shenkman, the Founder and Editor of the George Mason University History News Network. His latest book is Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing the Truth About the American Voter. You may find it interesting.


  1. I read the summary provided with the interview. I look forward to watching the whole thing. I couldn't agree more with his premise, which is scary. I hope we will begin to have a larger conversation about this issue and take steps to rectify it.

    Thanks so much for visiting my blog.

  2. Thanks much Martha for paticipating in the exchange. When I first saw the author yesterday on Book TV, I only saw the second half of the interview, and did not hear as much in the ways of statistics regarding the electorate knowledge of certain facts about our country and the structure of our government. I saw the interview again early this morning, in its entirety, and the misinformation upon which the voters rely, even after correction in the media, is just plain scary.

  3. Interesting Q&A session, Very thought provoking. It is really important that world's largest democratic nation and its voter be well educated about various facts and information.

    Thanks to share.

  4. "Ignorance is the most expensive commodity we have in this country." [Rush Limbaugh]

    While many may disagree with the quote's author, I don't believe we should disagree with the idea behind the quote. There is knowledge to be gained everywhere and we should seek it without bias.

    I'll be hanging around your blog, my friend. It looks like a good place to learn new things and different perspectives.

  5. I honestly thought it was depressing to hear the comments that were made by voters and talk show hosts during this election. So many people hear soundbites and, like a parrot, just repeat what they hear without any thought process behind it.

  6. Peggi, what fascinates (and infuriates) me is the pundit/guest/flack who parrots the "talking points" instead of even attempting to answer a question.

  7. Hi Logisitician. Thanks for visiting my page. Today's election is of international concern. The president of the USA wields considerable power and influence on the world stage, perhaps too much. It creates a lot of dependency, and in the process, a lot of dysfunctional relationships.

  8. Thanks much PhoenixBlogger. I saw Shenkman in the same presentation later, and he indicated that 60% of the American public could not identify the 3 branches of government, much less describe their role and function. Just this morning, I attended a GED adult class at a local community college, and I asked a series of questions about separation of powers and the branches of government. Unfortunately, Shenkman is correct. Interestingly, the most recent immigrants were the most knowledgeable about our government, primarily in connection with their applications for citizenship, or perhaps because they care more and have not become complacent about citizenship.

  9. Thanks much Douglas for paying a visit to our blog and leaving such an insightful comment and the compliment.

    Earlier this morning, I was so concerned about the fact that people in our society might not fully appreciate the concepts of separation of power, and checks and balances, that I proceeded to a local community college, and asked several instructors for permission to chat with their students regarding the same. I told them that they run the risk of being manipulated and lied to if they were not better informed, and became more knowledgeable.

    This led to a discussion about who read, who wrote, and who had access to education historically during the course of human development. There is nothing more powerful than knowledge. As Shenkman noted, an electorate unable to process information provided to them is at risk of being ignored or manipulated.

    Look forward to many visits to your blog. Thanks.

  10. Thanks Peggi Habets for your comment. You indicated that you found the comments of the voters and the talk show hosts depressing. I did also; however, I was more concerned about the hosts. What has flabbergasted me most about this election is not so much the responses and positions of the masses, but the manner in which seemingly bright, educated, thinking individuals have used others who have perhaps not fully thought through various issues, for their own selfish purposes and goals.

    I really had not thought of the concept of
    intellectual honesty" in years. This year, it has reared it head with frequency.

    If I remember correctly, Uruguay has a literacy rate of 90%. It was apparently sufficiently motivated to achieve that level of literacy. The United States is not, for whatever reason. That the Electoral College continues to exist is a testament to the fact that many feel that the body politic is not as sophisticated as we might desire.

    Thanks again, and visit often. Folks, by the way, you should check out the artwork on Peggi's blog.

  11. Douglas, saw your second comment hearing about your distaste for the talking heads who parrot the talking points. I just watched Fox News earlier today, and the slanted manner in which they made their presentation of the news was absolutely fascinating. That they should use the phrase "fair and balanced," reflects their attitude toward the American public.

  12. Thanks Robert / from the eagle's nest for posting a comment on our blog. The American president wields an inordinate amount of influence and power in the world today. That will change over time, as it always has in the past. The work to which we frequently refer our readers is Paul Kennedy's "The Rise and Fall of Great Powers 1500 - 2000." You can get further information regarding it by examining our bookshelf to the right. Unfortunately, based on the profile of declining nation's outlined in the book, there are several trends of which we should be aware and concerned.

    We'd appreciate your continuing input, especially since you are one of our clear thinking neighbors. Thanks again.

  13. I am not sure where you are getting your information from... the literacy rate in the US, according to the United Nations Development Programme Report of 20007/2008 is 99%

    That we still have way too many people who appear to be ignorant about their own country is a separate matter.

  14. Douglas, we always like folks to call us on something if they think that we're wrong. I examined the same listing that you mentioned and according to that, we were incorrect to suggest that the United States literacy rate is below 90%. I was really on some information that I personally reviewed when I was traveling extensively to South America.

    That being said, I am now motivated to do some further research in that regard. I did locate the following article which is interesting about our purported No. 1 status.

    You keep challenging us buddy. That's welcome in this forum. That's what we want you to do. Thanks also for presenting it in a non-adversial manner. One of the things that we talk about here at the Institute, one can not make progress or correct problems, unless one is willing to admit first that they are wrong or made a mistake. We'll endeavor to keep such to a minimum.

    Another thing, take the Duke Lacrosse Team Rape Incident, for example. We feel that we have a platform to disseminate information to many, and that there are concomitant responsibilities. When one makes a mistake, they have a responsibility to admit it. Very few of the people associated with the condemnation of Duke, the team, or the privileged/educated class, have come back to apologize, or recognize a bad call. That's irresponsible in our view.

    Thanks again for bringing this to our attention, and prompting further examination.

  15. Douglas, forgot to attach the link:

  16. Ok, old data. This, I think, is one of the problems of informal education. That is, attempting to express ourselves and our ideas and (hopefully) convince them of the rightness of our beliefs. We stop looking, stop researching, stop questioning ourselves because we have convinced ourselves we are right. But, as you know, data changes, life is fluid, and everything is subject to review. I have a maxim I try to remember whenever I am debating an issue:

    It is a wise man who questions his own beliefs.

    You are right about the Duke incident. The president of Duke did, I thought, apologize for the handling of the matter, if not to the team for the horrendous treatment they underwent.
    The Rev Al Sharpton has not yet apologized for the Tawana Brawley case. It happens way too often and the lack of admission of improper prejudgment just provides fodder for those whose prejudice we all abhor.

    To err is human, to admit it seems counter to our culture.

  17. Thanks again Douglas. Not sure whether it is limited to informal education. There are many people, many of whom are associated with the political campaigns, who had had extensive formal education, and still put out inaccurate information and messages during the campaigns, on both sides. Is it always consciously done?

    Having looked at the stats on literacy, I am now motivated to do some further research and determine what standard applies to literacy. I basic sense was those capable of reading and writing at a certain level. I taught hundreds if not thousands of students at a local community college here in North Carolina, many of whom who could not read or write above the 4th grade level. Consequently, I further assumed that we have a literacy issue here in the United States far greater than 1%. Now I am motivated to explore how "literacy" is defined. Arguably, it's "good enough for someone to get by" or "function" or "function in an adult capacity."

    On the Duke issue, yes, the President did apologize. I'm referring to all of the professors, community leaders, new pundits, the Nancy Graces of the worlds, and such. We don't typically hear them come forward and apologize for a bad call. Same with the McCain supporter who came up with the attack hoax recently. Seems to me that all who supported her story and suggested that it was true, should have been responsible enough two days later to admit that they were wrong.

    Good points. Glad again that you challenged us.

  18. By informal education, I mean discussing/debating points with others outside of a formal educational setting. As we do with blogs, with conversations with friends and family and strangers; as is done by talk shows, news magazines (both written and on TV). That sort of thing. Formal education should be fully objective but one could argue that isn't possible.

    On what defines literacy: you and I might agree on a standard that would leave 50% of the American public in the illiterate category but that might be more fairly called a definition of "critical thinking." So we need a commonly accepted standard and that standard might be different for the US than it would be for, say, Venezuela. The UN defined a standard that, to me, is somewhat subjective. But any standard would be subjective, I realize, when it comes to this subject. At one time, literacy meant you could read a newspaper and sign your own name. the more complex and advanced the culture, the higher the standard will be. I brought up the UN report because it used a standard usable for comparing rates among countries for the purpose of ranking them. think it's important that we be as clear as possible when we assert some point.

    You are absolutely correct about the Duke issue. In fact, in checking for the President's apology through Google, I was appalled to see that it appeared that it was not clear that the accused players were cleared of wrongdoing and that there appeared to be a number of people who still thought they were guilty. I suppose that should not surprise me.

    But I fear I am hogging the comments and turning them into a debate. Someday, perhaps, you and I might find occasion to meet and sit down for a long evening of coffee and discussion. I am sure I would really enjoy that.

  19. Do not worry about hogging comments. I think that the informal education setting has its value, in that if the participants are open minded and willing to exchange views, everyone can benefit. There is an interactive multi-directional exchange, not just a one way delivery.

    I am a big fan of the formal setting, and believe that all us could benefit from continuing education in that regard. Even after attending undergraduate engineering school and law school, I attended continuing education courses at UCLA and other schools on a regular basis. In fact, just last week, I attended a lecture by Stanford's Robert Palosky held at UNC-Greensboro. We need to constantly challenge our beliefs and views.

    Something tells me that we'll meet one day, perhaps when I am on my motivational speaking tour of college campuses throughout the nation.

  20. I bow to your superior education. I only managed to graduate from high school and then life kept interfering with my plans. I respect knowledge and the determination it takes to continue one's formal education. One of my faults is a lack of discipline in that regard. Most of my education has been informal. I am fortunate enough to be curious enough and have sufficient cognitive ability to educate myself in that manner. It falls woefully short of what I could have had in a formal setting, of course.

    If you publish your tour dates and I am near one of those colleges, I will make it a point to attend.

  21. No one should bow to anyone else's experience. I often say that no one has any experience better than the next. They are simply different. I only mentioned my experience because I essentially agree with you that the formal method is preferable. There are many people who I have met who have a wealth of practical experience and function far more effectively than many of us with formal education. We are working on a schedule over the next couple of months.

  22. After posting that (and ruminating on it a bit) I realized it might have sounded snippy or sarcastic. I apologize for that. I admire and respect the effort and determination involved seeking/achieving formal education. The "bow" was as in the Asian sign of respect.

    Email me with the tour schedule when it firms up, please.

  23. Forgot to thank you for reminding me to read Shenkman's book "Lies, Legends, and Cherished Myths...". Halfway through and am fascinated both by what I didn't now and even more by what I had already known. But I detect a bit of bias in his work, subtle but to this cynic's eyes, still visible.

  24. Thanks Douglas again for reminding us to revisit Tocqueville.

    As for Shenkman, C-Span2 Book TV (, they frequently have videos on their site and you can actually watch the interviews of the authors. You might get a better flavor of his bias, which I also suspected, upon actually viewing him. Check the schedule, I would not be surprised if they aired the piece again this coming weekend.

  25. Now that time has passed, do you feel that the lack of political sophistication, or "political intelligence" of the electorate contributed to the election result?

  26. Yes, of course it did. It has done so in each election since the our nation began. You have been involved in political campaigns and you have also examined them over the years. You know that campaign strategies involve determining blocs of voters and what they want then molding the campaign message to make it appear that the candidate is sympathetic to the bloc's wishes.
    In order to do that successfully, the voters have to lack sufficient political sophistication.

    In the days before mass electronic media,for example, it was easy to tell voters in one area they opposed the mining that was done upstream and then go to the mining town upstream and tell them they were in favor of mining and would work to expand it.

    This is more difficult today because the contradictory speeches would be available to all. However, apathy and lack of sophistication on the part of the voters allows the campaign to nuance the differences while doing the same thing. You could say that lack of sophistication nullifies the impact of mass media.

    I will give you another example, a current one. Obama once told how his policies on coal would allow coal mining but would bankrupt the industry. After that was exposed (though not broadly), his campaign immediately started talking about "clean coal" technology and how he favored it. The nuance was applied. The campaign could then say it was opposed to old coal technology but was not opposed to coal.
    Soon after the election, environmentalists began a campaign which featured ads which showed that "clean coal" technology does not yet exist and implies that it is a pipe dream.
    Yet, even after the election, there are still ads by the coal industry association which shows Obama touting clean coal technology in campaign speeches.

    The green person says "Aha! Coal is bad. I knew that. The coal industry is lying to us."

    The coal miner and anyone wanting to continue to use an important and abundant energy resource says "Aha! Coal is still viable. The Greenies are lying to us."

    (The cynic says "Aha! Everyone is lying.")

    To sum up... I don't believe the political sophistication of the American electorate has improved much since the late 1700s, if at all. What has happened is that politicians have advanced the science of political campaigning to counter the effects of more efficient and widespread media.

    I would also like to add that certain large segments of the media took sides in this election and helped influence voters on behalf of the campaigns. This happens in every election and has since the birth of the nation but it has been especially noticeable in the last 20 years and is growing in scope.

    My question is, to you, how do we educate the voters? How do we help them become more politically sophisticated without also infusing a bias of our own?

  27. Thanks Douglas for commenting, particularly in connection with an old article.

    Our response to your inquiry as to how to educate the voters? We don't think that we help them become more politically sophisticated per se, we simply encourage more education in general. Teach people everything, all the time, in every subject matter. Do not limit them to just the things that they like or believe, but encourage them to explore and challenge everything.

    By doing so, they'll become more sophisticated generally. Additionally, as a general rule, folks who have an appetite for education keep finding out that the more that they learn, the more they realize how little they really know, and thus they are curious and motivated to find out more. It's a cyclical, self-motivating process.

    How to avoid infusing bias? Expose them to all views and positions, even the unpopular ones. Thrive on intellectual discomfort. Take people places intellectually where they do not want to go, or are unwilling to go.

    We don't care where they end up. Just don't end up there based on simply listening to their parents or neighbors. At least read everyting that one can to reach that point of view. It feeds on itself.

  28. While I applaud your enthusiasm, and your optimism, I have a strong suspicion that it takes an innate curiosity to learn more than one is taught to recall for a test. You cannot teach curiosity nor ambition nor determination. These are things that are essential part of being human and manifest at differing levels in people. That is, you can impart knowledge but only to the extent the student is willing to absorb it. The old adage comes to mind about the horse and water.

    The other point I would like to reassert is the infusion of bias. Perhaps it is only my own cynicism but I have never seen anyone successfully suppress their own bias. Every teacher, every professor, every instructor I have ever had had a bias and it showed in his presentation and in his choice of material to emphasize.Some did better than others in hiding their biases but they all do it. It was the rare one who acknowledged his bias and encouraged an objective analysis.

  29. Douglas: For additional views on the subject, you might consider checking out the following: (1); and (2)

    I was also fortunate enough to attend a lecture recently by Dr. Robert Sapolsky, who has written extensively on human behavior.

  30. Interesting perspectives. Or I could just read Horatio Alger. No one, especially not I, argues that genetics is the sole answer to success. But I also don't argue that people are born equal in talent, ability, ambition, and intelligence. I neither believe that the adult is the result of nature nor of nurture. The adult is a result of nature and nurture. Without the basic fundamentals, the environment means very little. Likewise, without the environment, those same basics are likely to be wasted.

    What I do argue is that people learn what they are capable of. That genetics do matter in the sense that they provide us with a foundation for our lives. I also believe that culture is a result of genetic makeup of a people.

    It is virtually impossible for me to explain my philosophy, my theory, of human life in a comment, an essay, or even one book. My limited communication skills do not allow me to explain fully why I believe intelligence is relative to culture. Or even what that means in a way that others might grasp it as I do. Suffice it to say that I see no ethnicity, no cultural background, as an absolute barrier to succeeding in American society. But I do believe that people can be hampered by what they are born with. You would not argue that a child of average or below average intelligence would produce, say, a Microsoft, would you? Regardless of the other circumstances of his birth, even born as a child of Bill Gates, he will not be able to attain equal success. He will certainly live well, he will certainly be wealthy but it won't be anything he didn't inherit.

    It is true that a child of great intellect born in poverty has close to the proverbial snowball's chance of achieving what his upper middle class intellectual equal could do. But his way isn't completely or permanently barred in this society.

    It is one of our advantages over previous cultures and societies. But it is changing from one of individualism to one of groupism(a sort of modern tribalism) and I believe that will have terrible effects long term.

    Tiger Woods is mentioned as an example in the reviews of one of the books. That he was "helped" to get where he is today. That is certainly true. But his father happened, by chance, to see his talent and nurtured it. His father had ambition, an innate drive, and so did his son. Those things came together with the innate talent of Eldridge Woods. And the father guided Tiger toward a goal and found the additional outside help to develop Tiger's talents into the success he became. But if Tiger had no ambition, no competitive streak, modest intelligence, all the outside mentoring in the world wouldn't make him into what he has become. First, because there would be no innate talent to develop; second, because there would be little desire on his part to develop it; and, third, because it is highly likely that his father would not have had the drive to guide/push Tiger toward that success.

    And that is where we differ.

  31. Douglas: You apparently thought that there was some way in which we differed on some issue, which was not clear to us. We agree with you regarding what we regarded as the essence of your comment, to the effect that "people learn what they are capable of." That's why we believe in education for everyone. Without doing some type of eugenic engineering, it's arguably the most effective way to improve a society.

  32. I meant differ with the authors' premise that anyone can achieve anything, that it is a matter of assistance and guidance and advantage. Not with you. I agree with you that exposing all to the maximum education that can be afforded is desirable. But is it doable? There are always budget constraints. Educational dollars have to be allocated according to the perceived needs and goals of a society. Can educational budgets target segments of a population and also target future perceived needs, doing both effectively? And how do we properly allocate educational funds? Do we centralize education to a federal level or try to enhance local control? Difficult questions.

  33. Thanks Douglas for the clarification.

    In this country in particular, we have a tendency to think about education in economic resource terms. However, I am reminded of how blacks, in the Jim Crow south, still managed to educate black youth in the 1930s, through the 1960s, with resources far less in amount than their white counterparts.

    Additionally, in traveling to many developing countries, it is fascinating to witness the quality of schools with virtually no resources. Just today, on CSpan2 Book TV, a reporter displayed pictures of young Afghan women attending a school, during an era when education of women was illegal under Taliban rule, thus requiring the schools to function in secrecy.

    How do you explain this, especially if the parents are not particularly well educated? The quality and the commitment of the teachers. Plain and simple. Education, at least at any early age is about diligence and exposure, not dollars. Sure, more dollars can improve the prospect of success; however, it is not a necessity.

  34. Interesting Q&A session, Very thought provoking. It is really important that world's largest democratic nation and its voter be well educated about various facts and information.

    Thanks to share.


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