American anti-intellectualism

Or, why are we so proud to be so dumb?

Two writers discuss the anti-intellectual tide in American culture. First, Lawrence M. Krauss discusses science education with Claudia Dreifus of Scientific American magazine.

Kraus makes two points that I find significant:

We live in a society where it’s considered okay for intelligent people to be scientifically illiterate. Now, it wasn’t always that way. At the beginning of the 20th century, you could not be considered an intellectual unless you could discuss the key scientific issues of the day. Today you can pick up an important intellectual magazine and find a write-up of a science book with a reviewer unashamedly saying, “This was fascinating. I didn’t understand it.” If they were reviewing a work by John Kenneth Galbraith, they wouldn’t flaunt their ignorance of economics.

Why is this a problem? Because the more ignorant Americans are about science, the easier it becomes for politicians to distort science to their own ends. Krauss continues:

Because we’re living in a time when so many scientific questions are transformed into public relations campaigns–with truth going out the window in favor of sound bites and manufactured controversies. This is dangerous to science and society, because what we learn from observation and testing can’t be subject to negotiation or spin, as so much in politics is.
The creationists cut at the very credibility of science when they cast doubt on our methods. When they do that, they make it easier to distort scientific findings in controversial policy areas. We can see that happening right now with issues like stem cells, abortion, global warming and missile defense. When the testing of the proposed missile defense system showed it didn’t work, the Pentagon’s answer, more or less, went, “No more tests before we build it.”

Next, Henry Louis Gates Jr., discusses black anti-intellectualism in aguest column for the New York Times. He reports on a conversation with Barack Obama, the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate from Illinois. Obama told Gates:

Americans suffer from anti-intellectualism, starting in the White House. Our people can least afford to be anti-intellectual.

I’ll never fully understand the problem of anti-intellectualism among black Americans (for that matter, I’ll never understand why anyone is willfully dumb, no matter their ethnicity or country of origin), but it seems to me part of a larger societal problem affecting all Americans–from, as Obama points out, a White House that seems to scorn intellect, to a popular culture that mocks as nerds everyone from scientists and mathematicians to music theorists and political scientists.


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