The Politics of Ignorance

George Bernard Shaw once said that democracy wouldn’t be a viable form of government until the man-in-the-street learned to resent a fallacy as much as an insult. Typical Shavian overstatement, but pointing at an important truth. To paraphrase Tom Lehrer (on folk music), the problem with democracy is that it is rule by the people, most of whom have no talent for government.

A republic with strongly democratic elements is superior to other forms of government not because the Demos is wise or just – even on average – but because the resulting dispersion of power forces elites to compete for mass approval and because democracy supports egalitarian manners even when it doesn’t lead to economic equality.

But it’s easy to romanticize the People: to move from the claim that polyarchy is better than tyranny to the belief that the voters tend to get things right.

In that connection, consider the latest poll results. Given the following question:

(1) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process. (2) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process. (3) God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.

46% choose option (3), which is flatly contrary to easily ascertainable fact from both the fossil record and the archaeological record, and another 7% say they don’t know. (The Lascaux cave paintings date back about 17,000 years. Paleolithic tools are much older than that, and as far as we know no animal makes tools.)

As expected, Republicans tend to favor ignorance: “58% of Republicans believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years, 39% of independents and 41% of Democrats agree.” Of course high religiosity and biblical literalism are common among some poor and ill-educated constituencies who tend to vote Democratic. But among those with a high-school degreee or more, I’d be prepared to bet that anti-Darwinism correlates strongly with Republican voting, and negatively with either years or quality of higher education.

There are of course valid criticisms of the current system of higher education, as there are of the K-12 system. But much of the current assault on those systems from the political right stems from nothing more complex than love of ignorance, fear of knowledge, and hatred for those who make a living by conveying knowledge and finding new knowledge.

Alas, it’s quite possible that an ignorant majority will vote to protet itself, and its children, from the dangers of learning.

Footnote Gallup also provides no cross-tab with religious denomination; though it reports the expected strong correlation between frequency of church-going and expressed beliefs contrary to fact. It would be interesting to see whether the official Roman Catholic teaching, which does not deny evolution, makes anti-Darwinism less common (controlling for educational level) among Catholics than among evangelical Protestants, most of whose preachers think you’ll to to Hell if you allow science to shape your world-view.

Update As some commenters note, Gallup-style polling can’t easily distinguish between what people actually believe and “Sunday beliefs.” It’s possible that some of the respondents were simply voting “on the side of the angels,” and don’t really think the fossil record is the produce of either scientific or Divine fakery. Still and all, any naive faith in democracy has to be tempered when half the people either believe nonsense or think that it’s socially preferable to pretend to believe nonsense.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.