I have heard from a number of you in response to my plea for enlightenment on just what is driving right wingers crazy. Your various suggestions are on the mark, and I do not really have comments on them. I think perhaps I am simply having trouble thinking my way into the minds of people who are capable of viewing the passage of this bill as Armageddon [Boehner], or fascism, or communism, or the downfall of American liberty.
A propos my difficulty plumbing the depths of the minds of some people, I have now finished reading Richard Dawkins' latest book, The Greatest Show on Earth. As I think I explained, this is his effort to respond, with a flood of facts, to the evolution deniers and creationists who number 40% of the American population, and smaller but still sizeable portions of European populations. In an Appendix, Dawkins reports in more detail on some polling, the results of which are really quite appalling. It seems, for example, that in a number of European countries, including Great Britain, roughly 20% of those polled think that the earth goes around the sun every month. As Dawkins says with exasperation, "What, I wonder, do they think a year is?"
This actually raises a broader and deeper question that is worth reflecting on in a systematic manner. We tend somewhat unthinkingly to suppose that because so many people use the technology of the modern age -- television, cell phones, computers, automobiles,PDAs and all the rest -- they must have some general sense of the science underlying that technology. But it seems to me much more likely that this is not at all the case. Many, many people who think of themselves as quite au courant [except that they wouldn't use that phrase] with modern technology actually have a very primitive relationship to it. They know, in a brute sort of way, that pushing this button produces that result. They know how to text, but have no idea of the electronic processes by which text messages are created and transmitted. They are, in fact, simply clueless about the world. I recall fifty-six years ago, when I was sailing on a student ship from New York to Southhampton, England, hearing two young women asking the purser where the mailbox was on the ship. They had just written home, and wanted to send their letters off right away. Very patiently [I thought], he explained to them that as they were on a ship in the middle of the ocean, the letters would not be mailed until they reached port. The women were quite put out, and not a bit embarrassed by the sheer stupidity of their question.
This pandemic of ignorance is concealed from us in part by the fact that there is also a sizeable number of people [probably a minority, I would guess] who are really quite knowledgeable about the basic facts of science. This includes not only techies and people who have chosen some branch of science as their life work, but also lots and lots of people who are simply curious about the world around them and absorb basic information as it passes before their minds. There was a time, perhaps, when the wearing of nerd packs and horn rimmed glasses identified those folks, but no longer.
It is quite possible to get through the day successfully without even the dimmest understanding of how anything actually works. Unfortunately, ignorance is a very poor foundation for the formation of judgments about matters of public policy.