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Thursday, September 13, 2012


All of you, I am sure, are aware of public opinion surveys showing that astonishing numbers of Americans believe mindlessly stupid things.  A recent Gallup Poll, for example, tells us that 46% of Americans believe that the earth was created ten thousand years ago.  These same people blithely answer "yes" when asked whether dinosaurs and humans walked the earth together.  What are we to make of information like this?

One natural response is to conclude that there are well over one hundred million ignorant, dead stupid Americans.  I am not aware of ever having had a conversation with one of these folks, but since, like all sensible people, I trust Gallup implicitly, I can only infer that I have thus far led a charmed life.  People who are this appallingly ignorant of the simplest facts of natural science, one would think, ought to be unable to function at even a minimally effective level in the modern world.  If they really believe the world was created ten thousand years ago, what sense can they make of the solar system, of computers, of the internal combustion engine, indeed of a vacuum cleaner?  Do they refuse to fly, fearing that the airplane will fall out of the sky?  Do they, on entering an elevator, look about anxiously to see whether the elevator slaves are ready to haul on the cables and raise the car?  Do they, each time they flip a light switch, step back to avoid the flare of the match as secret candles are lit?

I have been brooding on these and similar questions, and I have an alternative hypothesis.  Mind you, I have no direct confirmatory evidence for this hypothesis, so let us label it armchair speculation.  I offer it for your consideration, purely as what physicists call a gedankenexperiment, or thought experiment.

I have a suspicion that when a Gallup pollster asks these folks "Do you believe that the world was created in its present form ten thousand years ago?", what the respondents really hear is a lengthy and very complex question that goes something like this:

"In America today there is a sizeable minority of adults who have Bachelor's Degrees or more from good schools, who hold cushy jobs with nice salaries in comfortable offices, who live in upscale communities like Chapel Hill and Shaker Heights and Cambridge and Hyde Park, who expect to be, and are, accorded respect and deference in restaurants, doctor's offices, airline lounges, and bank lobbies, and whose cultural preferences are echoed on television and in magazines.  These people look down with a genial condescension on people like you.  They do not share your religious affiliations nor do they really respect them, though they may pay lip service to the notion that all religions are to be accorded superficial courtesy.  And they would not be caught dead in the neighborhood in which you live or at the events where you amuse yourself.  Now, do you accept the fact that you are among the disrespected, the condescended to, the left out, the social, intellectual, and cultural underclass of America?  Are you prepared to tug your forelock or touch your cap in acknowledgement of your inferior status?  Of course, I am not going to ask you this question directly.  Instead, I am going to ask you whether you think God created the world in its present form ten thousand years ago.  But you and I understand that this is really a shorthand code version of the longer question, and I quite well realize that if you answer my little question 'yes' you are really answering my longer question 'no!' "

That is what I think is going on when we get these bizarre poll results.  Looked at this way, the responses make sense, and are, I might even suggest, honorable.  If we want to reduce the number of people who say the world was created ten thousand years ago, we will be wasting our time pushing for better science courses in high school.  What we really need to do is to break down the class barriers and wealth and income inequality in American society.  But that, I am afraid, is a very much larger project.


Keith said...

Bumper sticker spotted this morning: "Evolution is Science Fiction".

Does this case fit with your idea?

Don Schneier said...

I suspect that Socialism would poll at less than 46% favorability, for reasons to which honorability is less easy to attribute. So, a very much larger project, indeed.

Aldo Antonelli said...

This one seems apt:

Jim Westrich said...

This is only tangentially related but this song is such a great satire of the mixing up of natural history and religion (and it is also one of my 4 year olds favorite songs). For those of you not interested enough in listening it posits that dinosaurs went extinct because they wanted to celebrate Christmas everyday!

Matias Vernengo said...

I suspect that class does play a role in the responses, however, it is also true that most of the people that say that they believe in creationism vote for the GOP and against their own class interests (sure enough Dems have been less defensive of labor interests than they should). In that case there is still a very puzzling question about the rationality of the creationist crowd.

John said...

Just the other day I saw this phenomenon referred to as "pollster nullification," in the context of some 10% of likely voters claiming to believe that Romney had more to do with Bin Laden's killing than Obama did. A clever coinage, I think.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

John, that is a nice post, a simpler version of my rather convoluted explanation. Thanks for the comment.

levinebar said...

Occam would say that 100 million idiots (the most parsimonious explanation) is the most likely one. But we can comfort ourselves by constructing more elaborate scenarios. Who would dare venture into traffic if she/he really believed that idiocy is so rampant?