The Perils of American Stupidity

In the past week, Asia Sentinel has published a review and an excerpt from "A Shattered Youth," an astonishing book by Savathy Kim, a Cambodian Supreme Court justice, which recounts the terrible ordeal she suffered when the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia. It is a phenomenal book, a word we do not use lightly. It could reduce you to tears.

But Kim's ordeal kicked off some unsettling concerns about the wider world. The ruinous Cambodian leader Pol Pot's intention was to take Cambodia back to Year Zero – to build a classless agrarian society without scientific knowledge. Savathy Kim's brother, like a terrifying number of Cambodians, was murdered simply because he wore eyeglasses, a sign that he belonged to the middle class. Any indication of sophisticated knowledge could easily result in death at the hands of murderous Khmer Rouge cadres. Kim feared she would perish if they simply discovered she could write.

Kim's nightmare, and the nightmare of the 1.7 million people who died of murder, starvation, disease or other means out of a population of 6.4 million, has a continuing lesson for the rest of us, especially the United States: beware of movements that vilify intelligence and knowledge. In the United States today, demagogues like Sarah Palin and her ilk within the "tea party" movement and elsewhere are leading an anti-intellectual campaign so virulent that it seems likely to damage America and probably the world. We will learn Tuesday how many Americans approve.

We are not suggesting that the current wave of right-wing rage in the US will produce a Pol Pot, it won't. But the impulse to banish knowledge as a means of securing political power is a dangerous strategy that can undermine and even destroy the fabric of a society. Consider this:

  • Despite the fact that the National Academy of Sciences, an independent organization created by Congress to provide scientific guidance, unequivocally concluded that human activities are responsible for much of recent global warming, 77 percent of the Republicans in the US House of Representatives refuse to believe it. Of the 20 Republican candidates for the US Senate in contested races, 19 question the science of global warming and oppose any comprehensive legislation to deal with it.

  • Just 44 percent of US respondents to a 2007 Gallup Poll stated that they accepted Darwin's theory of evolution, compared with 78 percent in Japan, 70 percent in Europe and 69 percent in China.

  • According to the National Endowment for the Arts, fewer than half of adult Americans had read any work of fiction or poetry in the preceding year – no detective novels, romances or even the "rapture" novels so beloved of the religious right. Only 57 percent had read any kind of nonfiction work.

  • Forty-nine percent of US adults do not know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun. According to the ACT College Readiness report, 78 percent of high school graduates did not meet the readiness benchmark levels for one or more entry-level college courses in mathematics, science, reading and English.

  • Although almost 90 percent of Americans say they are religious, and 96 percent of them own a Bible, few apparently have read it. According to a Pew Research study, the majority of Americans don't know that Genesis is the first book of the Bible. Half of high school seniors think Sodom and Gomorrah were a married couple. One in 10 Americans believes that Joan of Arc was Noah's wife.

  • The National Science Board's "Science and Engineering Indicators 2006" report found that more than 20 percent of Americans believed in witches and 29 percent believed in haunted houses.

These kind of statistics could go on at numbing length, but the problem is not just that many Americans ignore scientific facts. The problem is that many of those who lead the country, or who have led it in the very recent past, like former President George W Bush, hold many of these same attitudes and encourage their belief. Under Bush, climate change research was buried or not allowed to be published. Stem cell research ceased. In the wake of 9/11, visas for students and high-tech workers from other countries were severely cut back. A wide range of scientific projects were stopped, often because they interfered with the Republican Party's stance on religious issues.

In 1957, the then-Soviet Union shocked the United States by launching Sputnik, the first satellite, into a low-earth orbit in outer space. That was so staggering that the US put enormous resources into scientific education and embarked on a massive program under President John F. Kennedy to put a man on the moon. The attention to the sciences was so overwhelming that it pushed the United States into a technological lead that it held for the ensuing decades. But today, despite a common perception that the US remains out in front, it is slipping rapidly. For instance, the New York Times reported on Oct. 28 that a Chinese scientific research center has built the fastest supercomputer ever made, replacing the United States as the maker of the swiftest machine, with 1.4 times the horsepower of the previous title-holder.

Despite the massive challenge of global warming, there seems little chance that the United States will repeat the technological triumph that the Kennedy administration set off in space. And it is inevitably going to pay for what often seems a willful decision to turn away from scientific enquiry.

According to a new report by the National Science Foundation titled Rising Above the Gathering Storm, Revisited: Rapidly Approaching Category 5, the US now ranks 22nd among the world's nations in the density of broadband Internet penetration and 72nd in the density of mobile telephone subscriptions. In 2009, 51 percent of United States patents were awarded to non-US companies. The US is 48th in quality of mathematics and science education. Only four of the top 10 companies receiving US patents last year were US companies.

In 2000, the number of foreign students studying the physical sciences and engineering in US graduate schools for the first time surpassed the number of domestic students. Federal funding of research in the physical sciences as a fraction of GDP fell by 54 percent in the 25 years after 1970, with the decline in engineering funding at 51 percent. In 1998 China produced about 20,000 research articles, but by 2006 the output had reached 83,000, overtaking Japan, Germany and the UK.

Sixty-nine percent of United States public school students in fifth through eighth grade are taught mathematics by a teacher without a degree or certificate in mathematics. Ninety-three percent of United States public school students in fifth through eighth grade are taught the physical sciences by a teacher without a degree or certificate in the physical sciences.

That is just a fraction of the conclusions in the National Science Foundation's report.

Writing about George W Bush's performance as president, the author and public intellectual Susan Jacoby said that "the issue is not whether Bush is as stupid as he sounds but that he, like so many of the young Americans surveyed in a National Geographic-Roper poll, is unashamed of – and even seems quite proud of – his own parochialism and intellectual limitations."

A pride in those limitations certainly extends to Sarah Palin and to several of her acolytes now running for public office, including Christine O'Donnell, a candidate for the Senate from Delaware, who in a debate with her opponent appeared not to know that the First Amendment to the US Constitution provides for both free speech and the separation of church and state, something many in her tea party movement would like to see eliminated. "You're telling me that the separation of church and state is found in the First Amendment?" O'Donnell asked last month to howls of laughter. Similar candidates abound and many seem certain to be elected to Congress in next week's mid-term elections.

An ignorant public, Jacoby writes, "is the long-term problem in American life. Like many Democratic politicians, left-of-center intellectuals have focused on the right-wing deceptions employed to sell the war in Iraq rather than on the ignorance and erosion of historical memory that make serious deceptions possible and plausible – not only about Iraq but about a vast array of domestic and international issues."

As Americans choose to turn away from scientific inquiry and intellectual curiosity in favor of superstition, half-truths and mythology, they may, unwittingly, be turning their own clock back toward a different version of Year Zero.