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Entertainment, Religion, and the Decline of Society


Peter Lamal

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 32.3, May / June 2008

Many Americans are aware that the educational attainments and reasoning ability of many of our compatriots are woefully deficient. This state of affairs is both symptomatic of—and the cause of—the dismal situation so well described by Susan Jacoby in her new book, The Age of Unreason. But it is not a new phenomenon, as readers of Richard Hofstadter’s 1962 Anti-Intellectualism in American Life know. But, says Jacoby, America’s anti-intellectual tendencies have been greatly exacerbated by a new anti-rationalism that both feeds on and is fed by a popular culture of video images and continuous noise that precludes serious thought. Because of today’s unprecedented technology, today’s anti-intellectualism can inflict much greater damage than its historical predecessors.

Rather than engaging in reason and presenting us with persuasive evidence to gain support, politicians usually appeal to our rational and irrational fears and self-righteousness. Does any candidate for elective office have the courage to talk about ignorance as a political issue that affects such critical matters as scientific research and decisions about war and peace? Jacoby points out, for example, that Americans are alone in the developed world in their view that evolution is controversial rather than settled science. This may be due not only to American religious fundamentalism but to the public’s ignorance about science in general and evolution in particular. Surveys consistently indicate the failure of our elementary and secondary schools to teach not only science literacy but other subjects. A December 2005–January 2006 survey, for example, found that only 6 percent of high school graduates and 23 percent of those with some college experience could locate Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel on a map. There is plenty of blame to go around, for example the insistence on local control of pre-college education, which precludes adoption of national education standards. But Jacoby also faults intellectuals for failing to unite and foster education improvement.

Jacoby maintains that the two major spurs to anti-intellectualism during the past forty years have been the mass media and resurgent fundamentalist religion. The media subordinate the spoken and written word to visual images. This is deleterious because it presents information in a highly condensed form and crowds out engagement with the written word. Also, because the mass media must capture a public that has an increasingly short attention span, it purveys the simplistic slogans of “junk thoughts,” of which junk science is an example. The distinguishing features of junk thoughts are an inability to distinguish between correlation and causation; the use of scientific-sounding language without relevant evidence or logic; innumeracy; and expert-bashing involving dismissal of overwhelming scientific evidence as politically biased.

Jacoby insists we live in a “culture of distraction” where reading continues to be displaced by visual imagery, and television is solely an entertainment medium. But this is an overstatement on Jacoby’s part. Such programs as NOVA, Frontline, and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer are more than entertainment. Undoubtedly, however, they attract far fewer viewers than, say, American Idol.

The other major energizer of anti-intellectualism has been the growth of fundamentalist denominations. Many of the educated “elites” do not, says Jacoby, understand the pervasiveness and depth of fundamentalist literal belief in the Bible.

Also, there is now a political alliance between fundamentalist Protestants and traditionalist Catholics based on a shared piety and hatred of secularism and the influence of secular values on our society. Evidence of this alliance is the Protestant Right’s overwhelming approval of devout Catholics John Roberts and Samuel Alito as U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice and Justice of the Court, respectively.

Today’s media, with their appeal to emotion rather than reason, are a source of support for the kind of faith that opposes most of the rationalism that began with the Enlightenment. And religion is most powerfully presented visually, unmodified by secular thought, making no appeal to anything but emotion and leaving no room for doubt.

Jacoby also describes other sources of our American social environment of unreason and ignorance, including social pseudoscience such as Social Darwinism and Communism, middlebrow culture, the 1960s and their legacy, and the general dumbing down of public life where politicians and members of the media both create and are the creatures of a public that is distrustful of complexity, nuance, and advanced knowledge.

This book is obviously relevant in today’s social, political, and cultural environment. It is also wide-ranging; for example, it includes historical-background information relevant to contemporary irrationalism and defective education policies.

Peter Lamal

Peter Lamal is emeritus professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina– Charlotte and a fellow of the division of behavior analysis of the American Psychological Association.