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Our Deliberate Slide into Ignorance


Keith Taylor

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 34.2, March / April 2010

“We are the greatest country on the face of the earth!” 

That phrase has been shouted so often and so loudly that we rise and cheer en masse every time a politician makes the jingoistic proclamation. God, how we love to lie to ourselves! At least most of us do, but not Charles Pierce. He tells us we are deliberately ignorant, and he makes me wonder if other countries might not have the edge on us sometimes.

Pierce’s Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free is a polemic that won’t let go. It reminds us of the deliberate ignorance foisted on us every time we watch the news, read a paper, or open yet another e-mail telling us how we must put God back in our schools. Pierce is a regular on National Public Radio’s Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me and a writer who has been published in Esquire, The New York Times Magazine, The Nation, and many others.

Pierce takes on his bugaboo, stupidity, mano a mano and kicks the hell out of it. What’s more, he does it with a devastating sense of humor. To those of us who are shunted aside in our own country because we will not subscribe to myths and superstitions, there is just something delicious in watching those myths and superstitions stripped as naked as Adam in Eden.

Watching our homeland excoriated isn’t pretty, but neither is a deliberate slide into ignorance. Sadly, we are doing it to ourselves, and too many of us are cheering as it happens. The media help gullibility along by adhering to what Pierce calls the three great premises of idiot America.

The first example he gives of idiocy being taken for fact is the Creation Science Museum in Hebron, Kentucky. It certainly is a sad commentary on our gullibility that folks choose a myth over science, but it would take a determined pessimist not to laugh with Pierce as he describes how folks justify idiotic actions. He describes a naked Adam whose nakedness doesn’t include a penis. A flesh-colored (Caucasian of course) body stocking discreetly covers the offensive part. Eve appears a bit more daring with her perkies discreetly covered by her long hair.

Folks pay a ton to be completely sheltered from scientific theories, and the Creation Science Museum does a wonderful job of denying things even when they are accompanied by an abundance of proof. You won’t see any pictures of light that has been traveling 13 billion years to get here.

Elsewhere Pierce lists loony ideas that have come about as Athena did from the head of Zeus. Six years ago the country was sent into a tizzy when Texas was said to be planning a $200 billion highway that would stretch clean across the country, all the way from the Mexican border to Canada. And that wasn’t all. The Mexican government would have a checkpoint in Kansas City and would be able to control traffic right here in the good old U.S. of A! Our sovereignty would be supplanted by something that might be called Mexicania. As a rationalist might guess, the road existed only because lots of people said it did, Pierce’s third premise.

He gives example after example. He is also gracious in giving credit to the many skeptics who provided him with tales and verification.

In the end we may blame preachers and charlatans, but it is the media that carry the message. Pierce doesn’t simply blame the media, however. He tells us that the media “acted with the tacit approval of its audience. We leave ourselves on automatic pilot and realize, too late, what happens when we do.”

That is worth remembering. I belong to a group with the slogan “Dare to Think.” We ought to do that more often.

Keith Taylor

Keith Taylor is a former president and current program chair of the San Diego Association for Rational Inquiry and lives in Chula Vista, California.