This is democracy: stupid humans

By Razib Khan | May 2, 2006 8:36 pm

Study: Geography Greek to young Americans:

…33 percent could not point out Louisiana on a U.S. map….
…showed that 88 percent of those questioned could not find Afghanistan on a map of Asia….
…”half or fewer of young men and women 18-24 can identify the states of New York or Ohio on a map [50 percent and 43 percent, respectively],”….

But I’m sure many could pinpoint Britney Spears’ butt crack.


The reality is that most humans are not interested in “world affairs” (aside from The World Cup). Not only is their interest lacking, they don’t possess that much native intelligence. We look good because #2 in the brains department are chimpanzees, these are animals reputed to engage in poop tossing. I believe that the average human is gifted with a lot more empathy and decency than they are with cognitive processing power, and I’m not one to be idealistic about human nature. Is it any surprise that the expansion from limited suffrage beyond the elite middle class resulted in the transition from secular classical liberalism ascendent toward the populism of the Left and Right?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture
  • http://akinokure.blogspot.com Agnostic

    Could be a motivational issue for the guys at least — just expose them to hot girls from a country that matches their interests (for some Italy, for some Japan, whatever). Girls require more impressing to get your foot in the door, so the guy would have to learn basic Italian (Japanese, whatever), regional geography, etc. That’s how you get a CS major to study French, right? Point generalizes.

  • Roman Werpachowski

    As Churchill said: “The best argument against democracy is a fine minute conversation with an average voter”.

  • http://catallarchy.net/blog/ Matt McIntosh

    As the franchise expands, liberty contracts.
    Admittedly I don’t think I could find Louisiana on an unmarked map either, but then I wasn’t raised in the US. I could probably find Uzbekistan, though, so take that how you will…

  • http://catallarchy.net/blog/ Matt McIntosh

    Actually scratch that, I just tested myself and could find Louisiana easily. It’s those landlocked states that get me.

  • MRB

    Viscous, but in line with my mind for some time.
    My T.O.E.
    Frustration is born of the failure of reality to conform to ones fantasy of reality.
    Set the reference point to evaluate the magnitude of our intelligence to a chimpanzee. Suppose we are 3 times more intelligent than a chimpanzee and that we are 3 times taller that a duck, we are now giant genius. If a bug has an I.Q. of 1 and a chimpanzee is a 70 and the average homo sapien is 100 and we are 3 times shorter that a giraffe we not now a bunch of half bright midgets.
    Linking it together one could surmise that we are a bunch of continually frustrated hairless monkeys, who are appear to be continually trying to demonstrate that ones fantasy can kick your fantasy’s ass, but will require a big stick to enlighten you.
    Close enough?
    M.B.

  • http://www.srcf.ucam.org/~ajl59/ Corkscrew

    As Homer (Simpson) said: “When will people learn? Democracy doesn’t work!”

  • Dan S.

    ” Is it any surprise that the expansion from limited suffrage beyond the elite middle class resulted in the transition from secular classical liberalism ascendent toward the populism of the Left and Right?”
    So what do we do? After all, the implication would appear to be that this is a bad thing. So how to we fix it? Who do we bar from the voting booth, and how? Literacy tests? Should prospective voters have to find a current country of concern on an unmarked map? Perhaps demonstrate a basic familiarity with population genetics, or is that going a little overboard? You specify elite middle class. Perhaps we could streamline the process and utilize a tax or property assessment?
    Less hysterically – you do make rather a jump from lack of interest to lack of native intelligence. Could education, attitudes toward academics (and intelligence in general) and the perception of their influence on global affairs perhaps have something to do with it? After all, many of the 18 – 24 year olds in the study have quite a command of details, etc. – just in other areas which they perceive to be more interesting, rewarding, and relevent. Can you explain – convincingly – to Joe Streetman why it’s important that he know exactly where on a map this or that country is, or which border is the most heavily fortified?
    I’m not saying that this performance isn’t abysmal, or that knowing these things isn’t important, but given certain not-unreasonable assumptions, it’s relatively rational, and certainly well-reinforced.
    Note also that in the 2002 poll we ranked next to last, behind several other industrialized nations. Assuming that’s telling us anything, this would seem to suggest that either our young people are intrinsicly dumber than theirs, or other factors are playing a relatively large role.

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    After all, the implication would appear to be that this is a bad thing.
    yes, but it isn’t the worst thing. so we do nothing.

  • Mengü Gülmen

    The problem’s simple: the people do not NEED to know these things. They never need to use it to earn their livings, to survive.
    On the other hand, bs’s butt crack is an important part of the knowledge shared by the social network. Not knowing it would be “dude.. lame..”
    most of the jobs on the world do not require any knowledge nor skill to accomplish. 3 days of experience and you’re off. In a culture where we are encouraged to “dig that hole and forget the sun”, why even bother? :)

  • http://lucs.lu.se/people/jan.moren/log/current.html Janne

    I like to think I’m not stupid. I’m also fairly well educated, and I follow “world affairs” with some regularity (nothing like a bunch of newspaper sites, weekly magazines and blogs as a means of work avoidance).
    That said, ask me to find Louisiana and I can take a good guess but that’s about it. Closer to home, ask me to find Hälsingland in Sweden, or Niigata in Japan, and it will be a similarily inspired – but probably wrong – wild-*ss guess.
    When did we confluence “reasonably knowledgeable about current affairs” with “Memorizing places on a map”? Unless you happen to live in any one of those areas, knowing that Louisiana is an area in the US, Hälsingland is another area in Sweden and Niigata is one in Japan is already more than you needed to know. You don’t need to be able to find Kyoto on a map to debate the finer points of the Kyoto protocol, or find the exact position of Baghdad to understand the Iraq war.
    You can find places on a map – great. That is arguably the _least_ important area within the social sciences to understand the world we live in.

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    You can find places on a map – great. That is arguably the _least_ important area within the social sciences to understand the world we live in.
    doing basic arithmetic is trivial and somewhat superfluous in the age of the calculator, but knowing basic addition, subtractin and multiplication makes thinking easier. i know, i know of someone who doesn’t know their multiplication tables (they are a college graduate), and life gets…complicated.
    similarly, not knowing where louisiana is is like (sort of) not knowing where malmo is. you can survive…but discourse can get a little strange and tilted when don’t know where something is on the map, because geographic place bring a lot of implicit information with it. if you want an example, when my family moved to oregon from the east coast, a medical doctor friend of my father’s asserted that “oregon was in the midwest.” and from this mistaken assertion he derived a lot of conclusions and inferred many points of advice that were fallacious (oregon is on the pacific coast, on the other side of the rockies from the midwest).

  • http://lucs.lu.se/people/jan.moren/log/current.html Janne

    Knowing that Malmö is in southern Sweden, or that Louisiana is a southern US state, is aking to doing arithmetic. That info gives you just about all implicit information you will need about those place, unless you happen to live there or have some other _particular_ reason to care about it in detail. Similarily, knowing that Afhganistan is in the near east, south of Russia and next to Pakistan (both things you reasonably infer from events, with no need for actual geography), is plenty of information, and will give you most of the implicit information you will ever need, unless you plan to travel there (alone or with an army).
    Placing a country on a different continent on a silhouette map isn’t arithmetic, it’s like doing single-variable calculus – basic and essential if you’re entering a speciality that depends on it; not very useful and not a good indicator of intelligence or ability if you aren’t.

  • http://www.scienceblogs.com/gnxp razib

    not very useful and not a good indicator of intelligence or ability if you aren’t.
    do you want to bet there isn’t a good correlation with IQ?

  • darukaru

    I think most people agree that the benevolent dictatorship is the most efficient form of government.
    The trouble is the damned shortage of benevolent dictators.

  • http://www.jessemazer.com Jesse M.

    do you want to bet there isn’t a good correlation with IQ?
    Maybe, but knowledge of any sort of trivia would probably have a decent correlation with IQ too, I have my doubts that knowledge of geographical trivia would be significantly more correlated with IQ than, say, knowledge of pop-culture trivia. Anyway, that isn’t an argument for detailed knowledge of geography being particularly important to knowledge of current events (although I agree a sketchy knowledge is, along the lines of ‘Lousiana is in the South, along the coast’). As an analogy, do you think one needs a detailed knowledge of the geography of Pangaea and Gondwanaland to have a good understanding of evolutionary history?

  • Robert

    “You don’t need to be able to find Kyoto on a map to debate the finer points of the Kyoto protocol, or find the exact position of Baghdad to understand the Iraq war.”
    i disagree with the Baghdad example. To understand the political environment in iraq you need to know which areas are inhabited by the sunnis(center) which by the kurds(north) and which by the shia(south). If you don’t atleast know the general location of baghdad it would be tough to have even a basic understanding of whats going on.

  • Robert

    “knowing that Afhganistan is in the near east, south of Russia and next to Pakistan”
    hopefully you know all asian contries are south of russia :) lol

  • nil

    “I think most people agree that the benevolent dictatorship is the most efficient form of government.
    The trouble is the damned shortage of benevolent dictators.”
    Lee Kuan Yew is an example of a benevolent dictator.
    Is economic liberty more important than social liberty ?

  • pconroy

    Janine,
    I suspect you are Swedish, but Afghanistan is not in the Near East, more like the North East fringe of the Middle East, or better still South East of Central Asia.
    Robert,
    I agree, knowing where Baghdad is, is critical to understanding the war in Iraq, so too is knowing where the Tigris and Euphrates are, and that Baghdad is at their conflux.
    nil,
    I agree. Some would also say that Augusto Pinochet of Chile was one, as he took Chile from a 3rd world country to a 1st world in a few decades, just as Lee did in Singapore.

  • http://lucs.lu.se/people/jan.moren/log/current.html Janne

    “knowing that Afhganistan is in the near east, south of Russia and next to Pakistan”
    “hopefully you know all asian contries are south of russia :) lol”
    Point well taken – though you could argue Japan is not south of Russia
    “I disagree with the Baghdad example. To understand the political environment in iraq you need to know which areas are inhabited by the sunnis(center) which by the kurds(north) and which by the shia(south). If you don’t atleast know the general location of baghdad it would be tough to have even a basic understanding of whats going on.. ”
    You have just told us what we needed to know to understand the dynamics around the city. None of it requires the ability to put a pin in the map on the point where Baghdad is located.
    “Janine, I suspect you are Swedish, but Afghanistan is not in the Near East, more like the North East fringe of the Middle East, or better still South East of Central Asia.
    Robert,
    I agree, knowing where Baghdad is, is critical to understanding the war in Iraq, so too is knowing where the Tigris and Euphrates are, and that Baghdad is at their conflux.”
    (It’s “Janne”, BTW – a male name in Swedish. I get that a lot)
    Could you explain exactly why knowing Baghdad is on the confluence of Eufrat and Tigris adds to the understanding of the conflict? As far as I have seen, water rights have not cropped up as a major bone of contention (yet). I mean, it’s a nice thing to know (another point in some future TP game), but what about the conflict would I have been misunderstanding without this knowledge? Same thing with the precise position of Afghanistan (which frankly became no clearer for me with your description).
    Again, for most understanding of events, all you need is a general idea of what part of the world some country or region is located. Far more important is what kind of current government a country or region has, what major religious and political influences and traditional peeves with neighbours and so on.
    If you want to require some general knowledge about the world, I’d say political history, social and group psychology, knowledge about world religions, and a general grounding in macroeconomy are all far more important than geography.

  • Ontogen

    DanS:”Note also that in the 2002 poll we ranked next to last, behind several other industrialized nations.”
    This doesn’t tell us anything about mainstream US society. The US’s poor performance compared to other industrialized nations in measures like education and murder rate is driven by the US’s ethnic composition. (US whites and East Asians perform at the same level in social measures as those groups in other countries.)

  • Boknekht

    I don’t know my multiplication tables either. Not only that, i’m dull with all basic arithmetic.
    I’ve never been interested in sports, not even in the least. I love maps & atlases though.
    I am interested in academics & intellectual matters, in contrast to some of my much brighter family members who basically shun world affairs, books, – anything that involves thought. They’re fiction people; i’m a fact person. Puzzling.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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