The Knowledge Deficit

December 30th, 2010

Is America running up a deficit in the knowledge department? According to two recent articles to pass my eyes, yes, we are.

What is the knowledge deficit?
Politicians of the day understand that science, facts, and reason are not the way into the voters hearts. So do the news channels, cable and otherwise. People are using opinion in place of knowledge, and opinion will always rule the day because it is easier to align with a person’s belief system than are facts. According to Benjamin J. Barber in his recent piece in The Nation called “America’s Knowledge Deficit”, it’s not that Americans can’t learn… “it is not what American’s don’t know that is so pernicious to our democracy… it is that they don’t know what knowing actually is.”

Why is the knowledge deficit a problem?
Larry Kramer says, “It’s a bad thing for democracy. We are creating a less-informed but more opinionated public.”

Benjamin also supports this idea:

“… democracy is government by citizens, and citizenship is defined by education, deliberation, judgment and the capacity to find common ground. This is the difference between democracy as mob rule and democracy as deliberative civic engagement. Mob rule asks only for the expression of prejudice and subjective opinion. Democracy demands deliberative judgment.”

In his article, Benjamin also quotes Chris Hedges,

“A populous deprived of the ability to separate lies from truth, that has become hostage to the fictional semblance of reality put forth by pseudo-events, is no longer capable of sustaining a free society.”

What’s causing the deficit?
Kramer has suggested that time pressures have pushed people toward the necessity of using the biases of opinion-media to form opinions rather than spend the time to properly educate themselves. It could be a fault of the media. We could also blame the internet… The System. I think we also need to look at people themselves. Is it partially laziness? Is it a feeling of disenfranchisement? There probably is no single answer, but rather a very complex interplay of forces.

Regardless, I’m in complete agreement that there is a problem here. But, the solutions is one that currently escapes me.

17 Responses to “The Knowledge Deficit”

  1. Rich on December 30, 2010 6:05 pm

    Maybe it’s not so much that people are now more opinionated and less knowledgeable than they used to be but that their opinions are more visible now that so many people have blogs or Facebook accounts or are on Twitter. It seems to me that ignorance is one thing that has never been in short supply. Not that this changes the essential nature of the problem, nor does it suggest any solutions.

  2. Steve Ardire on December 30, 2010 6:25 pm

    yes good post and agree because ‘an informed citizenry is the bulwark of democracy’ ( attribution to Thomas Jefferson )

  3. MyTreeTV on December 30, 2010 6:27 pm

    Education is very important! And it looks like only a few people have access to the best teachers.

  4. MyTreeTV on December 30, 2010 6:28 pm
  5. Tijana Zdravic on December 30, 2010 6:35 pm

    As a college student, I am surrounded by this everyday. It’s tearing me apart to the point that I consider daily dropping out and teaching myself (sadly, hiring a personal teacher is a thing of the past).


  6. Brent on December 30, 2010 6:47 pm

    “It is a tragedy of the world that no one knows what he doesn’t know — the less a man knows, the more sure it is that he knows everything.”

    Joyce Cary

  7. Arno Schmidt on December 30, 2010 6:55 pm

    The Americans know how to learn, but the economic pressure doesn’t allow it.

    College education is expensive, so there is no time for a broader education.

    And the smart young students often decide to study law or finance because that’s where the money is.

    Since the US has lost it’s industrial basis to China there isn’t much more to do for engineers or professionals in natural science and these professions have lost their reputation.

  8. DataJack on December 30, 2010 7:08 pm

    I agree, and I think it is partially due to willful ignorance (people who are educated are “elitists”), and partially due to the media playing sound bites and “presenting both sides” syndrome. Unfortunately, these two reinforce one another.

    Science is seen as an ideology, no more valid than other opinions. People who work in science are considered to be ideologues with agendas.

    I too don’t know what the solution is, but I think finding it is crucial to our survival as a society.

  9. Robert Bigelow on December 30, 2010 7:18 pm

    We all have the same built-in, bomb-proof, bullet-proof poop-detectors. The choice to use and listen to what we have between our ears is ours. I choose to use mine.

  10. Other Paul on December 30, 2010 8:15 pm

    As a national of the UK, under the mantle of a competing economy, you might think I’d naturally be in favour of any tendency of the USA likely to reduce its effectiveness in a global market. It should mean that your society will collapse under the weight of divers and contradictory opinions, and other capitalist economies will overtake you.

    The snag is that the USA tends to take the rest of the world with it. And we have our very own homegrown opinion-nuts and spin-doctors with power and influence. So we’ll be following you down the same road sooner or later anyway. But in any case, few of us have such schadenfreudlich (lack of) sympathies and instead share your concerns.

    But does it really matter? Most of human history, one supposes, must have been created in the ‘dumbed down’ mode. I’m not persuaded that the more successful expansions were due to anything much more complicated than technological development. And that such would happen regardless of the state of the general population’s opinion/knowledge balance.

    In the UK’s (post-enlightenment) industrial revolution, arguably a prime example of economic dominance, the population was still largely poorly educated and along religious grounds. Education certainly improved later, but that was a result, and not a cause, of the advance.

    Seems to me that the solution you ask for may be to require that people put their lifestyle where their opinion is. If you don’t think that the scientific mindset is for you, and you believe in sky fairies, then you don’t get to benefit from any of the technologies that science has spawned. Your sky-fairy will of course provide. See how long such folk are willing to go without their cars and phones and electricity.

    Small point – you might want to correct the text. The use of an adjective (populous) instead of the noun (populace) is an unfortunate misquotation which undermines the gravitas of the article a bit.

  11. Brett Lowry on December 30, 2010 11:06 pm


  12. Jared DiCroce on December 31, 2010 12:02 am

    I wholeheartedly agree with this dangerous “opinion over knowledge” epidemic that seemingly plagues our current culture, though i have to say that i find it interesting that the internet is cited as a possible cause.
    As more and more young people are growing accustomed to utilizing the phenomenal ability of the internet to educate, with a on the spot of the query instantaneous resolution type basis, i truly believe that the problem will begin to alleviate… over time.
    As for a solution to the problem at it’s root, i think that’s fairly evident… we have to retool the current education systems, and thrust our collective noses bravely at the grindstone of knowledge; cutting summer, extending hours (maybe even lining up school hours with parent work hours better, and in the process alleviating sitter payments), bringing back philosophies, making science seem as cool as it actually is, and basically helping students/teachers to grow faster, and more efficiently, together.
    I believe that a coherent procedure of better education could be thrown together–quite literally overnight–expertly taking into account modern psychological, developmental, dietary, and general motivational techniques (think Rosetta stone, for the mind), that would easily trump the archaic system which has been in place since this lump of carbon cooled off, and we institutionalized schooling in the first place.
    It’s just a shame that so many see the path, and the destination, but cant travel the road: thanks to the endless red tape barriers lining the trail…

  13. hariramsharma on December 31, 2010 10:04 am

    GOD gifted person.I proud of you.

  14. Glenn H. Snead on December 31, 2010 9:53 pm

    It stems from several historical events.
    Compulsory schooling, the Industrial Revolution, the New Deal, the rise of Mass Media, and the creation of the Consumer (our New Soviet Man).

    The first two came largely at the same time. Factories require workers who can 1. Read instructions and 2. listen and be quiet. The factory school most of us attended taught us to listen to lectures and to be obedient to authority figures. We can read, write well enough for work, and perform basic math.

    The New Deal and the rise of Mass Media further entombed our brains behind obedience. FDR and the government saved the nation. Walter Cronkite told us “that’s the way it is.” The facts about the New Deal don’t match the public’s perception. Walter Cronkite invented opinion journalism. He changed off-campus America’s mind about Vietnam.

    Our Consumer Culture has led us to materialism and indebtedness while leading us away from self reliance, family, community, and charity. The debt bubbles of the last four decades wouldn’t have existed had we not become a nation of “I want more and I want it now.” The Consumer was a creation of the government following WWII. GIs wanted education, a house, and a job. The government wanted to prevent a massive recession, so they helped “our boys” acquire enormous amounts of debt to make it happen. Instead of questioning the government’s actions, we end up looking for the next stimulus, the next bailout, the next big federal contract.

    So where does this leave us? A nation of debt ridden, uninvolved citizens who expect our government to create a green economy, provide us healthcare (provided it isn’t too expensive), and grant all privileges of citizenship to everyone without expecting them to pay a share of the cost.

    The way out is simple. Stop voting for our two dominant political parties and independents who caucus with one or the other party. Reject the anger, pity, and greed based policies that has placed so much power in the hands of 538 millionaires in D.C. Realize that some things should be decentralized and the way things worked in the 20th century need not be how we do things in the 21st. Finally, accept that the power to improve our lot in life lies not with some promise from the shining city on the hill but with ourselves. There are growing number of people who don’t live the “normal” lifestyle or make the so-called “smart” decisions. The question for you is: which things have you changed in your life that many of your classmates lacked the courage or initiative to do themselves?

  15. wagdog on January 1, 2011 6:46 pm

    From a behavioural evolutionary standpoint, willful ignorance is a natural survival mechanism when human societies are facing an increasingly risky world. How so? Humans are naturally risk averse, yet some risks have big pay offs should the outcome be favorable. So we evolved mechanisms for denying risks to allow us to take them.

    Imagine that there are several competing social units (cultures, nation states, etc). Some are purely rational, refusing to act without first maximizing knowledge of pros and cons. The others have embraced various irrational ideologies (religion, political systems, denialist beliefs, superstitions) and tend to take actions based on the flimsiest of evidence. Let them compete in an evironment full of risky decisions some of which are potentially highly rewarding should they pay off, but are detrimental to the society when they don’t.

    What happens? Some irrational societies end up at the bottom of the heap as their belief system leads them to make some very bad decisions. But in a high risk environment it is unlikely that the rational society will end up at the top of the heap, because it will shy away from taking risks for which there is insufficient knowledge. The law of numbers means that their will exist a few societies whos irrational beliefs just happen to coax them into taking risks that happen to pay off for them.

    A knowledge deficit enables one to deny existence of risks. Science is all about probabilistic outcomes and likelihood of models being supported by evidence, but opinion is all about certainty. So it is only natural that in ranking the success of various social units, the most opinionated irrational ideological driven ones end up at both the top and bottom extremes, with the knowledge enlightened stuck somewhere in the middle. The real questions to ask are, where does America want to be, and where do Americans want to be. They are not the same question.

  16. Wez Hind on January 1, 2011 9:56 pm

    Weirdly enough I had a conversation with some people about this last night. They blamed ‘the government’ for ‘withholding’ information, whereas when I pointed out that anything a person chooses to learn is probably available somewhere in #thegreatlibraryinthesky (Internet) should they care to spend a little bit of time looking for it, they told me that they believed that even that was falsified information. I asked whether they’d actually looked up anything about something they were interested and they told me that yes, they spent loads of time looking at ‘conspiracy theory’ websites! From this (unfortunately not rare) conversation I take it that people are basically too lazy to become informed about topics or areas of knowledge they claim to have an interest in, and find it much much easier to blame something or somebody else for their lack of deeper knowledge, than to blame themselves or simply get go and learn.

    This all mirrors one of my favourite phrases, which I think sums up a large amount of the ‘western’ populations.

    “When all’s said and done, there’s a lot more said than done.”

  17. dasSuiGeneris on January 3, 2011 1:09 am

    Umm… this is quite a new way of looking at the decline of knowledge. I certainly understand, though, and the quote from Chris Hedges makes the issue almost scary for America and its ‘role’ in the world. I’ve always thought about the knowledge gap, but reading and pondering your post seems to make the issue much more pertinent. Thanks for sharing.

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply

Name (required)

Email (required)


Speak your mind