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08.30.10

Ignorant America

How is it possible that a fifth of this country believes Obama is Muslim, without any evidence? Tunku Varadarajan on other cockamamie American beliefs—and why so many cling to them.

How is it possible that a fifth of this country believes Obama is Muslim, without any evidence? Tunku Varadarajan on other baseless American beliefs—and why so many cling to them.

I have just returned from London, which I pronounce to be a saner city, by far, than New York. And the one question I was asked repeatedly—by friends, by cabbies, even by complete strangers seated next to me at a cricket match—was how on earth a fifth of all Americans could maintain, in the absence of any respectable evidence to support their belief, that Barack Obama is Muslim. (The Pew poll that uncovered this fevered, adamant state of mind made quite a splash in Britain, where the natives rather enjoy feeling superior to Americans.)

Gallery: Myth vs. Reality

The fact that this mind-boggling disconnect between perception and reality does not worry Obama himself is proof, perhaps, of his sang-froid, and maybe of a certain weary resignation. On a broader canvas, the fact that the disconnect exists at all suggests that something is very wrong with America's political discourse—and certainly on its fringes. It suggests ignorance, of course, but a very provocative, toxic ignorance, one in which there is an imperviousness to facts in the pursuit of political warfare. This is not dumbness, or denseness, or illiteracy, but belligerent unenlightenment.   

But what does all this stem from? And is the explanation for it as simple as David Brooks suggests, in pinning the blame on "mental flabbiness" and a national "metacognition deficit"? And how is the Obama-is-a-Muslim brand of ignorance different from the other sorts of disconnects between perception and reality that are rife in American society, not merely in politics, but in our approaches to science, culture, history and business?   

In order to make some sense of these questions, I undertook a Taxonomy of American Ignorance and Misperceptions. The exercise is impressionistic and personal, one with which many readers will, doubtless, take issue.

Political bias can be a fleeting sickness; profound ignorance, on the other hand, can be incurable.

1. Baseless Belief as Confirmation of Bias  

In a letter to The New York Times in response to the Brooks piece, Scott O. Lilienfield, a psychology professor at Emory, wrote that much of our political discourse is marked by "rampant confirmation bias," in which people "deny, dismiss, and distort evidence" that is not consistent with their beliefs. The fifth of Americans who hold that Obama is Muslim are unquestionably those for whom the president can do no right. Casting him as a Muslim is a convenient—and provocative—form of devaluation in a society which is fearful of Muslims in general. "Muslimers"—if I may put it that way—are of the same ilk as "birthers," those who maintain (again, without a shred of evidence) that Obama was not born in the United States, rendering him ineligible for the White House. (Obama's Muslimization is a way to render him ineligible, culturally, to be an American president.)   

"Truthers" are the left-wing counterparts of these cohorts on the right, holding—again, in the face of all evidence and common sense—that the United States government was itself the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. (Twenty-two percent of Americans believe that George W. Bush knew about the attacks in advance; and since there is likely to be little or no overlap between these Americans and those 18 percent who think Obama is Muslim, we have a frightening 40 percent who subscribe to a demonstrably cockamamie belief.)  

Less malign than these examples, but equally bereft of fact, are the assertions that Tim Geithner worked for Goldman Sachs; and that Obama signed the Troubled Assets Relief Program into law. In the case of the latter, nearly half of all Americans think TARP was Obama's, not Bush's, law, a baseless projection on to Obama of a populist rage against bailouts. Equally populist (and baseless) is the ascription to Geithner of a Goldman identity: Goldman has, in many ways, become the bête noire in a wider disaffection with Wall Street; and the "Goldmanization" of Geithner is the economistic version of the "Muslimization" of Obama.  

2. Subjective Belief as Confirmation of Bias  

This category is related to the first, in that it operates as a propulsor of bias; but it is also different in significant ways. Certainly, it is a more respectable state of mind, in that it is based on an interpretation—and not a rejection—of a set of facts. It is also more in the nature of misperception and interpretive crudity, rather than ignorance. Examples of this category would be the frequently expressed view that George W. Bush is (or was, as president) an "idiot," usually due to—as this piece by Joe Scarborough asserts—his  "smackdowns with the English language." Assertions of these kinds are willfully blind to Bush's perfectly good academic record, and to the fact that he was elected as president not once, but twice, by the American people. Were tens of millions of voting Americans missing something that only Scarborough (and the like) could see? The same is true for the belief that Joe Biden is a "dope," usually expressed by opponents on the right who are reacting to a vice-presidential "gaffe" or two, but sometimes subscribed to by liberals as well, as in this editorial from the New York Daily News

3. Subjective Perception in Need of a Reality Check

Here we branch out into fields other than politics. Take the growing perception that India is a superpower. The reality: The country can barely organize the Commonwealth Games, a podunk sporting event that has no business to exist anymore. Or DDT, anathematized by greens and environmentalists ever since Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, way back in 1962, in which she linked the pesticide to the deaths of birds. The reality: It may be one of the world's greatest public-health success stories.   

The business world provides us with numerous examples of beliefs that are as widespread as they are injudicious, or misinformed. To take but a few: that Goldman executives are overpaid; that bonds are safe; and that Google's Eric Schmidt is a genius.   

Goldman rakes in a vast amount, that is true. But they actually do something for the pay. Everyone forgets that they offer a valuable function for clients, providing access to capital to the stock and bond market. This involves sales and trading, and all manner of international relations. They raise billions and billions and take a 2 to 5 percent piece as a fee. Everyone thinks they just sit around in Armani suits and collect money, which is nonsense. Theirs is a high-stress milieu, which requires a level of skill and experience very few have to offer.

Are bonds safe, as perceptions hold? A 10-year Treasury bond currently pays or yields just about 2.5 percent. People are buying them or barreling into bond funds because most believe that Treasuries are safe: Heck, they're backed by the U.S. government! But if inflation starts to rise, rates could go up. Bond values have an inverse rate with their yield: If rates rise to 3.5 percent, those 2.5 percent-yielding bonds drop in value (because folks can buy new ones that pay 3.5 percent, so the 2.5 percent yielding ones are worth less).  

And Schmidt? To get a sense of his judgment: While at Sun Microsystems, he was the executive who fought against a project known as Oak, which later became known as Java, which is a major language of the entire Internet—and which Oracle (who bought Sun) is suing the pants off Google for using without paying enough for it.

4. Sheer, Unvarnished Ignorance  

This last category is the least complex, but arguably the most depressing. It deals with simple ignorance and benightedness, an incompleteness of education, a widespread failure to absorb knowledge. Every country has a percentage of people who do not know the answer to basic questions, and in some countries—particularly those in the Third World, where education is not widely available—the percentage will be very high. In America, however, there is a stubborn strain of vacuous unawareness that reflects no credit on American society. How to digest the fact that 24 percent of Americans do not know who their country won its independence from? Or that only 40 percent of Americans believe in evolution?   

On reflection, I am less worried by the fact that a fifth of the inhabitants of this great country believe that Obama is Muslim than by the fact that 60 percent of them are unwilling, or unable, to accept the scientific basis of evolution. I suspect that Obama, too—for all his personal angst over the Muslim aspersion—will be with squarely with me on this one. Political bias can be a fleeting sickness; profound ignorance, on the other hand, can be incurable. 

Tunku Varadarajan is a national affairs correspondent and writer at large for The Daily Beast. He is also the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow in Journalism at Stanford's Hoover Institution and a professor at NYU's Stern Business School. He is a former assistant managing editor at The Wall Street Journal. (Follow him on Twitter here.)