The few who know

I did not even know there was chestnut cream on top of Mont Blanc! What is my head filled with?

I am not even talking about esoteric knowledge here, just plain ordinary things that people supposedly learn in high school:  Does radar use sound waves, do antibiotics cure a common cold? Obviously if you ask 1000 coins about this, you will get about 500 yes and 500 no. If you ask a large number of Americans the same, you will get about 55%, usually but not necessarily of the right answer.

55% may sound a decent number.  If 55% of adult Americans know that radar uses radio waves (electromagnetic waves), then high school teachers may still be able to pat themselves on the back. But unfortunately, it is not so well. Remember how we got almost the same result from flipping a coin? Well, not exactly the same result.  We need to find a number that, together with half of the rest, produces 55%.  Or, for the people who don’t think like normal people, X+(100-X)/2=55.  In any case, we find that if 10% of the population actually know the answer, and half of the other 90% are right by pure luck, this gives the result shown in real life.

This also holds true for more complex equations. For instance, there recently was a study showing that 18% of polled Americans thought President Obama was a Muslim, while half did not know. That leaves about a third knowing that he is officially a Christian.  (There was, as you may remember, quite some controversy about the pastor of the church he used to attend, one Reverend Jeremiah Wright.) So, it is obvious that the “Don’t know” fraction should be larger, but should it be larger by 18%?  No, according to our coin toss theory, it should be larger by about 36%.  If the 18% who got it wrong had bad luck, then there would also be 18% with good luck, as it were, leaving only about 15% actually knowing the professed religion of their president.

(Arguably this may be a good thing, since the US officially has a separation between church and state. But as an expression of the overwhelming ignorance of publicly known facts, as a part of a great pattern of “Don’t know, don’t care as long as I can’t eat it or have sex with it”, it is somewhat more sinister.)

How did it end up like that? Well, as I recently wrote, people are stupid and crazy as part of a long-standing tradition going back as far as we can follow. There has been some pressure on some people to be smart and sane, but not many. For most, it was good enough to till the soil and don’t stand out from the crowd.

Contrary to appearances, modern journalism is not actually trying to fix the problem, but make money off it. If you look objectively at the “news”, you will find that much of it is actually more like pornography, except with Wrath instead of Lust.  Or sometimes both.  But the point is, it aims to excite rather than inform, much less elevate to a higher perspective.

Let me take an example that has made the rounds in social media lately. Evidently a large American retail chain has given a generous donation to a political group that supports a candidate who opposes gay marriage. Outrage abounds.

Now, it so happens that in the US (but not everywhere else) the politicians who oppose gay marriage are generally those who promote business-friendly legislation as well. The history of this goes well beyond the bounds of this essay. The businessmen probably did not even consider that anyone would think they had an opinion on gay marriage. Why should they? It is rare even in the countries where it has been legal for years, and it does not drastically alter the shopping habits of those involved. It is highly unlikely that a supermarket chain would be able to notice the tiniest blip on their bottom line in any case.

But “business donates to business-friendly politician” is not a headline suited to create outrage. And outrage is what people want, so that’s what they get.  The fact is that the journalists and their readers are both immersing themselves in hellish thoughts and creating suffering for themselves. But at least it is exciting. People love that. They would rather suffer than be bored.  How a human can be bored while still having all its limbs and senses is something we will never know, we who write online journals.  If we had the capacity for boredom, we would not have the capacity for writing, and the other way around.

And there you have it: The people who create opinions are somewhere in the range of 1-10% of the population, depending on how generous your definition. It is not a long shot that these are the same people who know random unnecessary things. And write about them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *