The Meme that United the World
Why would a nine-year-old Gallup poll suddenly emerge on Digg Science earlier this week as if it were news? This happens on Digg sometimes -- it has happened on this site, too, I must confess -- where a news story is found to be so compelling and so in line with the kinds of things that a particular blogger (or Digger) wants to write about that the enthusiastic blogger (or Digger) goes at it without noticing the date. It then takes an astute commenter to point out the vintage of the news item in question.
The nine-year-old Gallup poll reveals that nearly 20% of Americans believe (or at least believed back then) that the Sun revolves around the Earth. So what makes the story so compelling is that it falls in line with a meme that is (almost) universally loved, to wit:
Americans are stupid.
Now you'll see a lot of variations on this, particularly from our brethren across the pond who are quick to point out that Americans are ignorant fundamentalists, racist louts, provincial rednecks, etc. But the underlying theme of stupidity is always there. However, what makes the "Americans are stupid" meme so effective is that it's beloved not just by Europeans (and to a lesser extent Asians, Africans, and others) but by many if not most Americans!
In fact, I daresay that the Digger who got all enthusiastic upon finding this piece is most likely an American, and certainly many of the frothy commenters who could barely restrain their glee upon reading this news are also Americans. Now these folks might not necessarily agree with the blanket statement that "Americans are stupid." They might prefer "Americans are stupid compared to Europeans," or better yet, "Red-State Americans are stupid," or something like that. But again, the underlying premise remains.
Nor would I suggest that buying into this meme is strictly a blue-state or left-of-center affair. Conservatives need this meme to argue for school choice, or -- if they are of a more paleo variety -- just to argue that the world (especially these here United States) is going to hell in a handbasket.
I have pointed out before that the press and popular media love this meme. It's always good for a provocative headline or a special three-part series during sweeps week. Jay Leno has practically made a sub-career out of exploiting it. And there can be no question that the advertising industry buys into it wholesale -- essentially willing it to be true.
I have no particular interest in arguing the merits of this meme. Like its sister, "America is evil," it's an extremely subjective proposition. It would be hard to convince anyone who buys into it that it is false, notwithstanding the fact that most of the "proof" offered up on behalf of it is pretty shaky. For example, in the Gallup article linked above, we read the following:
In the new poll, about four out of five Americans (79%) correctly respond that the earth revolves around the sun, while 18% say it is the other way around. These results are comparable to those found in Germany when a similar question was asked there in 1996; in response to that poll, 74% of Germans gave the correct answer, while 16% thought the sun revolved around the earth, and 10% said they didn't know. When the question was asked in Great Britain that same year, 67% answered correctly, 19% answered incorrectly, and 14% didn't know.
So the US actually scored higher on this question than Germany or Great Britain. If we want to generalize from these kinds of results (which is probably a bad idea anyway), then we're stuck with "Americans are stupid, but not as stupid as German and Brits." But nobody seems to read this story to say that. (Although it is very much to the credit of the Digg community that a number of commenters pointed out this discrepancy.)
Moreover, the meme is generally not considered something that has to be proven at all. It is usually just assumed to be true. Consider this from the Wall Street Journal Business Technology blog, reflecting on the surprising finding that many Americans have a moral objection to nanotechnology:
Our first reaction was that 70% of people must not know what nanotechnology is – President Bush, who has openly relied on moral views to shape his scientific agenda, has made nanotechnology one of his scientific priorities, after all. And Dietram Scheufele, the U of W professor who led the survey, agrees to a point. People’s understanding of what nanotechnology is hasn’t advanced much over the last few years, he tells the Business Technology Blog. “So people rely on mental shortcuts,” lumping nanotechnology in with other new technologies like stem cell research and genetically modified foods, he tells us. The same people who object to those fields – often on religious reasons – object to nanotechnology. (Incidentally, the heathen Europeans are just fine with nanotechnology.)
See how deftly it's done? Stupid religious Americans, clever "heathen" Europeans. Unfortunately, in the context, this doesn't make a heck of a lot of sense. Americans are opposed to stem cell research because we're ignorant religious bigots. Okay, sure. But we're opposed to nanotechnology for the same reasons? And GM foods?
GM foods? Now wait a second...a lot of Europeans are opposed to GM foods. I bet they would even say it's on moral grounds! Yet somehow, they manage to pull that off without being either 1) religious or -- more importantly -- 2) stupid. Personally, I think being morally opposed to GM foods is kind of stupid, and being "morally" opposed to nanotechnology is idiotic. However, I don't see how American stupidity is dumber than European stupidity; one may be informed by religious belief, the other by a paranoid superstitious dread of scientific progress. Advantage: Europe? If you say so.
But ultimately none of that matters because -- like other memes -- "Americans are stupid" is an idea that is easily and readily copied; it tends to be "sticky," and it seems to be encoded with an implied (if not an outright) "pass it on." People don't believe that "Americans are stupid" primarily because it's true; rather, it is accepted as true because it is useful. As noted above, it can serve as the rationale for any of a number of political positions; it has great attention-getting value; it has great entertainment value, and -- for non-Americans, anway -- it provides a kind of self-aggrandizement (or at least self-validation) function: "Americans are stupid (unlike us)."
I think for many Europeans, this meme serves all of those purposes at once. No wonder it is so cherished there.
All well and good, I suppose. It's nice that virtually the entire world can agree on something, even if that something is that I'm an idiot. Still, when you consider what a fundamental concept stickiness is to outfits like Digg -- or to the blogosphere -- you can't help but wonder where the truth is in all the information we're pushing around here on version 2.0 of the Web.
Is truth too lofty a goal for Web 2.0 content? Or was it always just too lofty a goal for human discourse?
Is usefulness enough?
UPDATE: Thanks for the link, Glenn. Related thoughts here.