The Speculist: What Are People Interested In? What Do They Know?

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What Are People Interested In? What Do They Know?

Lately the Boulder Futurists have been debating the future of persuasion, with considerable emphasis on what topics the news media chooses to cover, how this relates to the interests of advertisers, etc. Here's an interesting related piece, a Pew Research poll that shows how people's interest in various new topics has changed over the years.

Apparently only half as many people are interested in science as 20 years ago. This is potentially alarming, to be sure, but what I find more interesting is that public interest has gone down in virtually all of these subject areas. Our interest in man-made disasters has dropped 20%; our interest in natural disasters has dropped 25%. Even our interest in terrorism has only nudged up a point. Meanwhile, politics and crime have made some significant gains. But the only area with a rise anything like as steep as some of the other drops is money. Our interest in financial news has increased substantially.

I also note that, for all the hand-wringing about celebrity gossip, our interest in that subject has actually gone down 5%.

Initially I thought that what might be going on with that one is a distinction between celebrity news and celebrity scandals, which Pew doesn't make, but which the consumers of the deluge of celebrity information might. So people might truly be interested in a lot more celebrity fluff than they used to be, but balk at saying they have a strong interest in "scandals." But no: after I double-checked< I realized that there is a separate category for "Personalities and Entertainment." That had a big jump between 87 and 99, but has remained flat since then.

Overall, I think the list of available categories that Pew uses might have a lot to do with people's seeming lack of interest. For example, a survey-taker might focus on the "Science" part of "Science and Technology," and not realize that their interest in the latest electronic gizmos fits into that category. It should really be two different categories. Likewise, there's been a huge increase in interest in and coverage of nutrition, fitness, and in medicine overall. This all has to fit uncomfortably into a category called "Health and Safety." I note that the environment isn't really covered by any of Pew's categories, either. I think there are probably a lot more highly specialized categories of information for people to be interested in than there were even a few years ago, so if people express a lack of interest in these more general categories, it doesn't tell us a heck of a lot about how informed they are overall.

Then there's the argument about whether what people truly are interested in is as serious and worthwhile as what they used to be / should be. There is a tendency to think that people used to be a lot more serious than they are today, and that people today are idiots. These are probably valuable memes, in that they encourage smartness and seriousness. These memes are helped along their way by a sense of urgency. I could have fallen in line with that, by making my headline : "America Doomed: Evolution-Denying, Britney-Spears-Adoring, NASCAR-Watching, American-Idol-Addicted Consumer Zombies are Dragging Us Into a New Dark Ages with their Lack of Interest in Science," but that sort of thing:

1. Isn't really my style.

2. Is available abundantly elsewhere.

3. Doesn't really reflect what I believe.

Contrary to these highly useful memes, I tend to think that people are getting both smarter and more capable, thanks in large part to technology. Unfortunately, there are now so many areas in which people can have knowledge, it's only natural that apparent performance in traditional areas (like interest levels in standard topics in the Pew report) are going down. Meanwhile, it's never been easier to "prove" beyond a shadow of a doubt that people, especially Americans, are complete idiots, in part because ignorance can be packaged and broadcast like never before:

Funny thing is, I immediately thought of "Uganda" and "Uruguay," not the USA or the UK. Where does that put me on the ignorance scale?

No, I'm not going to argue that the individuals shown in that video are "smart in other areas" and so it's okay that they seem to know nothing about some very basic subjects. Rather, I'm going to to suggest that ignorance is the natural state of humanity, and that most of the world has lived neck-deep in it for most of human history. And it isn't just the US.

One bit of conventional wisdom has it that if you take a random letter written by a common soldier in the Civil War, you will find a better vocabulary and more sophisticated writing style than you are likely to get from a modern graduate student. Reading through a few such letters, it quickly becomes clear that writing skills varied a good deal among Civil War soldiers. It's only natural that the most eloquent and poetic of them are, say, featured in Ken Burns' documentaries. Still, there's no question that the best of them were pretty damn good, and were able to achieve a sophisticated writing style with a lot less formal education than we get today. But in an era when illiteracy rates were 5-10 times higher than they are today, you better believe that you would find serving side-by-side with these excellent writers men so rough and unschooled that they would make the people in that video look like Frasier Crane by comparison.

It's just that, 150 years ago, it wouldn't have occurred to anyone to make a show out of ignorance. But now we do, because it's "funny." It's especially funny for non-Americans, although Jay Leno's Jaywalking feature indicates that this sort of thing is highly amusing to American audiences, too. I can't figure out if that says something about what a good sense of humor Americans have, or whether it's just the same "People are getting stupid" meme I mentioned above, this time being carried along by humor and shame rather than fear.

But whatever the motivation, I reiterate that this sort of thing is a net positive for us. It plays up the need for smartness by pointing out a lack of it. I don't think people are less intelligent than they used to be; I think we've developed different skill and knowledge sets that aren't necessarily valued as highly as the traditional ones. We are deluged with information, consuming more of the stuff in a year than our ancestors did in a lifetime. It's no surprise that our mastery of certain things they had plenty of time to get good at would seem rather awkward and superficial in comparison.

Nor do I think people are fundamentally less serious than they used to be, although that argument might be harder to support. But it's also the less important of the two. So we're not as serious. Maybe they were too serious. Maybe our descendants will be more serious than we are. Does every trend have to portend the collapse of civilization? Plus, isn't it possible that humor and irony are natural defenses to the above-mentioned information deluge?

I don't have much patience for all the hand-wringing that goes on around how stupid and shallow people are or have become. But I remind myself that all that worrying is probably one of the drivers that keeps us moving forward. When people stop worrying about these things -- that's when it's probably time to start worrying.

Comments

Actually, in the video I was impressed by how polite the 'dumb' Americans were. You wouldn't get that kind of response on a British street I can tell you :(

Do "smart people" simply have a large working knowledgebase or are they able to quickly and correctly assess a situation from limited available information?
Does having access to Google make me smart? Does knowing how to _best use_ google make me smart? Having a larger working set of information is valuable only if there are efficient ways to integrate new information.
With a select number of generally applicable axioms, I can contribute reasonably well in basic knowledge use and will typically keep up to a medium difficulty level on a range of topics that I otherwise know nothing about. I don't know if that makes me smart per-se, but it does lend to being a smart ass quite often. :)

A related problem is the tendency to think of humans as "irrational" and then stop thinking further. For example, the so-called "Hanlon's Razor", "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity." Further, stupidity is often described as a force of nature, like hurricanes or gravity. The problem is that you still don't have insight into why the behavior occured.

As I see it, there is a great irony here. One of the few times, you should legimately anthromorphize something (namely treat a phenomenon as if it were a human being) yet we treat human beings as if they were black boxes which spits out random but "stupid" decisions.

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