The Speculist: The Meme that United the World


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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.


Interesting post. I think you could replace the "Americans are Stupid" meme with "Blondes are Stupid" and end up with the same reason for the meme stickiness.


I believe the current research demonstrates the real blondes have higher IQs as a population than other hair colors.

So, people copy those of whom they are jealous and then they bad mouth them on top of it.

The Ego needs to be different.

Pick any topic - education, country, sect, race, etc. The human species has a mind that is sick from the ego. If they are not different then the ego dies and we all become one.

Awake to a new earth.


The results of this survey sound unlikely enough that I'd like to wait until it's been replicated before believing it.

"Our first reaction was that 70% of people must not know what nanotechnology is . . ."

I don't think anyone knows what "nanotechnology" is. The term has been so widely and egregiously misused that it has ceased to mean anything specific.

Or the concept most Americans understand about Nanotech is the grey goo scenario and they don't find it morally acceptable to risk that until we have a way to shut the things off. We don't know, because they didn't ask (or at least tell us) the real question: why? If you got a study that said 70% of the French were morally opposed to oranges, you'd want to know why.

Incidentally, since that "science" writer doesn't bother to give us the title or the authors of that study its hard to go look it up ourselves. I want to know what the questions were, how they were asked, and what EXACTLY the answers given were before I come to a conclusion. That's science, Mr. Worthen.

"The sun revolves around the earth" isn't necessarily wrong either. Relative to the earth, the sun does indeed follow a path revolving around the earth. Relative to the sun, the earth revolves around the sun. Relative to an imaginary fixed point in space, the sun is following a trajectory and the earth sort of weaving around it.

For most earthbound purposes, taking the sun as revolving around the earth is actually a better answer.

phil, %religious in pop by country has a negative correlate with median IQ...except in america.
i wonder if the hidden variable might be nutrition.....or i suppose it could be partly brain drain, from 3rd world countries to america.
even as we are universaly despised we are still the destination of choice.

What I see in my fellow Americans that always gets my goat is an ignorance of our country's history and the principles on which it was founded. This has little to do with stupidity except with regard to having an understanding about how life should be lived.

Comments from peoples of other nations and continents reflect their ignorance and unexamined preference for their collectivism. They probably will never understand what makes us different. Whenever this issue comes up I remember the passages from De Toqueville where he goes at some length to describe how he saw such a difference in the concept of honor among the elite between Europe and America. In Europe, it was not honorable for an aristocrat to 'work' whereas in America it made no difference what wealth one had attained (we had no aristocrats) it would still be dishonorable to shirk honest work.

Now we obviously have quite a mix of people in the United States, but we still have a core that knows where we came from and considers that heritage worthy.

@ MikeTheLibrarian:

Relative motion and apparent motion are not the same. The claim that the sun revolves around the earth is objectively false and is a case of apparent motion. Relative motion implies a consistent inertial frame.

I spend a good deal of time abroad, and I'm struck by the paradox of the standard critiques of America -- often presented by the same person in the same conversation.

That is, we are uncultured buffoons who -- by luck or chicanery, I guess -- became a malign collosus bestriding the planet.

Go figure.

Elite educated Europeans are leaving Europe in droves for less cultured, more buffoonish lands such as Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. And the US too. Why? Why indeed.

I suspect this has also become current because there's a new book out called The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby. She had an essay in maybe the NYT or the Washington Post a couple weeks ago that summarized her thesis, which says that not only are Americans stupid, they're proud of it. A review copy fell into my hands a month ago, but after 15 minutes with it I put it aside, disappointed. Her own smugness, stridency and leftism were tiresome.

Check out this article in The Times, in which she describes the origin of the book--supposedly she heard two guys discussing 9/11: “This is just like Pearl Harbor,” one of the men said. The other asked, “What is Pearl Harbor?” “That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War,” the first man replied.
She decides to write the book.

Maybe those guys were genuinely stupid; but I have to wonder if Jacoby is simply too arrogant to hear one guy teasing another for saying something obvious, and the other trying to recover his dignity by adding to the absurdity; or one guy trying to crack a joke and lighten things up, and the other guy going along with it. You wouldn't expect a smug elitest to approach the guys and actually find out what they believe, and apparently that is consistent with what occurred.

Good, honest post. Now I would suggest an attack on the other irritating meme "We are much fairer and wiser than past generations"

@Cpl Punishment

That's... true, but what does it have to do with the price of oranges in France?

The Corporal and the Librarian are having an interesting argument. We go around the sun: how do you know that? Can you, yourself, prove it? We 'know' it because we 'learned' it in 'science' class. It's revealed knowledge. Most people in Europe and Asia (and them other places I learnt about in 'geography' class) aren't scientific thinkers, just apt prattlers. Americans (particularly, I'm told Missourians) once had the reputation of being both skeptical and being able to reason from observation. Nowadays, we, like everyone else, tend to adopt a position and then go shopping for someone else's 'science' to back it up. I put this down to the ascendancy of the biggest 'science' of all: Political Science.

One interesting aspect to the survey is that the percentage of people in different countries who get the earth/sun question wrong is roughly the same. The difference is in the number who 'don't know' or 'don't answer'. Maybe the correct meme is 'Americans are arrogant', since we are sure we know the answer and will not admit to not knowing. :)

I am a blond American and I know what nanotechnology is. It is what makes Glenn Reynolds trousers stain resistant.

I also teach English in China and will use this article my Culture class this term if you don't mind.


TheLibrarian is not having that argument. Yahonza is having that argument. TheLibrarian accepts that we travel around the sun in a slightly wonky elliptical orbit.

If you haven't had a look at Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences, please do so, and love all the humans. I don't have any confidence in intelligence measuring test. Has anyone seen that quick recall monkey in the news? I am impressed, but I noticed those long fingers give him (or her?) an advantage.

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