It’s ironic that in an age where we can get instant information — the Encyclopaedia Britannica on your cell phone — and yet a large number of Americans haven’t got a clue and are perfectly willing to believe something that is demonstrably false. It’s not just things like whether or not President Obama was born in Hawai’i or whether or not he’s a Christian, or whether or not it was his administration that pushed through the bank bailout and TARP (it was the Bush administration on both counts), or just simple stuff like the world is round. It’s the willful ignorance of people who, when faced with the facts, choose to listen to the lies.
It would be nice to dismiss the stupid things that Americans believe as harmless, the price of having such a large, messy democracy. Plenty of hate-filled partisans swore that Abraham Lincoln was a Catholic and Franklin Roosevelt was a Jew. So what if one-in-five believe the sun revolves around the earth, or aren’t sure from which country the United States gained its independence?
But false belief in weapons of mass-destruction led the United States to a trillion-dollar war. And trust in rising home value as a truism as reliable as a sunrise was a major contributor to the catastrophic collapse of the economy. At its worst extreme, a culture of misinformation can produce something like Iran, which is run by a Holocaust denier.
We are all creatures of habit. People choose what they want to believe if it fits into their little jigsaw puzzle of a mind; new information that doesn’t meet with the pattern is disturbing and disorienting. We want a simple explanation for the randomness and complexity of life. It explains religion, superstition, and reality TV. Paradoxically, the people who don’t do a lot of deep thinking are prone to believe complex theories of conspiracy and control by “others”; mysterious forces beyond our control that manipulate us from beyond, be it a magical superbeing in the clouds or a man in a glass booth who makes the noises coming out of a box on the table.
We find comfort in being able to say that we can’t control the things we really can. And it makes our lives that much easier when we can believe the lies rather than deal with the facts.