Last week, an interesting story flashed around the world’s media: in pretty much every country, men are much more knowledgeable about politics than women. Now, you might think that journalists would be disturbed at their failure in this regard. You might think there would be some public soul-searching on the part of both politicians and journalists about it. But of course there wasn’t. There didn’t need to be. After offering some glib, cheap remarks about why women tune out of politics more than men, we all moved on.
Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find a copy of the paper in question. I don’t really need to see it, though, to know that it’s beside the point. The more disturbing question is: does any plausible mass group hold enough knowledge on vital issues for us to really be able to argue that democracy is a viable form of government? The fact that women score lower than men is disturbing, but it’s much more disturbing that both men and women, in general, score extremely low on practically any relevant test of an important area of knowledge.
To see what I mean, consider the following question, which we’ll call the “seasons test”: what causes the seasons?
Although it’s quite possible that my readers are an unusually literate and knowledgeable bunch, statistically speaking, the majority of you probably don’t know the answer to this question. Very likely, the majority of journalists and politicians don’t know the answer to this question. It’s not beyond the realm of plausibility that numerous members of the Canadian Cabinet would only be able to answer this question after consulting their briefing notes, or at least Wikipedia, for some quick pointers.
Now you might say that it’s hardly relevant to our political affairs whether the majority know what causes the seasonal cycle or not, and in a narrow sense, that’s true. More broadly, however, there are a great number of very complex problems which our political system is widely expected to solve, and most of those problems require a solid elementary understanding of science. It’s a fairly safe bet that someone who doesn’t know what causes the seasons probably also couldn’t give a correct and coherent explanation, even a basic explanation, for the theory of global warming, whether they think the theory accurately describes the evidence or not.
You might also that that these sorts of correlations are meaningless. If it’s climate change that I’m concerned about, why not just skip to the chase and ask about that directly? The answers will be no less disturbing. No less a person than the deputy minister of the Environment Canada, asked by a Parliamentary committee to briefly explain the theory of climate change, stated not only that he couldn’t explain the theory itself, but that — I’ll quote him directly here — “they didn’t tell me I’d have to answer questions like that when I took this job.”
I decided to use the seasons test instead for two reasons. First, if the deputy minister really had been able to answer that question, he would have had to go into a considerable amount of detail to convincingly demonstrate that he really understood it. And climate change is such a hot-button issue that any politician or environment bureaucrat really should have a stock answer memorized by rote which they can offer, whether they really understand the issue or not. It’s alarming enough that the deputy minister didn’t have such an answer at the ready. It would be like having an education minister who couldn’t define literacy, or a health minister unsure of the difference between bacteria and viruses.
Second, and more importantly, the interesting thing about the seasons test — and arguably the deputy minister’s debacle of an appearance before the environment subcommittee — is that in a sense it makes very little difference whether you get the answer right or not, because statistically, it’s unlikely that most of your audience knows the correct answer either.
I suspect that climate change is no different than the seasons test in this regard. It’s just that at least for a probably quite brief period of time, the majority of Canadians think that climate change is probably real. Asked to explain why, they’d probably have much more difficulty forming a serious answer than they would answering the question of what causes the seasons. And I suspect their “answers” would prove equally, wildly, inaccurate.
All of this poses a disturbing question for our democracy. There are several policy problems which we have to get exactly right in order to ensure the survival of advanced civilization — problems like climate change. There are plenty of other problems which we should get right too, like healthcare and government transparency and women’s rights and aboriginal rights and gay rights, but these are minor, secondary issues compared to climate change. You could “solve” all of those issues to your satisfaction and still be up shit creek with respect to the climate.
Yet in a democracy, most of the people upon whom we rely to make the ultimate choices on these issues can’t pass the seasons test. Because they can’t pass it, and don’t think it’s relevant, they elect politicians who mostly fail the seasons test too. And because those representatives can’t pass the seasons test, they can’t and don’t demand that party leaders, Cabinet ministers, and other people in authority be able to pass the seasons test, either.
Thus we have government by ignorance. Homo ignoramus, you could call this little model of mine. It’s not that some politicians aren’t corrupt, conniving, and deceitful. They most certainly are. But they’re corrupt, conniving, and deceitful only within the narrow confines of what they think they know. Harper’s pro-pipeline ministers aren’t thinking that civilization-threatening climate change is coming but that we should cash in anyways while the fossil fuel casino is still open. They’re thinking that climate change is just some wacky, far-out notion from a bunch of kookish academics, without many truly serious real-world implications to speak of.
Because they may be corrupt, they may be deceitful, but they’re not suicidal. Neither are their supporters. It’s just that most of them can’t pass the seasons test. And even if they cheated by looking up the answer to that test, they would still lack the background knowledge necessary to answer even more important and serious questions.Tweet