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COLUMN: The decline of the inquiring mind

Faculty Voices

Published: Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Updated: Wednesday, September 8, 2010 13:09

It used to be that "inquiring minds want to know." The National Enquirer built

America's most successful supermarket tabloid on that premise.

    So what is it these days, when there's more information available at a

mouse-click or the end of a tweet than any sane inquiring mind can possibly absorb?

    Why are we getting dumber – or at least less well-informed – than we used to be?

Consider these factoids:

    • 81%  – American households with Internet.

    • 3,518 – Hours/year U.S. adults and teens spend consuming mass media.

    • 18 – Hours/week the average American spends online.

    • 7.5 – Hours/day kids 8-18 spend online.

    • 55-65 – Age of fastest growing Facebook demographic.

    • 33% – Women 18-34 who say they check Facebook before brushing their teeth

in the morning.

    By most measures, we are the most connected people ever. So why aren't we

the best informed society ever? Clearly, we are not:

    • 27% – Americans who believe Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. (41% of

registered Republicans).

    • 18% – Those who think Obama is a Muslim (34% of Republicans).

    • 47% – Americans who rate Fox News "most trusted."

    • 33% – Americans under 30 who get news primarily from late-night talk shows.

    • 25% – Americans 18-24 who don't read/watch/listen to any news daily.

    In the age of instant information, why are we becoming such ill-informed sheep?

Part of the answer might relate to that last factoid: Declining news habits, new

technologies and the economic downturn since 2008 have killed off more than 100 daily

U.S. newspapers over the past 18 months, and those that survive are hanging on by a


    Even The New York Times ("All the News That's Fit to Print") is flirting with

bankruptcy, and "America's Newspaper" USA Today just cut about 130 newsroom

positions. Last week, Utah's oldest daily newspaper, The Deseret News, fired almost half

its newsroom staff (five Aggies lost their jobs), and will partner with KSL-TV to provide

more with less.

    But that's not why Americans are less informed than they used to be.

    The failing health of the news business – newspapers, news magazines, TV

news – may be a canary in the social mineshaft that indicates a loss of oxygen to

our collective brains, but it's not the cause of citizen ignorance. In the past decade,

understanding of public policy has declined, and disengagement in informed debate on

important societal issues has increased, until fewer and fewer people have any idea why

they believe the sometimes wacko things they do.

    The problem is a combination of intellectual laziness, a lack of curiosity,

disengagement in our communities, plus technological, economic and political factors

that have converged to make us more ignorant of the world around us – generally and specifically – despite more access to information than ever. What we're lacking is the

ability to discern the difference between rumor and information, between informed

opinion and bug-eyed rant, between news and entertainment.

    "Journalists, and those who critique them, like to believe that facts conquer all.

    If the press reports quickly, fully and responsibly, myths will be dispelled, scales will fall

from eyes, and society will be guided along the path of reason," writes Time columnist

James Poneiwozik.

    But Americans seem less able to differentiate between truth and fiction than

they once were. Today, instead of making us better informed and more capable

of informed self-governance, the constant barrage from smart phones and instant

Tweets and Facebook friends and viral videos baffles and confuses us, making us either

apathetic or angry enough to march on Washington.

    But angry about what? That the president is a foreign-born Muslim? (False) That

social justice is code for socialism or fascism? (Glenn Beck) That illegal immigrants are

being beheaded in Arizona? (False) That immigrants come to American not for freedom

and opportunity, but to have "anchor babies" and cheat us out of social services?


    Where does this stuff come from? It's the echo chamber of blogs and tweets

and twits, pundits and ranters on TV and online who concoct and repeat myths, lies

and damned lies, either just for fun or out of ideological malice – lies that are absorbed

wholesale by people too befuddled by all the noise to apply critical thinking and

skepticism. For them, addicted and abducted by what passes for "fair and balanced"

information these days, believing the pundits (with whom they tend to agree in the first

place) is just easier than thinking for themselves.

    "Rumors and conspiracy theories are oddly comforting," Poneiwozik says. "They

simplify a complex world – one that experts constantly get wrong."

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