In a comment on a recent post, it was claimed that:
“We are moving into a socio-economic system characterised by Keynesian economics, general licentiousness and mass rootless ignorance.”
The Keynesian economics could certainly be disputed, but I won’t focus on that. The relative ‘licentiousness’ is clearly true for certain sorts of activities, with the dispute being over the value or otherwise of such a development. But what does interest me is the ‘mass ignorance’.
It’s a sentiment you can observe quite widely; castigations of the mass media and popular culture, frenzied lamentations of the shocking ignorance of the average person. The same commenter links this point to “Jerry Springer”.
Now, I have no objection to cultural critique, but this sort of claim strongly implies that this ignorance is ‘new’ – we are ‘moving into’ rather than ‘emerging out of’ mass ignorance. At some presumed point in the past, we are to understand, the overall state of human learning was more respectable.
This strikes me as very implausible. A few reasons include:
- Global literacy is higher than at any time in history;
- Average IQs have been rising steadily for some time;
- The quantity of information available in pretty much every discipline is greater than ever, often radically;
- The average person’s technical ability to access this information is greater than ever, often radically.
Now this sort of a question is incredibly hard to get precision on – what exactly is ‘ignorance’? How is it to be measured? But these are four of the things that would come to mind, if I were to ask myself what the most reliably and easily-measured indicators might be. I don’t really see any contrary indicators – that is, any remotely reliable ways to measure some important component of ‘ignorance’ and ‘knowledge’ that gives a different impression.
So given this, I can only see the sort of sentiments mentioned earlier as unfounded gripes without proper perspective.
But I’m no expert on the data or the techniques of measurement. Are there any rigorous ways to show (or even suggest – because yes, a rigorous suggestion is quite possible. For instance, literacy can be fairly reliably known to have increased, but this only suggests, and doesn’t prove, a greater diffusion of knowledge) a decline in the knowledge – or even wisdom – of ‘people’?