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A look at the dumbing-down of the US and how Canada may not be far behind

VANCOUVER (NEWS1130) – Is the United States is being overrun by a wave of anti-science, anti-intellectual thinking?

This week’s issue of Maclean’s is looking at the dumbing-down of America and whether we are at risk of the same trend North of 49.

Sure, we Canadians love to make fun of our powerful neighbours, but an Associated Press poll suggests there might be good reason.

“It’s an unwillingness to think that manifests itself across a whole society,” says Jonathan Gatehouse, senior writer at Maclean’s.

“If you look at how many Americans said last year that they have not read a single book, it’s almost a quarter of the people in the United States. Not too many years ago, it was only eight per cent. You have standardized tests in schools where Americans lag behind nations… [including] Canada and most European nations.”

Gatehouse says it certainly fuels Canada’s other national sport.

“We do take some not-so-hidden pleasure in looking down our noses at Americans but there have been a lot of developments in America lately that suggest they are on the path to ruin; they are embracing the stupid. It’s across a whole spectrum of political ideas and policies, running away from simple solutions to their problems in favour of bumper-sticker simplicities and blind faith,” he tells News1130.

But before we get too smug with our smarter-than-thou attitudes, maybe we should take a good, hard look in the mirror.

“This is a warning for Canadians, absolutely,” says Gatehouse. “We are subject to many of the same trends that the United States is, we are awash in the same popular culture — the same stupid popular culture, quite frankly. If we continue to follow their lead, we’ll find ourselves in the same place.”

Canadians may be baffled by American gun control and debates over health care, but there are some similarities shared on both sides of the border and Gatehouse suggest it is a slippery slope.

“Look at how people get information, how they absorb it and what sort of information they’re looking for now. We’ve got more choices and more sources than have ever been available to people and yet what are they using it for? They’re using the power of the Internet to watch LOL cat videos and search out what’s happened to Kim Kardashian. It’s not edifying.”

And Gatehouse says when people do search out news sources, they search for stories that reinforce pre-existing biases. “They’re not looking for the other side of a story or to inform themselves factually.”

Still, the AP poll does suggest anti-intellectualism and anti-science is truly running rampant south of the border.

“One of the big problems identified is that many Americans fundamentally distrust science, and it’s a trend that’s accelerating. It started off as worries about things like climate science but it has become a whole host of things: whether vaccines are effective, whether evolution ever happened, whether the Big Bang is a theory or a reality. Its amazing.”

The good news (such as it is) is that 69 per cent actually believe in DNA, and 82 per cent now agree that smoking causes cancer.

Gatehouse believes there is a lesson here for Canadians.

“American politicians pretend that they are not elite, that they are not smart, that there’s something suspicious about knowledge and expertise. Thankfully, in Canada we have, at least to some extent, avoided that trend. There are people who know things, who have expert opinions and knowledgeable advice. Maybe we should listen to them, especially on complex problems.”

Is there a path out for Americans? Perhaps. But Gatehouse says their political system is throwing up roadblocks.

“It’s a system that rewards this sort of behaviour and encourages it. In a two-party system, you’ve got both parties playing to the extremes, trying to motivate the few people who still vote.”

And when you look at the complex problems that America faces, it is daunting.

“Consider gun deaths,” says Gatehouse. “There have been more than more 30 school shootings since Columbine and mostly, the reaction to that has been to encourage more people to arm themselves and to carry guns into places like schools. That makes no sense whatsoever. The crime rate is at a 40-year low, [so] it’s not that people aren’t safer. It’s that more and more people that shouldn’t have guns actually have them.”

Gatehouse says if ignorance is contagious, maybe it’s time to put the United States in quarantine.