What percent of Americans are rational?

[ I was inspired to write this post by the best book I’ve ever on American’s truly crazy beliefs from evangelistic Christianity to astrology, Kurt Andersen’s “Fantasyland: How America went Haywire: a 500-year history” It has 440 pages of the lunatic ideas Americans have believed since the first nutty Christians arrived here 500 years ago. 

But this book is much more than the history of irrationality, it is also one off the best history books I’ve ever read, summarized with such humor and original insights that they seem new even if you know about a given topic.

I’ve been accused of being overly critical of the right-wing and evangelists. But after seeing the 2012 movie about Hanna Arendt, I think I’ve come closer to understanding why I think rationality is so very important. This is what I just added to my post What percent of Americans are rational?

Now why should we care about irrationality, what’s the big deal in believing there’s a fat old “Santa Claus” God in the sky noting down every time you’re naughty or nice in his trillion mile high book of the trillions of intelligent beings he watches across the universe every second of the day, for trillions of years?

I believe Hannah Arendt nailed it in her epic books about the nature of evil.

For me, one of her greatest insights is the “banality of evil” which she came to after reporting on the Nazi Eichmann’s trial for the New Yorker in 1959. She is horrified by the fact that he is not a scary monster — he could be any of us. What makes him evil is that he has stopped thinking. He has completely abandoned his morality. This is why he can do part of the work of sending millions to concentration camps. He is just following orders.

Over 80% of evangelicals voted for Trump. They knew he didn’t pay thousands of workers, grabbed women’s asses, ran casinos in New Jersey, hung out with gangsters, at one point was $1 billion in debt because he lied to the lending banks about what he’d borrowed elsewhere (and wasn’t driven out of business by them because they figured that getting some income from his hotels was better than nothing), that he lied constantly, was a bully, and much more. But many of them said they held their noses and voted for Trump, because that’s what their religious and political leaders told them to do. They were just obeying orders…

If this isn’t the epitome of not thinking and abandoning one’s moral core, I don’t know what is. Same goes for not giving any pushback to the National Rifle Association about reasonable gun regulations. Holier-than-though want to turn the Constitution into Biblical Law people by the millions not thinking and abandoning their moral core.

This often leads to war. I’ve often thought the Limbaugh / Fox news breeds a beyond reason hatred of liberals, similar to the derogatory terms armies call their opponents. We haven’t gone to war yet, but already 200 innocent people have been jailed over a 10-year-long witch hunt of the evangelists to find satanic cult baby killers and rapists. And not one word of “we’re sorry” from them. Compare that with the several months of the Salem witch trials and dismay for the past three centuries of how this could have ever happened and determination that it will never happen again.

The basic premise of this book is:
“What’s problematic is going overboard, letting the subjective entirely override the objective, people thinking and acting as if opinions and feelings were just as true as facts. The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, every individual free to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. Probably two-thirds of Americans are more irrational than most of the other two billion people in the rich world. Many of us believe, really believe, in the supernatural and miraculous, in Satan on Earth now, and a several-thousand-year-old story of life’s instantaneous creation rather than evolution.  We believe the government and other co-conspirators are hiding all sorts of monstrous truths from us concerning assassinations, extraterrestrials, the genesis of AIDS, the 9/11 attacks, the dangers of vaccines, and so much more.  We have passed through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole. America has mutated into Fantasyland”.

Andersen estimates that only a third of us are more or less solidly reality-based.  The polls below show that he may be too kind. One poll concludes that only 27% are rational.

I think it’s even less than that, because there isn’t any survey that covers all the areas of ignorance about reality.  No pollster has ever combined the three categories of religious / paranormal / supernatural beliefs, conspiracy theories, and National Science Foundation questions about basic knowledge of the world (26% of Americans think the sun revolves around the Earth, only 48% know that human beings developed from earlier species of animals).

What would be interesting is if a survey were done testing all nutty beliefs, not just certain segments of them.

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What percent of Americans are rational?

In a really strict sense none of us are 100% rational due to cognitive biases, framing effects, fallacies and so on (wiki lists over 250 of these). To be human is to be irrational. But we’re all capable of improving our critical thinking skills and our understanding of the world.

If I included ignorance as irrational, then we’d all fail the test, since there’s not enough time in the world to know everything about everything.

Though perhaps there are some forms of ignorance that can be more harmful than others. For instance, political ignorance can lead to dictators and incompetent leaders being elected. Americans are spectacularly ignorant–only a third can name all three branches of government, a single Supreme Court justice, any 1st amendment rights, which party controls Congress, what congress has done recently, and a candidates policies at election time.

So I’ll stick with the paranormal, pseudoscience, scientific knowledge, and conspiracy beliefs.

A Gallup poll in 2005, “Three in four Americans believe in Paranormal”, is one of the few to ask how many believed in any of these: ESP, Haunted Houses, Ghosts, Telepathy, Clairvoyance, Astrology, communication with the dead is possible, Witches, reincarnation, Channeling (22% in 5 plus, 32% in 4, 57% in 2, 1% in all 10).

The result was that 73% believed one or more of them.

Only 27% of Americans thought none of them were true.

And it might have been even lower if irrational beliefs had been expanded to include conspiracy theories, scientific understanding, evolution, climate change, creationism, the Devil, Hell, angels, miracles, and other beliefs.

Paranormal and supernatural beliefs. 

Multiple numbers reflect results from several surveys:

  1. Angels: 77%,  72%, 72%   88% of Christians, 95% of evangelical Christians
  2. Astrology: 25%, 26%, 29%
  3. Channeling: 9%
  4. Civil war wasn’t about slavery but states’ rights: 48%
  5. Climate Change not due to man-made activities: 40%
  6. Clairvoyance: 26%
  7. Communication with the dead is possible: 21%
  8. Creationism: 36%
  9. Devil: 61%, 60%, 58%
  10. ESP: 41%
  11. Ghosts: 34%, 42%, 42%
  12. Haunted Houses: 37%
  13. Heaven: 71%, 75%
  14. Hell: 64%, 61%
  15. Jesus born of a virgin: 73%, 61%, 57%
  16. Jesus is God or son of God: 73%, 68%
  17. Jesus’s resurrection: 70%, 65%
  18. Life after death: 71%, 64%
  19. Miracles: 76%, 72%
  20. Reincarnation: 21%, 20%, 24%
  21. Sun revolves around the Earth: 25%
  22. Telepathy: 31%
  23. UFOs: 34%, 32%, 36%, extraterrestrial beings have visited 24%
  24. Vaccines cause autism: 56%
  25. Witches: 21%, 23%, 26%

Conspiracy theories  (Chapman 2016)

Only 26% of Americans disagreed with all 9 conspiracy theories below, and 33% even believed in a made-up conspiracy researchers called “The North Dakota Crash”. Until recently, I would have said the JFK government concealing was false, but the FBI and CIA have held back 3,600 documents plus in the past, another 35,000 were released only in part (Politico 2017). The reason the FBI and CIA may have been reluctant to release them is that it shows how incompetent they were, others have interpreted the papers as showing the FBI and CIA know Oswald intended to kill Kennedy and did nothing about it.

The government is concealing what they know about….

  1. The 9/11 attacks 54.3%
  2. The JFK assassination 49.6%
  3. Alien encounters 42.6%
  4. Global warming 42.1%
  5. Plans for a one world government  32.9%
  6. Obama’s birth certificate 30.2%
  7. The origin of the AIDs virus 20.1%
  8. Death of supreme court justice Scalia 27.8%
  9. The moon landing  24.2%

People who believed in the highest number of conspiracies are also more likely to believe that “The World Will End in My Lifetime”, as well as more likely to be fearful of government, less trusting of other people, and more likely to take actions (i.e. buying a gun) due to their fears.

National Science Foundation Questions

Only 65% were answered correctly in 2014.  The questions below are followed by correct answer and the percent who got it right:

  1. The center of the Earth is very hot. True 84%
  2. The continents have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move. True 83%
  3. Does the Earth go around the sun, or does the sun go around the Earth? Earth around sun 74%
  4. All radioactivity is man-made. True or false? False 72%
  5. Electrons are smaller than atoms. True or false? True 53%
  6. Lasers work by focusing sound waves. True or false? False 47%
  7. The universe began with a huge explosion. True or false? True 39%
  8. It’s the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or girl. True or false? True 63%
  9. Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria. True or false? False 51%
  10. Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals. True or false? True 48%

Not surprisingly, the higher the education level the greater the number of correct answers.

Education matters.  Look at how few scientists hold far right beliefs.  The least scientific disciplines have the least number of liberals.  For example, engineers memorize equations, they don’t have to constantly change their minds like scientists do in disciplines that require critical thinking and experimentation.  Getting creative with equations leads to bridge failures…  Economists shouldn’t have been included. 99% of them don’t believe in Limits to Growth and that we can grow forever on a finite planet.

U.S. academics tend towards liberal political views as this 2013-2014 survey of university faculty members reveals. Note differences between disciplines (Reardon 2016).

And finally, since President Trump is by far the most irrational president in U.S. history — remember — he’s the one who started the whole “Obama wasn’t born here” lie, and listens to Alex Jones, here’s a study by Baylor (2017). The researchers say that the core ethos of “Trumpism” is a new form of nationalism merging pro-Christian oratory with anti-Islam, anti-feminist, angi-globalist, and anti-government attitudes. Trump voter’s tend to be “very religious”, see Muslims as threats to America, view the United States as a Christian nation, believe in an Authoritative God, and value gender traditionalism.

The world

Below is a poll of over 17,000 adults all over the world (Ipsos 2017) asking if they think that Religion does more harm in the world than good.  I see YES, DOES MORE HARM as a sign of rationality.  The winning rational nations: congratulations Belgium, Germany, Spain, Australia, India, Sweden, Great Britain, France, Canada, Hungary, Argentina, Poland, Italy, Serbia, Mexico, and Turkey.  All of these 15 nations who scored higher than the U.S. But congratulations to the 44% of Americans who answered correctly.

Surveys, references

AP / GFK. December 8-12, 2011. Poll in 2011. Associated Press.  1,000 interviews. Error: +/- 4%

Baylor. 2017. American values, mental health, and using technology in the age of trump. Baylor religion survey.

Chapman. October 11, 2016. What aren’t they telling us? Chapman University Survey of American Fears.

Gallup. 2005. Paranormal beliefs come (Super)naturally to some.

Gallup. 2005. Three in Four Americans believe in Paranormal.

Gallup. 2016. Most Americans still believe in God.

Harris Poll. 2009. What People Do and do not believe in.

Harris Poll. 2013. What do Americans Believe?

IPSOS. July 2017. Ipsos global poll: Two in three Australians think religion does more harm than good in the world.

National Science Foundation. 2015. Belief in the Paranormal or pseudoscience. Science and technology: public attitudes and public understand.

Politico. August 3, 2017. How the CIA Came to Doubt the Official Story of JFK’s Murder Newly released documents from long-secret Kennedy assassination files raise startling questions about what top agency officials knew and when they knew it. Politico.com.

Reardon 2016. Reardon, S. October 18, 2016. The scientists who support Donald Trump. Nature.


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