Brave New World author Aldous Huxley used to amuse himself by reading up on water treatment systems, among others things.  He had an astoundingly comprehensive grasp of science and the arts, and may well have been the world’s last living generalist. Since his death in 1963, infoglut has outpaced us all, and today’s experts preside over deep, but narrowing, fiefdoms of expertise.

There’s an old joke that says a specialist is someone who knows more and more about less and less, until he knows everything about nothing. But when did full-on ignorance become a badge of pride among political leaders? During the recent debate in the US congress over the Internet bill SOPA (Stop Online Privacy Act), North Carolina Democratic representative Mel Watt professed his ignorance on copyright issues, saying that he was  “just as an old country boy” who didn’t fully grab this “complex stuff.”

The fact that Watts was the ‘Ranking Member of the Intellectual Property Subcommittee’ might make you wonder who’s actually in charge in the US legislative branch. (If the word ‘lobbyists” just sprang to mind, bingo.)

“Maybe we oughta ask some nerds what this really does,” said Utah Republican representative Jason Chaffetz of the SOPA bill. “… Let’s have a hearing, bring in the nerds.” As Daily Show host Jon Stewart observed, ‘nerd’ is just another word for ‘expert.’ It’s the pejorative term of choice by the uninformed to describe the informed.

Before his flameout in the Republican race, Herman Cain tried his own I’m-no-expert approach with limited success.  He took a preemptive strike against what he called “gotcha questions” by saying he didn’t know the name of the president of “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan.”

In the US, “elite” is often a code word for educated. Commentators have remarked how Republican candidate Jon Huntsman’s command of a second language worked against him when he spoke a few lines of Mandarin during the debates.

Left-leaning progressives are often kneecapped by the arrogant conviction of their own wisdom. But the right often positions a fundamental lack of knowledge as kinship with the common man; hence the unapologetic presidential tenure of the marble-mouthed George W. Bush.

There is no shortage of intelligence in the United States. It’s just not distributed very evenly.

That said, the proudly worn dunce cap is not limited to one side of the border. Serious crime rates in Canada have been dropping for years, but Justice Minister Rob Nicholson isn’t about to let the facts get in the way of Harpers’ Omnibus Crime Bill, which threatens marijuana growers with longer mandatory sentences than child molestors.

“We don’t govern on the basis of statistics. If we see a need to better protect children or send a message to drug dealers, that’s the basis upon which we’re proceeding,” Nicholson told Parliament. In other words, when it comes to crime, the Tories govern by feelings rather than facts.

When facts are regarded as nuisances, books become a bother.  During a debate on proposals to close some Toronto City libraries, Doug Ford, the Toronto councilor brother of mayor Rob Ford, proudly confessed his ignorance of writer Margaret Atwood. “I don’t even know her,” he said. “If she walked by me I wouldn’t have a clue who she is.” He added that if she wanted to be heard she should run for office, according to The Toronto Star.

Such intentional lack of awareness isn’t limited to leaders, of course. The less people know about complex issues involving the economy, energy and the environment, the more they desire to stay uninformed, according to a study from the American Psychological Association. The more critical the issue, the more people prefer to avoid thinking about it.

Actually, there’s an entire TV network for that. A poll conducted by Fairleigh Dickinson University determined that Fox News viewers are less informed about domestic and foreign affairs than those who don’t watch any news at all. And a 2010 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life recently determined that atheists and agnostics are more knowledgeable about religion than believers.

Little of this may have surprised Aldous Huxley, who knew a thing or two about human nature and just about everything else. “Most ignorance is vincible ignorance. We don’t know because we don’t want to know.”

The Vancouver Courier, Jan. 27

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