Should We Bomb Agrabah?

by | Mar 13, 2018



In the his excellent book The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, Tom Nichols argues that Americans have become comfortable with everyone having an opinion, even if they don’t have the requisite knowledge to have an opinion.  A great example of this from his book was a 2015 poll  which asked Republicans and Democrats whether they would support the bombing of the country of Agrabah. About 1/3rd of Republicans supported bombing Agrabah and 19% were opposed while 36% of Democrats were opposed to the bombing and 13% thought bombing Agrabah was a good idea.

The problem? From Death of Expertise: Agrabah doesn’t exist. It’s the fictional country in the 1992 animated Disney film Aladdin. Liberals crowed that this poll was evidence of the ignorance and aggressiveness of Republicans, while conservatives countered that it only showed how Democrats were reflexively against military action no matter how little they knew about the situation. For experts, however, there was no way around the overall reality captured in the poll, even if only accidentally: 43 percent of Republicans and 55 percent of Democrats had an actual, defined view on bombing a place in a cartoon.”

There are other surveys with equally dismal results.  A study from Oklahoma State a few years ago found that 80% of Americans favored regulations requiring mandatory warning labels on food containing DNA. The problem with this? Everything from a plant or an animal contains DNA. The only food without DNA are Velveeta and Twinkies (LOL).

The Washington Post conducted a poll in 2014 about the proper U.S. response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.  As part of the poll the respondents were asked to identify Ukraine on a map. Only 1 in 6 Americans and about 1 in 4 college graduates could identify Ukraine on a map and the median respondent was off by 1,800 miles with many identifying countries not even in Europe!  Yet, pretty much everyone expressed an opinion on what the U.S. response to the Russian invasion should be and the Washington Post found that those who most strongly favored U.S. military intervention knew the least about where Ukraine is located. “Put another way, people who thought Ukraine was located in Latin America or Australia were most enthusiastic about the use of U.S. military force.” The point is not that we should all be able to exactly point to Ukraine on a blank map, but rather knowing where a country is might be a necessary ingredient of having an opinion about our foreign policy there.

Add partisan bias to most people’s tendency to have an uninformed opinion and we really have a witches brew. Ariel Edwards-Levy, a pollster for Huffington Post, conducted a survey where they switched the party affiliation of various policies. What did she find? Again from Death of Expertise: “Republicans who strongly disagree with Democratic Party positions on health care, Iran, and affirmative action objected far less if they thought the same policies were those of Donald Trump. Democrats, for their part, went in the other direction: they were less supportive of their own party’s policies if they thought they were Trump’s positions.”

These are extreme examples, but we all do it. We all have uninformed opinions. We have opinions on whether GMO food is safe without knowing hardly anything about the subject. We have opinions on climate change, FED interest rate policy and immigration policy without understanding the basics of any of those topics. The internet has made it worse. Mere headlines and soundbites often create the totality of people’s opinions. Tom Nichols: “Never have so many people had so much access to so much knowledge and yet have been so resistant to learn anything.”

A related IFOD on: Ignorance and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Since reading The Death of Expertise I have been more cognizant of whether I’ve done the work to have an informed opinion. I’ve been trying to recognize and set aside my biases, especially political ones. Being a human is tough!

In case you want to test yourself if you can find Ukraine on a blank map: Blank Europe Map Here it is with country names: Europe Map

Link to The Death of Expertise by Tom Nichols.


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