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How Dumb is the American Public?

A couple of years ago, I was a DoD employee leading a team of engineers and supply chain professionals working to restore the war-torn economies of the Middle East. I travelled one week to Kadahar, in southern Afghanistan, to meet with local Afghan government officials, and I was asked by contractor who was supporting my team at that time to look up a friend of hers while I was KAF (Kandahar Air Field). “Mary is a very close friend of mine,” she told me,”you just have to stop in the JAG (Judge Advocate General) office and say hello to her for me.” Building and maintaining friendships in a theatre of war is not a trivial matter – those friendships can last a lifetime, and even when they don’t, these friendships often serve to protect the sanity of those deployed. So, out of respect for our support staffer, I did as she requested. I did indeed look up Mary, passed along the greeting, and went on to conduct my business there. I was a little taken back with the general vacuousness of Mary when I met her. She seemed to me to barely be able to string words together into a sentence, and generally just didn’t seem to have much “on the ball”. I was corresponding with our staffer later that evening, and she asked whether I had looked up her friend while on base at Kandahar. I replied that I had, but that I was pretty unimpressed. The woman had barely grunted out a few words, and basically didn’t seem to be with it. “Yeah, that’s Mary all right”, our staffer replied, “she’s not the brightest tool in the shed.” (Note here that she didn’t say Mary wasn’t the “sharpest tool in the shed” or the “brightest bulb in the pack”, but rather Mary wasn’t the “brightest tool in the shed”.)

There are a number of lessons to be learned from that little exchange, not the least of which has to do with being careful not to criticise others when it may well point up our own shortcomings. That’s a trap I have fallen into more than once in my lifetime. But stepping back and looking at this, it also caused me to wonder about just how intelligent people are in general. According to Scientific American, “Higher IQ predicts a wide range of important factors, including better grades in school, a higher level of education, better health, better job performance, higher wages, and reduced risk of obesity.” ( 

This morning, I saw a Gallup Poll result which said: “Americans are about as likely to describe last Friday’s government jobs report as “mixed” (40%) as to say it is “negative” (42%), with a small number saying it is “positive” (9%). But many did not follow the news of the report closely.” ( Basically, the Gallup Poll editor was telling us that the American public isn’t intelligent enough, or paying close enough attention to what they are seeing and hearing to understand it’s meaning, or both. 

As the Gallup web site points out: “The government reported that 69,000 new jobs were created in May, the lowest amount so far this year, and that the overall unemployment rate rose from 8.1% in April to 8.2% in May. Most news accounts of the report portrayed it in a negative light. The Dow Jones Industrial Average fell by more than 270 points in Friday’s trading after the report was released, and there was widespread discussion of a “stalled” economy and of the potentially deleterious impact of the report on President Obama’s re-election chances. As NPR host Robert Siegel said on “All Things Considered” Friday afternoon: “It was the worst day of the year on the stock market. The Dow fell 274 points, putting the index back into negative territory for the year. The big reason? The latest monthly jobs report came in far weaker than expected. In May, the economy added just 69,000 new jobs.” Even so, as the article pointed out, “There has been no change at all in Americans’ perceptions of whether the U.S. economy is getting better or getting worse.” In other words, the American public – even those who reported that they follow news events closely – did not grasp the magnitude or the nature of what they were seeing.

All of this seems to point a phenomenon I have noticed a number of times before, and reflected on in other blog posts such as “Backing Losers” ( It’s amazing how often I return to P.T. Barnum’s observation: “You will never go broke by underestimating the intelligence of the American public.” It takes me back to the days when Ross Perot was running for President of the United States. He freequently used poster-board size charts to try to communicate graphically the financial information and other trends that were so frequently misunderstood or not understood by the masses. Many just didn’t understand the message or its importance even then. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but in that case, not even a picture worked for Mr. Perot. 

It casuses one to ponder just how plainly a message must be stated, how many times it must be repeated, and how loudly, before it will be widely understood. I think we are far more likely to understand the nuances of a commercial for auto insurance than we are to understand a news story that outlines the dire economic picture of our children’s future.

What do you think?

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