It has been said that Austria’s greatest accomplishment has been to convince the world that Hitler was German. This is widely believed despite it being untrue. There are many lies and ignoramuses around us every day that we just don’t notice. Historians like to call this current era the Information Age, but perhaps it would be more aptly named the Misinformation Age.

There is a hilarious and embarrassing viral video of one Miss Teen South Carolina answering a question. Her nonsensical Palin-esque reply, although worthy of our pity, is not the interesting point in this video. The judge asks her a question that states 20 percent of Americans are unable to identify the United States on a world map. (After watching, one can only assume Miss Teen South Carolina might be in their numbers.)

That means that one out of every five people you see driving down the road, eating in a restaurant, or sitting in class does not know where the U.S. is on a map. These people, totaling in tens of millions, are our neighbors, friends and family. However, the intellectual shortcomings of our fellow Americans do not end there.

A 2005 Gallup poll asked Americans what seemingly bizarre or unusual beliefs they held. A stunning 73 percent of us possess at least one belief in the paranormal or occult. These beliefs include ESP, psychics, astrology, ghosts and communicating with the dead. The majority of us believe in at least one of these phenomena (although no single category teetered more than 41 percent) when there exists precisely zero credible evidence of their validity. Further, almost every major figure of the paranormal culture, including John Edward, Uri Geller, Peter Popoff and many others, is a proven charlatan.

We do not fare much better when it comes to a basic understanding of scientific concepts. It has been about 500 years since Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. Pretty much everyone now knows that the Earth is round. It has been about equally the same time since Copernicus presented the heliocentric theory. This is the idea that the sun is in the middle and the Earth rotates about it. (In reality, both the sun and Earth rotate about a common center of mass that happens to be well beneath the sun’s surface.)

Sadly, the news has not yet reached the 21 percent of us who think the Earth is in the center of it all. Also, out of those who responded correctly, only 71 percent knew that it takes the Earth a year to complete its solar orbit.

More recently, Charles Darwin presented the theory of evolution 150 years ago. Although it is officially called a scientific theory, for all intents and purposes it is the fact of evolution (similar to the laws of gravity, atomic theory, etc.). However, only 40 percent of Americans were willing to tell a Gallup pollster that evolution has indeed taken place, either theistically or naturally. This ranks the United States behind Cyprus, but ahead of Turkey. Our counterparts in Western Europe poll in the 70 to 80 percent range.

Other than biology, several branches of science and countless experiments have independently shown the age of the Earth to be about 4.5 billion years old. Despite this fact, 45 percent of us believe that the Earth was created sometime in the past 10,000 years.

Aside from being a disappointment to the scientific community, the proliferation of misinformation has political consequences. In 2005, during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Harris Interactive conducted a poll about American attitudes toward the war. Forty-seven percent of respondents believed that Saddam Hussein played a role in orchestrating the Sept. 11 attacks. No connection has ever been made between the two.

In addition, 44 percent thought that several of the hijackers were from Iraq. In truth, none were — almost all were from Saudi Arabia. No doubt that this fabrication gave unwarranted support for the war at the time.

Errors surrounding the Sept. 11 attacks get even more cynical. In 2007, six years from that infamous day, Zogby International ran a poll to investigate the falsely labeled “9/11 Truth Movement.” They found that a whopping 30 percent of U.S. citizens believed that the federal government either planned or allowed the terrorist attacks for political and economic reasons. That means almost 100 million of us believe our own government is guilty of mass-murdering its own people. How all these people manage to cope in our society while holding that contemptuous belief is beyond comprehension.

Political conspiracy theories can hit closer to home as well. Back in August, Public Policy Polling asked Virginians about the political climate with respect to the upcoming gubernatorial race. A hot news item at the time was the President Barack Obama’s birth certificate conspiracy theory. It was assumed that only the small lunatic fringe of the right wing thought this was a legitimate issue.

However, just a measly 32 percent of Virginia Republicans were willing to answer in the affirmative that the president of the United States is also a citizen of the United States. It is likely that this fib helped sway the race in the Republican candidate’s favor.

With such large portions of the American public being gullible on a wide range of issues, one cannot help but wonder how policy is affected on the national level. If a third of the electorate is uneducated, uninformed or otherwise susceptible to lies, then politicians can easily disregard public opinion with a clear conscious. If a democracy is to work properly, then the leadership needs to respect the wishes and desires of the people. Right now our leadership is deciding policy on climate change, health care and Afghanistan. Challenge your own beliefs and stop the spread of misinformation, and politicians will respect us more.

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