I dream of a world where the truth is what shapes people’s politics, rather than politics shaping what people think is true. Neil deGrasse Tyson on Twitter*
Anti-intellectualism Is Killing America, says the headline in this recent Psychology Today story. The subtitle reads: Social dysfunction can be traced to the abandonment of reason.
I wrote about anti-intellectualism as the new elitism back in late 2013. Since then, it seem the trend has not only increased dramatically, but the backlash against it has grown. However, the opposition trying to restore reason is neither organized nor has the same sort of shiny baubles to attract adherents the anti-intellectual side has. Cold reason cannot compete for attention against the Kardashian derriere or UFOs on Ceres.
The article’s author, David Niose, wrote:
America is killing itself through its embrace and exaltation of ignorance…
I read that the same hour I read a press release that starts, “James Van Praagh Opens His New School of Mystical Arts.” It opens:
Talking to Heaven has just been brought closer to home. After thirty-five years of talking to the dead on television, radio, and through live demonstrations, New York Times bestselling author, psychic medium and spiritual teacher James Van Praagh is making dreams come true for his students and fans. In May of 2015, Van Praagh launched The James Van Praagh School of Mystical Arts, an online academy where students can tap into their psychic, intuitive, healing and mediumistic abilities, and be personally guided and mentored by the popular medium.
Clearly when this sort of egregious claptrap garners any uncritical attention, the anti-intellectual side is winning. And if anyone is daft enough to shell out $1,600 USD for an eight-week course on fairy dust, they have already lost their ability to think critically and clearly. Or perhaps they never had it – the skills of logic and reason are, apparently not taught in public school.
Last year, Ray Williams wrote in Psychology Today about the…
…growing and disturbing trend of anti-intellectual elitism in American culture. It’s the dismissal of science, the arts, and humanities and their replacement by entertainment, self-righteousness, ignorance, and deliberate gullibility… In American schools, the culture exalts the athlete and good-looking cheerleader. Well-educated and intellectual students are commonly referred to in public schools and the media as “nerds,” “dweebs,” “dorks,” and “geeks,” and are relentlessly harassed and even assaulted by the more popular “jocks” for openly displaying any intellect.
That disparity in how we see careers and people in them is also reflected across our culture: almost every member of a professional sports team is paid hugely more than any scientist, teacher, writer, artist or poet. Movie stars are given far more attention and their beliefs more credibility than doctors and scientists. Even a vacuous talking head like Jenny McCarthy can get a large following for her anti-intellectual, anti-vaccination rants despite a mass of scientific and medical data that debunks her beliefs again and again. Canadian commentator Rex Murphy said McCarthy and her fellow anti-vaxxers have the “‘intellectual power of a dead tree stump.”
Niose writes in his PsychToday piece (emphasis added):
In a country where a sitting congressman told a crowd that evolution and the Big Bang are“lies straight from the pit of hell,”(link is external) where the chairman of a Senate environmental panel brought a snowball(link is external) into the chamber as evidence that climate change is a hoax, where almost one in three citizens can’t name the vice president , it is beyond dispute that critical thinking has been abandoned as a cultural value. Our failure as a society to connect the dots, to see that such anti-intellectualism comes with a huge price, could eventually be our downfall.
At the same time I was reading this, numerous stories were posted on social media about the bright spots discovered on the dwarf planet Ceres, see by the Dawn spacecraft. Astronomers are puzzled by them, but have some good ideas about what they might be – all of them natural phenomena: ice or salt exposed by meteorite strikes being the two best hypotheses.
But the posts on social media are replete with conspiracy theory codswallop about aliens and UFOs. As one piece on the less-than credible Express headlined its piece: Conspiracists find ‘certain proof’ of alien CITY and UFO by Ceres’ light spots. What unfettered, anti-intellectual claptrap!
It’s not surprising. Science and history are both easy targets of attacks by the wingnuts, the religious fundamentalists, and the scammers from creationists to chemtrail believers to Holocaust deniers, all of whom who confuse the gullible with false information and wild concepts that pander to ill-educated people’s sense of paranoia. The anti-vaccination movement, for example, is populated by credulous people easily swayed by wildly emotional arguments – not about science or medicine, but about wildly unsubstantiated government and big-pharma conspiracies.
There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” Isaac Asimov, Newsweek, 21 January 1980.
When mixed with politics on social media, anti-intellectualism – often expressed religiously as anti-science or anti-education – is a powerful force to sway the illiterati because, as Asimov wrote, ignorance online has the same relevance, same profile, same acceptance as knowledge: there’s nothing to indicate stupidity, hoax or misleading statements on Facebook or Twitter.
Wannabe Republican presidential candidates like Rick Santorum, Bobby Jindal, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump*** actively cater to the anti-intellectual crowd as well a nurture it. They don’t want educated, well-informed voters, because that way their message would fall on deaf ears. As the Washington Post recently noted:
It says a lot about a strain of disagreeable conservatism that there are voices who should know better who nevertheless fawn over Trump. Surely there are Trump fans who try to demonstrate their conservative credentials by slumming, as it were, with the most extreme and unhinged elements in the party. The more ignorant, anti-intellectual and outlandish the character, the more attraction they hold for those who want to be seen battling the “establishment” alongside grass-roots activists. And there are some who are simply courting controversy for controversy sake, desirous of the attention, the clicks and the viewers. Then there are GOP contenders who may be loath to criticize Trump, fearing a tongue-lashing and hoping to siphon off his saner followers.
Adam Frank wrote a piece for NPR called, Science and the Agony of Ignorance about the pain of his own ignorance, in being a scientist faced with unanswerable questions about the nature of the universe he has been educated to try to understand but cannot:
In my worst moments, I am filled with despair. I have so many questions for the universe and many of them, I know as a scientist, can be answered. But the answers are beyond me now and may remain so for my whole life.
This is quite the opposite of the willful, deliberate ignorance (the Dunning-Kruger effect) of a growing number of people, especially prevalent on social media. As Bret Contreras wrote:
…fools don’t know they’re fools… To answer a particular question, we often need to conduct multiple studies and bring in expert researchers from different fields. The fool isn’t aware of this; he thinks his intuition is sufficient. This is why we have a multitude of individuals presenting themselves as experts on topics that they’re actually clueless about, and this includes exercises they’ve never performed, methods they’ve never experimented with, tools and instruments they’ve never used, and concepts they’ve never researched or reviewed.
Back in the 2012 presidential campaign, Republican candidate Rick Santorum called President Obama a “snob” for wanting all Americans to have the opportunity to attend college or university, His comment was received with cheers from his dumbed-down audience. Blogger Erin White wrote of that campaign:
Mr. Santorum and other far-right leaders are marching the herds of simple-minded Americans towards the new anti-intellectualism America structure. In recent years, The Republican and Tea Parties have been crowded with popular loud mouth, far-right Christians who have difficulty naming newspaper publications or Supreme Court cases, such as former Governor Sarah Palin. Like Palin, Former President Bush Jr., a self-proclaimed ‘C’ student, is praised by conservative voters for being down-to-earth. Someone you’d want to have a beer with. Someone just like them. Frankly, I don’t want a president just like me. I want the kid who kicked my SAT score’s ass.
Today, Republican politicians and especially state governors relentlessly continue their attack on education. Look at the number of states in which legislators have allowed or are still fighting to teach creationism alongside evolution for proof: Louisiana, Idaho, Texas, Montana among the 14 reported in 2014.
Look at the story about the West Virginia creationist-racist suing his daughter’s school for teaching evolution in the classroom. The victims of this self-serving, anti-intellectual campaign are the children who will grow up poorly educated with this codswallop instead of actual, provable scientific knowledge. A nation of functionally illiterate, religious peasants. Isn’t that exactly what ISIS wants, too?
But it’s not simply lack of education that helps the anti-intellectual movement spread. Formal, institutional education offers no guarantee of learning, nor of developing critical thinking skills. In March, Canadian commentator Rex Murphy wrote a piece titled, “The modern university risks becoming a cocoon of self-indulgence and anti-intellectualism.” In it, he wrote:
…you could multiply the instances of silly thinking and foolish actions by the hundredfold that now burden universities across the West, as the institutions that have carried the light of intellect from the earliest days of Athens, through the Renaissance, right to our present day, have surrendered to every passing fad and fancy of ever-more trivial and mentally bankrupt causes… The ability to think clearly, and the absorption of the best that has been thought and said, have given the world all the moral and scientific progress — real progress — it has ever known. As universities become more and more the willing hostages of the anti-thought brigades, the more they will diminish in both esteem and worth.
As a good example, a recent story on CNET was headlined: 41 percent of Americans say people and dinosaurs co-existed. Add into that the 16 percent who responded they “weren’t sure” and you have a majority of the country – including many so-called ‘educated people’ – believing in easily disproven, religious balderdash…
…I’m actually living in a country where most people disregard the scientific consensus that dinosaurs lived tens of millions of years ago and tens of millions of years before the first humans emerged.
Perhaps these results shouldn’t be so shocking when we consider that there are entire museums, like Kentucky’s Creation Museum, devoted to showing how dinosaurs fit into the biblical timeline of history, complete with this animatronic display of a dinosaur hanging out with an Old Testament kid tending a fire.
For a generation or more, Americans have been drenched in content-free education. Is it any wonder we don’t think historical events or intellectual tradition are important, or that they are worth the hard work to learn?
..Americans have absorbed habits antithetical not only to learning but also to republican government… In a nation that has lost a common sense of its heritage and that is self-absorbed with a revulsion for critical thinking or facing arguments with which one disagrees, the result is nondemocratic rule by a self-selected elite…
But that holds equally true for Canadians, although we can take small consolation that Sun News TV, the Canadian attempt to clone the icon of anti-intellectual-ideological broadcasting, Fox News, was unable to garner a sufficient national audience to stay alive, despite being somewhat less fanatical and less ideological than its southern mentor. But Sun Media continues to spew its vituperative, anti-intellectual politics through the print media, and its poison has a reach even into small communities through local newspapers that act as its mouthpiece. There is a certain anti-cognescenti crowd that feeds off this stuff.**
I realize that a considerable amount of the pseudo-news and conspiracy spoofs are – like the codswallop from televangelists – generated for no more exotic reason than to scam gullible audiences out of their money. Some, of course, is misinformation bound with emotional content aimed at furthering political or social agendas. Profit and political gain merge in their mutual, dumbed-down audience.
The nonsense gains followers through sharing on social media: many who spread the gospel of pseudoscience and conspiracy become fervent believers. And also they become the new ‘experts:’ online, anyone who can post, scrape together a website or blog is an “expert” despite their lack of education, experience or formal training in anything they write about. Everyone is the online armchair quarterback, everyone has a say, everyone’s voice is equally loud. Yada, yada, yada is the social media conversational mode: noise, not discussion.
But it’s not simply a North American trend. It’s everywhere. A recent article on the rise of anti-intellectualism in China noted:
Defined as hostility towards intellectuals and intellectual pursuits, anti-intellectualism represents an attitude, not a theory or school of thought, in social-political lives… The distrust of scholars and scholarly works is not new to China. The burning of books and burying of scholars by Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of China, was probably the first naked use of state power against knowledge and its carriers. Mao did something similar in the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). Labeling all intellectuals “stinking Number Nine,” he mobilized high school and university students known as Red Guards to humiliate and torture teachers and scholars. Claiming that “the more knowledge a man had, the more reactionary he would become,” Mao also had millions of “educated youth”… sent down to the countryside to receive “reeducation” from the peasants.
In his book, The Empire of Illusion, Chris Hedges wrote:
We are a culture that has been denied, or has passively given up, the linguistic and intellectual tools to cope with complexity, to separate illusion from reality.
And it doesn’t help stem the rampant anti-intellectualism that our attention span is shorter than that of the average goldfish…
What, then does the future hold for our children and grandchildren, if they are raised in a culture of bread and circuses, not in a love of learning, discovery and exploration?
* Neil deGrasse Tyson is despised by the right precisely because he’s an intellectual, but also because hating intellectuals easily turns the audience’s anger away from the real villains in today’s declining economies: the corporations, the bankers, the unfettered capitalists. A piece in Salon in 2014 noted:
Conservatives may think of themselves as lovers of excellence, but in reality, “Who do you think you are?” is swiftly becoming an unofficial right-wing motto… in doing so, conservative pundits are exploiting their audiences, turning their class-based anger away from the people who are actually causing their economic problems, such as the Wall Street elite, and toward people who may be successful but who are not doing any harm to other Americans and are often trying to help them. If you can get your audiences to hate journalists and scientists, they won’t hate the wealthy bankers who actually screwed them over… You can’t actually hear the evidence for global warming if you’re too busy slagging on the messenger for thinking he’s so smart with his PhDs and his facts. Which is exactly where conservative leadership wants their audiences to be.
** The local media scene is not so much anti-intellectual as unintellectual, fuelled in part by the plodding efforts in the local Sun Media paper and the mendacity of the sycophantic local bloggers it draws from.
*** While it’s remarkably easy to satirize the medieval, anti-intellectual views of people like Jindal and Cruz, remember that, like Sarah Palin, they are not alone: people actually voted for them, because they, too, share their anti-intellectual, anti-science views.