Sunday, July 03, 2016


How did Americans become so distrustful of knowledge and education? We have been swept along in a powerful anti-expert wave for a few decades now. Maybe it dates to Reagan, who preferred folksy to informed. W raised it to an art. He beat Al Gore by being more likably stupid than that annoying smartypants.

It's pleasant to not let the hard stuff bother you, to just drift along and avoid the difficult questions. We were told not to worry our sweet heads about stuff. But it wasn't wiser heads who appropriated much of the thinking role, it was cleverer heads. Mass ignorance tends to be advocated by those who like having a jump on everyone else. Backward people are easier to manipulate and take advantage of. Who can we trust? People who want us to know what's going on. Teachers and the politicians who want better funding of education and libraries, advocates of open-government and transparency in our public sphere.

The “anti-expert” trend: “It’s entirely wrong… It’s the road back to the cave." An interesting conversation in the Guardian.

Here's another very good discussion in the New York Times about our national forgetfulness.

There is a powerful and very well-funded faction in America that seems to advocate ignorance and forgetfulness. We are urged en masse to forget history, which means forgetting the lessons of history. There are groups busily rewriting and erasing inconvenient and embarrassing parts of history, sanitizing it, making it more uniform and simpleminded and patriotic and pro-business, a history book written by the Chamber of Commerce. We are urged to doubt the multifariousness and endless debate of science. Why? Because some powerful people would prefer a blank slate, people with vacant minds that can be filled in whichever way will enable these powerful people achieve their goals. Their idea is a vast receptive and gullible public led by one unquestioned authority that keeps all the information to itself.

In this devious and subversive way the widespread carefully planted fear of elitism enables a small elite to have a monopoly on good information. In a perverse way, the very strength of expert science, its diversity and multiplicity, is used to discredit it. Science is many expert intelligences working at once. The lay public is being trained to distrust the experts. When in doubt throw up your hands and wait to be told what to do. Anti-intellectualism has created a strange kind of rebelliousness, one that likes to be obedient to simple, clear, undetailed commands. An individuality that prefers to belong to an obedient mob adhering to a uniform and unchanging set of ideas.

One odd example of this pre-enlightenment mindset sits on our Supreme Court. (The New Yorker writer Jeffrey Toobin writes about it here.) Clarence Thomas sees and administers justice as a set of biblical foregone conclusions. Anything that upsets his fixed ideas is evil. He is an “Originalist”, which means he believes in the absolute truth of the Founding Documents. Those documents, including his bible, the Constitution, believed that people like Clarence Thomas were barely 3/5 of a person, not really fully human, certainly not entitled to citizenship, whose proper place was as property, to be bred and worked like horses and oxen. That is a profoundly intellectualized form of deep anti-intellectualism. Foolishness masquerading as wisdom. Something Voltaire and Twain would have had a lot of fun with.

There’s the view that intellectuals have “ushered the world into a dangerous age of political nihilism.” (Of course anti-intellectuals are unfamiliar with the word nihilism.) There's an article about this in Quartz.

(There is something to this. Socratic lectures in front of large auditoriums tend to leave the ridiculous and the counter-intuitive and the counterfactual up in the air without shooting them down. Because the Socratic lecturer’s job is to leave the answers to the audience. What happens when 25%… 60%… 90% of the audience is taking the questions as answers? In a small room of students the discussion would be lively and the Socratic proposal would be thoroughly discussed, the false arguments debunked, the obvious stupidities would be shredded. This doesn’t happen in the large auditorium or in the ether where every individual stupidity has equal weight.

Which is why we have the inane standard on “news television” that both sides are always equal, whether it’s Science vs. Superstition or Science vs. ExxonMobil or “Did Hillary murder Vince Foster?”

Shawn Otto has a new book discussing the foolish American habit of devaluing science and elevating the bogus. (I think it all goes back to episodes of Mannix and Matlock and Murder, She Wrote where the killer was always the least likely person. It created a habit of disbelieving what evidence and our own logical minds tell us.)

We saw the triumph of unthinking mob mentality in the recent Brexit vote. There were plausible reasons for public anger in the UK, but it was a dangerously thoughtless decision ginned up by fear. Fear trumps reason.

(Scientific American explores the unthinking mindset behind Brexit and Trumpism.)

Unreason has created Donald Trump. The GOP has for decades cultivated a deep distaste for experts and intelligent people and evidence and science, creating a right-leaning electorate that behaves like the foul-mouthed delinquent in the back of the junior high classroom. Their candidate this year is that delinquent. (Reported in SLATE)

Trump welcomes the goofball audience of radio conspiracy theorists, the folks who hate to think but love to suspect. (The New Yorker explores the bizarre marriage of Trump and radio fruitcake Alex Jones... the man who believes the moon landing was faked and believes Obama is a Muslim terrorist from Kenya.)

In the nineteenth century there was an anti-immigrant party called The Know-Nothing Party. Today’s Republicans embrace the same kind of stubborn ignorance. If they dislike something or find something inconvenient or disagreeable it either doesn’t exist or it’s simply wrong from the get-go, no evidence necessary. They think with their abdomen, like George W. Bush did. Often as not their conclusions are fed to them via the radio or FoxNews. And those sources of “information” are informed by commercial interest groups, the corrupt end of the finance industry or Big Pharma or the private prison industry or the gun industry or the fossil fuel giants. If there is some great public need we have to address those corporate interests worry that it might finally roll back three decades of lower corporate taxes. If some pressing public issue or problem is going to cost them money they get busy persuading the public that the problem doesn’t exist. If a problem doesn’t exist it doesn’t need to be solved. (The people who say poverty is a myth, reported at Bill Moyers' website.)

We have a modern habit of disputing expertise, disputing best practices, disputing evidence (not just items of evidence but the weight of evidence), disputing the consensus. This has led to a habit of disruption. (Reported in WIRED.) Worshipping and admiring and rewarding the vandals and the anarchists. Business schools teach disruption as a positive good. It is good to question things; that’s the scientific method. But what happens when we begin to disrupt the scientific process? What happens when we attack the structures upon which our society and our systems are built? What happens when that is combined with the degradation from decades of cheapskatism which has left our systems and infrastructures unrepaired and behind in the routine upgrades?

What happens when disruption is combined with active attrition? Republican cheapskatism has left our public systems unrepaired and dangerously behind the innovation curve.

Take our election system: Republicans have attacked it on multiple fronts. They broadcast endlessly about voter fraud that doesn’t exist, and this undermines public confidence, which justifies various other attacks on the system they despise and pretend to protect and enforce. They have made it more difficult to vote. They also have large corporate allies who design and operate the voting and vote tallying systems. It’s as if they want a broken system. Partly this may be motivated by the companies that profit from “fixing” and replacing these systems, but the replacements are in fact more suspect and opaque than what they are replacing. There is a philosophy on one side that warns of chaos and fraud and suspicion and sinister invisible conspiracies while promoting these things.

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