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Intellectual Ghettos

November 28, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Sometimes I become very depressed when I consider the way the modern world works. Yeah sure, I know that in many ways the world today is so much better than it was 50 or 100 years in the past, but in other ways I don’t like the way it is heading. Listening to commentators who share this negative view (or even have a far more extreme form of negativity than me) makes things worse of course. But it’s hard not to conclude that they have very valid points and that that there is no way to deny that they are essentially correct.

A recent podcast I listened to made some points related to the topic, some of which I agreed with and others which I thought went too far. But the overall conclusion was that the world (and the US and a lot of other western countries in particular) is heading in the wrong direction entirely. One phrase the presenter used particularly resonated with me: he said many groups in society are heading into “intellectual ghettos”.

His main reason for this pessimism was the way people source their information. He claimed the mainstream media are all controlled by big business and this causes them to be both biased towards a business oriented worldview and to be primarily interested in creating popular lightweight stories instead of concentrating on the real news.

Of course today there are worthwhile alternatives to traditional media provided by the internet. But he claims that the internet provides even more biased information, although at least all views and philosophies are represented there, and that information from the ‘net tends to be even more condensed and superficial than that from the mainstream.

That’s where I partly disagree. I do agree that there are internet sources which will support any worldview and that by carefully selecting sources a person can make anything look authentic. But I think the internet is potentially the greatest source of both wide and deep information we have ever had.

By wide I mean it makes all subjects easily available. For example, I had no interest in philosophy and history before I started listening to some excellent podcasts on those subjects. Sure, I could have read books about those topics but I don’t have time to read much and it’s difficult to find the best source of traditional books as well. On the internet material is easy to source through discussion forums, recommendation systems, and ratings. So my knowledge, post internet, is much wider than it ever was before, and I can pursue subjects I consider most important to a greater depth as well.

I do fully agree that, because of the vast range of material, and because of the way communities tend to cluster around material with a particular perspective, it’s easy to live in a world of total delusion thanks to the internet. I know people who only visit right wing political forums for example, or whose entire knowledge of “science” comes from creationist web sites. But that’s the fault of the person, not the medium, and could also happen with traditional sources. For example, a friend of mine has an extensive library consisting of nothing but creationist propaganda, so he’s just as deluded because of printed material as he is through electronic sources!

That was where the presenter used the words “intellectual ghetto”. That’s what he calls the worlds of religious, political, and social self delusion that many people create for themselves. And the world does seem to be becoming more polarised. Look at politics in the US for example. The conservative Christian right is very strong there, and the extreme conservative pseudo-libertarianism of the “Tea Party” has gained a lot of influence. And internationally extreme forms of religion, especially Islam, have become a real concern. These people all clearly live in intellectual ghettos.

There’s an old saying in the skeptical movement which I think sums things up well. It’s that you can’t reason with a creationist (although that could also be applied to believers in any extreme view) because if they could be reasoned with they wouldn’t be creationists! In other words, these people abandoned reason when they decided to live in the intellectual ghetto.

To identify someone living in these ghettos look at their attitude to intellectuals. Creationists think scientists are all intent on misleading the world to advance their own “religion” of “Darwinism”. Global warming deniers think climate scientists are colluding on deceiving the world to protect their sources of funding. And the far right think any slight deviation from their extreme views is an act of “socialism” (and as we all know, socialism is the most evil thing ever!)

So all of these people are anti-intellectual. They would rather believe some nutcase with no knowledge or experience in climate science than the vast majority of experts in the field. They would rather believe that following the same right wing politics which caused the wars, economic depression, environmental crises, and other problems we now face, will solve our problems than following more moderate ideas will. And they would rather believe that the science which has given us almost everything of any worth we have today is wrong and that a few religiously motivated freaks are right.

There’s no hope really, is there. If people can be so obviously wrong yet be so convinced they are right then what hope do we have? Democracy gives everyone the power to control the future of the world but that is no guarantee we will get a good outcome. When the majority of people in the US for example don’t believe in one of the greatest theories science has, don’t know whether the Earth orbits the Sun or not, and think any attempt to improve the obviously horrendous health system is tantamount to the introduction of communism then they really don’t deserve the vote!

It’s tempting just to let people live in the intellectual ghettos they create for themselves but it’s not that easy. The rational world isn’t completely isolated from the irrational one: the biggest idiot has the same power to vote as the best scientist; people who believe in pathetic religious dogma can embark on religiously motivated campaigns of violence; and cheap, populist political campaigns can have greater influence than less approachable but fact-based politics.

Yes, maybe it is hopeless.

  1. November 29, 2010 at 3:16 am

    Can’t agree with you more.

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