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The Cult of Ignorance

I recently read an article describing a phenomenon the writer had noted as becoming more prominent in the US. It is a form of anti-intellectualism, of the dismissal of science and rationality, of the celebration of frivolous pop culture, and of the rise of superficiality and ignorance.

To be fair to Americans, that is not the only country where this phenomenon has occurred, but it is perhaps the best common example of it. Unfortunately, since the US is currently the leading society in the western world, it is likely that other countries will soon follow if they haven’t already. Or maybe not. As I will describe below, there are some factors which make the US particularly susceptible to this form of “dumbing down”.

So what evidence so I have that Americans are becoming dumber (or at least acting like they are dumber because other evidence indicates that underlying intelligence is actually increasing)? Well I could mention two politicians: Sarah Palin and Donald Trump and leave it there! Case proved!

I’m not totally sure these two politicians are themselves stupid or ignorant (although, at least in Palin’s case, I am almost positive that is true), it is more the stupidity of people who want to follow them. It could be that the politicians themselves are just acting dumb to fit in with what their followers want. I’m fairly sure this is at least partly true with Trump, for example.

Both polls and informal surveys have revealed the unbelievable ignorance of Americans. For example, most in a recent informal survey didn’t know who won the American Civil War. In fact many didn’t even know what it was or who was involved. I asked some typical New Zealanders, who have probably never studied American history, and most of them knew the answer.

And then there is the worrying problem that only a third of biology teachers teach evolution properly (in other words without reference to mythology), and that almost 20% of Americans think that the Sun revolves around the Earth (I agree that there are various explanations, apart from ignorance, for this high figure).

I have noticed an interesting phenomenon myself which is probably related to this general ignorance. That is how committed Americans are to their movie culture. Even from quite intelligent and rational sources there seems to be a lot of reference to movies (and these are often fairly fatuous movies like Star Wars) and a disproportionate reverence for people involved in the movie industry. An emphasis on visual rather than written entertainment is often touted as a major contributing factor to the new cult of ignorance.

And now I must move on to possible explanations of the cause of this phenomenon. Some of these explanations are quite simple and others verge towards being conspiracy theories. Of course, sometimes where there’s a conspiracy theory there is a real conspiracy, so these shouldn’t be discounted out of hand.

The first explanation is that people just don’t have to be smart. The modern western state has evolved to the point that most people can get by without any special skills or knowledge. Since most people are lazy and feel no need to learn just for the sake of knowledge they take the easy route and don’t bother.

Next is the possibility that I – and many others – are just totally wrong about everything and we just don’t accept that what is smart has changed. Who’s to say that knowing what movie a particular actor got a certain award for is more or less important than knowing who won the Civil War? Maybe what is classed as knowledge has changed.

Then there are the conspiracies involving deliberate suppression of intelligence and deep knowledge in the average person by the government and/or the global industrial system. There’s no doubt that keeping people ignorant makes them easier to manipulate for the benefit of the rich and powerful. While this idea dives deeply into grand conspiracy territory it shouldn’t be completely dismissed because of that.

Related to this is the fact that religion is unusually important in the US. It is the only major western country left where religion is a significant factor in politics and culture generally. Religion encourages ignorance (to the extent that the “knowledge” it encompasses isn’t actually real) and stupidity (a bit more controversially because within the religion’s worldview the processes it encourages might be perfectly consistent) but that doesn’t explain why ignorance has apparently become worse recently.

Finally there is the idea that this is just a trend which happens occasionally. The zeitgeist seems to change from time to time for no easily discernable reason. One political ideology might become accepted then gradually become less popular again. The same might happen for cultural memes, philosophical perspectives, or any other vaguely defined human attribute. Maybe there’s no real reason for it, it’s just something that has happened.

Most likely there is a combination of factors at play here. In fact, no complex social phenomenon is totally the result of one thing, so this conclusion should be self-evident. I think that the modern state does look after people who are actually poorly adapted to modern life. I think we should accept that what is knowledge does change but that doesn’t excuse the extreme levels of current unenlightenment. I think that there are some deliberate moves to keep people ignorant so that they can’t meaningfully participate in discussions of current issues. I think that religion has to take a lot of the blame for the willful lack of rationality in most people. And I think anti-intellectualism is a random trend which comes and goes over time and it currently quite strong.

There’s not a lot that can be done to counter all of these diverse factors. And because we have a democratic system even ignorant, stupid people get to vote. I just hope this doesn’t go too far, but looking at the situation in the States today I’m afraid it might!

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