Mike the Mad Biologist

I Find Hope in the Constancy of Stupidity

double-facepalm

Seriously. I do. Over at Gin and Tacos, Ed decries the deluge of stupidity in which we are awash:

The real issue, and I mean the real, honest-to-god Problem With The World Today, is that Americans as a nation are dumb. Really fucking dumb. The Pew [religious knowledge] survey, the Tea Party, or the afternoon baseball call-in show on WFAN underscore the point that Americans will fail a quiz about any topic you can throw at them. Americans will make crappy, emotional, illogical arguments about whatever subject holds their interest, from the Supreme Court to the World Cup. We have systematically devalued and dismantled education in this country to the point that the Japanese, Europeans, and so on aren’t just beating us at math and science. They can beat us at essentially anything, because most of us can’t comprehend things we read, retain simple facts, or construct an argument that adheres to the basic rules of logic. We are ignorant of the past, the present, and even our own professed belief systems. We often bemoan apathy, our national lack of desire to understand the government, law, economy, or politics. But the problem is not simply that we don’t want to know; if our slipshod grasp of the few things in which we do profess an interest are any indication, we wouldn’t get it even if we tried.

It’s tempting to agree. After all, there is so much more we could add to the bill of particulars. The problem I have with this argument is simply this: we’ve always been stupid. Consider this picture:

nolynch

Not that long ago, the man in the center of picture would have been lynched. Many in the Greatest Generation wouldn’t want him as a neighbor–or putting his arm around their daughter–simply due to the color of his skin. If that doesn’t define “fucking stupid”, I don’t know what does. That was a generation that, in many other ways, had their heads screwed on reasonably well.

Even more recently, anti-gay slurs were widely used–even by those ‘who should know better.’ Slowly, things are changing. That’s why the constancy of stupidity doesn’t completely infuriate me. Combating stupidity is a long, too long, process. We shouldn’t need to do it. And it takes time and energy away from doing other important things. But if we work at it, we can defeat individual stupidities. That gives me hope.

Now that I’ve freaked out my usual readers with this burst of optimism, I’ll stop.

Comments

  1. #1 Dunc
    October 5, 2010

    I have to disagree. Specific social and cultural norms can be altered, but it’s not a question of them being overturned because they were stupid. It’s just the inevitable process of cultural change. At the same time, other stupid social and cultural norms have been established. The stupidity is eternal, it merely changes form.

  2. #2 parnell
    October 5, 2010

    There was a time when there was a stigma attached to ignorance. Now, for many, it’s a badge of honor — Texas School Board, evolution, global climate change, economics, etc.

    One reason for the seeming increase in apparent ignorance is the ‘culture’ of right-wing talk radio and Fox “News.” I frequently overhear comments in my largely conservative town that are word for word talking points endlessly repeated by conservative broadcasters.

    Conservative talking points filter their way into the allegedly fact-based media and then become conventional wisdom which, almost by definition, is always wrong.

  3. #3 Rob Jase
    October 5, 2010

    I blame ‘Welcome Back Kotter’ for making ignorance the goal of an entire generation.

  4. #4 mxh
    October 6, 2010

    The problem is that the way the system of education and employment is in the US doesn’t reward critical thinking or intelligence in any way. Everything I’ve applied for cared more about personal connections, “leadership” positions, and volunteering than my abilities, accomplishments or education. The stupid, but well-connected get rich over the better education and more competent.

  5. #5 FrauTech
    October 6, 2010

    mxh- hasn’t it always been more about who you know? Maybe in fact we’re more of a meritocracy now than we ever were 20, 30, 100 years ago. Maybe that’s why all the instances of “personal connections” or nepotism or racism disguised as a personal connection seem even more disheartening now. I think all too often academics especially don’t realize how corrupted their own system is. It’s expected in business it’s about who you know, but when it happens to academics it stings more maybe because they don’t expect it.

  6. #6 wobert
    October 7, 2010

    You’ve got an African American President,imagine that fifty years ago.

    In Oz we have our fair share of stupid,no more no less than th US, it’s just that yours are noisier, and everyone hears them.

  7. #7 darwinsdog
    October 7, 2010

    Americans as a nation are dumb. Really fucking dumb.

    R.A. Fisher devoted the second half of his Genetical Theory of Natural Selection (1930), arguably the second most influential book length work on evolutionary biology, to the implications of intelligence & fecundity being negatively correlated. Don’t discount the genetic component when contemplating the reason why Americans are so fucking dumb. People can be ignorant either because they’re uninformed or uneducated, or because they are inherently stupid. Ignorance can be cured in the first instance but there’s no cure for innate stupidity and the stupid, on average, have more kids than the intelligent tend to. No amount of “work” is going to “defeat” inherited stupidity, unless one works in a human spay & neuter clinic. Racism has not gone away. It merely went underground for awhile and is now resurgent.

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