Pharyngula

Idiot America

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I love this article.

Ctenotrish sent along a copy of Greetings from Idiot America, by Charles P. Pierce (sorry, but it’s behind a firewall, and you have to pay $2.95 to see it) from the latest Esquire. I don’t think I’ve ever read this magazine before—it’s one of those things with half-naked young ladies draped over the cover, which, strangely enough, isn’t something that usually entices me to pick up a copy—but this one article has all the vigor and passion that most of our media have wrung out of their press, replacing it with tepid timidity and vacuous boosterism for whatever the polls say is most popular today. It begins with a description of a tour of Ken Ham’s new creation science museum in Kentucky, with its dinosaurs wearing saddles and its bland Adam, which we learn is naked but sculpted without a penis, and the train of well-fed Middle American boobs lining up with great earnestness to parade through the patently bogus exhibits.

What is Idiot America?

The rise of Idiot America is essentially a war on expertise. It’s not so much antimodernism or the distrust of intellectual elites that Richard Hofstadter deftly teased out of the national DNA forty years ago. Both of those things are part of it. However, the rise of Idiot America today represents—for profit mainly, but also, and more cynically, for political advantage in the pursuit of power—the breakdown of a consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people whom we should trust the least are teh people who know best what they are talking about. In the new media age, everybody is a historian, or a preacher, or a scientist, or a sage. And if everyone is an expert, then nobody is, and the worst thing you can be in a society where everybody is an expert is, well, an actual expert.

In the place of expertise, we have elevated the Gut, and the Gut is a moron, as anyone who has ever tossed a golf club, punched a wall, or kicked an errant lawn mower knows. We occasionally dress up the Gut by calling it “common sense.” The president’s former advisor on medical ethics regularly refers to the “yuck factor.” The Gut is common. It is democratic. It is the roiling repository of dark and ancient fears. Worst of all, the Gut is faith-based.

It’s a dishonest phrase for a dishonest time, “faith-based,” a cheap huckster’s phony term of art. It sounds like an additive, an artificial flavoring to make crude biases taste of bread and wine. It’s a word for people without the courage to say they are religious, and it is beloved not only by politicians too cowardly to debate something as substantial as faith but also by Idiot America, which is too lazy to do it.

While I think faith is insubstantial, I’ll grant the writer license—its proponents believe it is substantial, which makes their thin gruel of “faith-based” this and that particularly unpalatable. The main point is something that has long bothered me—we’ve replaced the esteem for real knowledge and skill with vague notions of “faith”.

Intelligent Design creationism is such a good example of that phenomenon.

On August 21, a newspaper account of the “intelligent design” movement contained this remarkable sentence: “They have mounted a politically savvy challenge to evolution as the bedrock of modern biology, propelling a fringe academic movement onto the front pages and putting Darwin’s defenders firmly on the defensive.”

A “politically savvy challenge to evolution” is as self-evidently ridiculous as an agriculturally savvy challenge to euclidean geometry would be. It makes as much sense as conducting a Gallup poll on gravity or running someone for president on the Alchemy party ticket. It doesn’t matter what percentage of people believe they ought to be able to flap their arms and fly, none of them can. It doesn’t matter how many votes your candidate got, he’s not going to turn lead into gold. This sentence is so arrantly foolish that the only real news is where it appeared.

On the front page.

Of the New York Times.

Within three days, there was a panel on the subject on Larry King Live, in which Larry asked the following question:

“All right, hold on. Dr. Forest, your concept of how can you out-and-out turn down creationism, since if evolution is true, why are there still monkeys?”

And why do so many of them host television programs, Larry?

The article in question is by the vacuous Jodi Wilgoren. Nobody at the New York Times seem to get it: they are one of the mothers of Idiot America, nursing the country on a strange ideal of balance, where every example of expertise is precisely neutralized with a dollop of inanity, which is treated as if it is as equally valuable as the actual facts. It’s sad to see how far we’ve fallen.

The country was founded by people who were fundamentally curious; Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, to name only the most obvious examples, were inveterate tinkerers. (Before dispatching Lewis and Clark into the Louisiana Territory, Jefferson insisted that the pair categorize as many new plant and animal species as they found. Considering they were also mapping everything from Missouri to Oregon, this must have been a considerable pain in the canoe.) Further, they assumed that their posterity would feel much the same as they did; in 1815, appealing to Congress to fund the building of a national university, James Madison called for the development of “a nursery of enlightened preceptors.”

It is a long way from that to the moment on February 18, 2004, when sixty two scientists, including a clutch of Nobel laureates, released a report accusing the incumbent administration of manipulating science for political ends. It is a long way from Jefferson’s observatory and Franklin’s kite to George W. Bush, in an interview in 2005, suggesting that intelligent design ought to be taught alongside the theory of evolution in the nation’s science classes. “Both sides ought to be properly taught,” said the president, “so people can understand what the debate is about.”

The “debate,” of course, is nothing of the sort, because two sides are required for a debate. Nevertheless, the very notion of it is a measure of how scientific discourse, and the way the country educates itself, has slipped through lassitude and inattention across the border into Idiot America—where fact is merely that which enough people believe, and truth is measured only by how fervently they believe it.

That’s a contrast that hurts: we’ve gone from Enlightenment America, which strangely enough all the idiots still revere, to George W. Bush’s Idiot America. Can we please bring it back?

Idiot America is a collaborative effort, the result of millions of decisions made and not made. It’s the development of a collective Gut at the expense of a collective mind. It’s what results when politicians make ridiculous statements and not merely do we abandon the right to punish them for it at the polls, but we also become too timid to punish them with ridicule on a daily basis, because the polls say they’re too popular anyway. It’s what happens when leaders are not held to account for mistakes that end up killing people.

You would be surprised at how much email is sent to me telling me to stop being so derisive, that harsh language and ridicule turn people off and repel the very ones we’re trying to persuade. My reply is like the one above; by refusing to ridicule the ridiculous, by watering down every criticism into a mannered circumlocution, we have created an environment where idiots thrive unchallenged. We have a twit for a president because so many people made apologies for his ludicrous lack of qualifications—we need more people unabashedly pointing out fools.

I’m doing my part to fight Idiot America. I hope more people join me.

Comments

  1. #1 Richard Lentini
    May 15, 2008

    Why do we still have, in this 21st century, divinity schools (or theology departments) at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Oxford, Cambridge, and so on? On top of that, how could G.W. Bush graduate from Yale and Harvard and still talk and think like BoZo the clown? I don’t see how these schools can hold on to their prestige under such conditions.

  2. #2 Bill Anderson
    July 13, 2008

    Here’s a quote from Steven Colbert:
    “We go straight from the gut, right sir? That’s where the truth lies, right down here in the gut. Do you know you have more nerve endings in your gut than you have in your head? You can look it up. I know some of you are going to say “I did look it up, and that’s not true.” That’s ’cause you looked it up in a book.

    Next time, look it up in your gut. I did. My gut tells me that’s how our nervous system works. Every night on my show, the Colbert Report, I speak straight from the gut, OK? I give people the truth, unfiltered by rational argument.”

  3. #3 MAJeff, OM
    July 13, 2008

    Idiot America

    Redundancy.

  4. #4 Rod
    July 13, 2008

    I hate to disagree with so many kindred spirits but the phrase “politically savvy challenge to evolution” is in no way “self-evidently ridiculous” It means simply that the IDers are challenging evolution, which they are, and that they are politically savy, which they certainly are. I notice something in many bloggers which I find in myself: a compuslive masochistic self-exposure to all the stupidity in the world which gets me angrier and more full of despair and makes me less able to approach it all rationally. The Times is NOT actively promoting ignorance. They publish the Sciene Times for Dawkins sake, and thats probably the best exposure to public gets to current science….and Carl Zimmer writes for it!!!

  5. #5 Nicole
    July 13, 2008

    Rod: “…a compuslive masochistic self-exposure to all the stupidity in the world which gets me angrier and more full of despair and makes me less able to approach it all rationally.”

    I agree, it’s a hard thing to fight. But there is so much goodness and hope I see in reading things like the Science Times, or watching the Discovery Channel, or talking with like-minded people, that combats that nicely.

    Aside: Anyone else now have Green Day stuck in their heads?

  6. #6 Tom
    July 13, 2008

    I was going to quarrel on one point in particular, but Rod beat me to the punch:
    “the phrase ‘politically savvy challenge to evolution’ is in no way ‘self-evidently ridiculous’ It means simply that the IDers are challenging evolution, which they are, and that they are politically savy, which they certainly are.”

    The claim that the content of the offending statement is on par with the notion of an “agriculturally savvy challenge to euclidean geometry” is nonsense. One cannot use the mechanisms of agriculture to contest Euclid. One can use the mechanisms of politics to challenge evolution – not the science itself, but the public’s view of it, its place in public education, etc. Surely that is what the author meant.
    And surely they have been nothing if not savvy; for a PR campaign to have done this well in defense of a theory with zero scientific support counts as impressive, if disdainful.

  7. #7 Zeno
    July 13, 2008

    People may have already figured this out on their own, but Greetings from Idiot America appears to be available in full at this site.

    I have frequently found that articles hidden behind firewalls soon get republished elsewhere. When the New York Times made a practice of trying to keep its articles away from nonsubscribers, they apparently completed forgot about syndication and republication. NYT articles routinely appear in other newspapers within a day or two and become readily available on their websites. The same appears to be true of magazine articles. Do a Google search on the title or phrase before you assume you can’t access the whole thing.

  8. #8 Escuerd
    July 13, 2008

    Heh, every once in a while I see ancient comments that I feel the need to reply to.

    #31, James F. Trumm | February 7, 2007 10:38 AM wrote:

    That’s Idiot America for you. The rules of grammar, the meaning of words, and the principles of style are just textual constructs in a universe where all other constructs are equally valid. Inauthenticity is the only cardinal sin. We don’t need no stinkin’ Strunk & White.

    and

    They know there are things like right and wrong, truth and untruth, reason and unreason, even if some of their teachers don’t. They know that the rules of good writing can’t be voted off the island.

    Much as I love to see things that bother truth-relativists, I think you’re putting the rules of grammar and writing and the meanings of words on too high a pedestal. These are largely (not completely) arbitrary social constructs. Some variations certainly are better than others, but in many cases they are nothing but standards (like the right-hand rule in vector calculus, or the rule that all square roots be positive). They could well have been otherwise with no essential change. They can indeed be “voted off the island”. There is no Platonic ideal of them.

    Science is concerned with learning about reality, though. While its conclusions are always, to some degree, tentative, they are ultimately either true or false, and it’s clearly a stronger method for discerning that than, say, democracy. There is a platonic ideal here, and that is why it’s a greater sin to insist that the conclusions of science are arbitrary than to insist the same of the rules of grammar.

    I maintain that teaching good grammar, writing, etc. (their status as social constructs notwithstanding) is important for the same reason it’s important that students of vector calculus learn the right hand rule for cross products. Arbitrary standards are necessary to communicate ideas effectively. I.e. I agree with you, but only in practice. :)

    That said, I think there’s as much naiveté in mistaking social constructs for truth (what appears to me to be your error) as there is in mistaking truth for social constructs (the error of those who proclaim science “just another viewpoint”). There is certainly such a thing as truth, and lots of things really are social constructs. A good education can’t do without either.

  9. #9 Laila
    July 13, 2008

    “the train of well-fed Middle American boobs lining up with great earnestness to parade”

    … strange, strange image in my brain.

  10. #10 Brad
    July 13, 2008

    Escuerd #42: I think you missed his (#31, James F. Trumm’s) point. The rules of grammar and composition might well be arbitrary, like whether people drive on the left or right side of the road, but there are reasons that there is more harmony when people mostly follow the rules.

    Politicians and English professors notwithstanding, the main purpose of language and writing is to get the ideas in one person’s brain to another person’s brain without being mangled beyond recognition. Every step of the way, from thought to words to sentences, to recognition to understanding to a replica of the original thought in the recipient’s brain, is fraught with possibilities for failure.

    OK, I’ve reread your post, maybe we are not so far apart as I thought. Yeah, the rules of grammar are mostly arbitrary in that other rules would serve as well, but _any_ rules work better than no rules. The rules vary with the situation of course; text messaging is much less formal and free form than posting on the internet, which has less formal rules than business correspondence or writing papers for a journal.

    On topic to both the blog and the comments(not yours!): I caught a bit of a program on radio today on a related topic, and the host asked,”Since when did ignorance become an opinion?” I thought that was both funny and sad – it sums up a lot of what’s wrong with the world today.

  11. #11 Escuerd
    July 13, 2008

    Brad #44, I don’t find anything you said to contradict what I said (judging by your third paragraph, maybe you’d even agree). I don’t think it’s so much that I missed James F. Trumm’s point as that I wasn’t aiming for it. I agree with him that “proper” language (among other things) should be taught.

    But I think this for the same reason I think it’s important to teach children that multiplications should be performed before additions. It’s important to have standards, in order to communicate statements about truth.

    I only have a beef when this is justified by asserting that the standards (linguistic, or whichever) are themselves a kind of truth, and that’s what James F. Trumm appears to have done.

  12. #12 Meryl
    July 14, 2008

    You should give Esquire a shot. I’m a perfectly straight female and I subscribe to it because there are frequently pretty insightful pieces in it. And because I love Chuck Klosterman, for some reason.

  13. #13 Rickr0ll
    November 12, 2008

    intellligence is vestigidal to humanity PZ. face the acid rock. The average number of kids in american families is 6. the average intelligence is around 112. the more intelligent the parent’s the less kids they have. Parent’s with the IQ of 130 have half as many kids as the average (AND the average is going to continue to sink, because, as we all are well aware, teenage pregnancy and PhD are exclusive sets. 3 in 10 kids drop out of High School). just more food for thought guys