At the turn of the 20th century the industrial revolution was upon us in full and science was highly prized as a concept and a reality. People were rapidly admitting what they did not know and were using logic and deductive reasoning to fill in the gaps. Not that this burgeoning age of enlightenment was all kittens and rainbows. Some used science to justify racism. They called it Social Darwinism. Survival of the fittest, as it were. There were, and are, a couple of problems with that, for lack of a better word, theory. First, Darwinism isn’t about survival of the fittest but survival of the most adaptable. A good example of it in action would be in England circa 1850. Up until then English butterflies were some of the most colorful in the world, their wings radiated sunlight. But, after the industrial revolution kicked in, only dark butterflies could save enough sunlight (black doesn’t reflect light, it absorbs it) to stay warm and alive. So all the pretty butterflies in urban areas were gone within twenty years and replaced by gray and black ones. Those were the ones who could adapt to their surroundings. The Social Darwinism philosophy also led to eugenics. That great idea that a master race could be created through selective breeding and, by default, all inferior breeds could be made extinct. Your first question, after reading that, has to be, “who decides what traits to breed for?” The answer then was “elderly white men” which wasn’t as helpful as it might seem. That whole World War II thing is kind of all the proof you need there.
Other, obvious, byproducts of the scientific revolution included using scary, wildly addictive, drugs to treat minor ailments. Coca-Cola was made with cocaine. 7-Up was made with lithium. Heroin was sold as a toothache remedy. Radium was used freely in numerous products. And on and on it goes. But, and this is very important here, as science proved the problems with those things the products either changed to keep up with the facts, or disappeared.
By 1920 pseudo-sciences such as astrology, palmistry, phrenology, fortune telling, and the rest, were all relegated to idiot status. Gypsy caravans would be forced to camp away from towns. Psychics and their ilk were limited to back alleys and basements. No reputable person would have anything to do with them. In fact, the tricks of their trade were widely disseminated. A long lost book by a man calling himself Dr. Bombay (accurately cited in the movie Leap of Faith), showed people how to make a statue weep. In modern times Dr. Karl P.N. Shuker, mentioned a paper by Dr. Luigi Garlaschelli, from Pavia University published in Chemistry in Britain, that detailed the old trick.
What is needed is a hollow statue made of a porous material such as plaster or ceramic. The icon must be glazed or painted with some sort of impermeable coating. If the statue is then filled up with a liquid (surreptitiously, through a tiny hole in the head, for example), the porous material will absorb it, but the glazing will stop it from flowing out. If the glazing, however, is imperceptibly scratched away on or around the eyes, tear-like drops will leak out, as if materialising from thin air. If the cavity behind the eyes is small enough, once all the liquid has dripped out there are virtually no traces left in the icon. When I put it to the test, this trick proved to be very satisfactory, baffling all onlookers.
In the 30’s L. Sprague de Camp, a famous author at the time, used to provide a Penn and Teller type look at how to read minds, tell the future, and so on. According to Robert Heinlein, in his book Expanded Universe, de Camp scared the shit out of a skeptic like him, and he knew, going in, it was a trick.
It doesn’t take much of an imagination to see what these tricks could do to an uneducated mind.
Not that they’re alone. I’ve seen some very good minds fall for the most insane beliefs. UFOs make no sense at all when looked at rationally, yet over a quarter of the world, and almost forty percent of Americans, believes in them unequivocally. Of course there are six percent of Americans who believe in unicorns too. In other words, we’re not going to be able to help everyone.
But I do have to try.
Back in 2014 Ray Williams, of Psychology Today, took a whack at trying to explain why pseudo-science, and it’s fetid ilk, has been making a comeback.
He limited his research to America, but it extrapolates well.
There is a growing and disturbing trend of anti-intellectual elitism in American culture. It’s the dismissal of science, the arts, and humanities and their replacement by entertainment, self-righteousness, ignorance, and deliberate gullibility.
Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason, says in an article in the Washington Post, “Dumbness, to paraphrase the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, has been steadily defined downward for several decades, by a combination of heretofore irresistible forces. These include the triumph of video culture over print culture; a disjunction between Americans’ rising level of formal education and their shaky grasp of basic geography, science and history; and the fusion of anti-rationalism with anti-intellectualism.”
There has been a long tradition of anti-intellectualism in America, unlike most other Western countries. Richard Hofstadter, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1964 for his book, Anti-Intellectualism In American Life, describes how the vast underlying foundations of anti-elite, anti-reason and anti-science have been infused into America’s political and social fabric. Famous science fiction writer Isaac Asimov once said:
“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
Mark Bauerlein, in his book, The Dumbest Generation, reveals how a whole generation of youth is being dumbed down by their aversion to reading anything of substance and their addiction to digital “crap” via social media.
Journalist Charles Pierce, author of Idiot America, adds another perspective:
“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 the people who best know what they are talking about. In the new media age, everybody is an expert.”
“There’s a pervasive suspicion of rights, privileges, knowledge and specialization,” says Catherine Liu, the author of American Idyll: Academic Antielitism as Cultural Critique and a film and media studies professor at University of California. The very mission of universities has changed, argues Liu. “We don’t educate people anymore. We train them to get jobs.”
Part of the reason for the rising anti-intellectualism can be found in the declining state of education in the U.S. compared to other advanced countries:
- After leading the world for decades in 25-34 year olds with university degrees, the U.S. is now in 12th place. The World Economic Forum ranked the U.S. at 52nd among 139 nations in the quality of its university math and science instruction in 2010. Nearly 50% of all graduate students in the sciences in the U.S. are foreigners, most of whom are returning to their home countries;
- The Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs commissioned a civic education poll among public school students. A surprising 77% didn’t know that George Washington was the first President; couldn’t name Thomas Jefferson as the author of the Declaration of Independence; and only 2.8% of the students actually passed the citizenship test. Along similar lines, the Goldwater Institute of Phoenix did the same survey and only 3.5% of students passed the civics test;
- According to the National Research Council report, only 28% of high school science teachers consistently follow the National Research Council guidelines on teaching evolution, and 13% of those teachers explicitly advocate creationism or “intelligent design;”
- 18% of Americans still believe that the sun revolves around the earth, according to a Gallup poll;
- The American Association of State Colleges and Universities report on education shows that the U.S. ranks second among all nations in the proportion of the population aged 35-64 with a college degree, but 19th in the percentage of those aged 25-34 with an associate or high school diploma, which means that for the first time, the educational attainment of young people will be lower than their parents;
- 74% of Republicans in the U.S. Senate and 53% in the House of Representatives deny the validity of climate change despite the findings of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and every other significant scientific organization in the world;
- According to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress, 68% of public school children in the U.S. do not read proficiently by the time they finish third grade. And the U.S. News & World reported that barely 50% of students are ready for college level reading when they graduate;
- According to a 2006 survey by National Geographic-Roper, nearly half of Americans between ages 18 and 24 do not think it necessary to know the location of other countries in which important news is being made. More than a third consider it “not at all important” to know a foreign language, and only 14 percent consider it “very important;”
- According to the National Endowment for the Arts report in 1982, 82% of college graduates read novels or poems for pleasure; two decades later only 67% did. And more than 40% of Americans under 44 did not read a single book–fiction or nonfiction–over the course of a year. The proportion of 17 year olds who read nothing (unless required by school ) has doubled between 1984-2004;
- Gallup released a poll indicating 42 percent of Americans still believe God created human beings in their present form less than 10,000 years ago;
- A 2008 University of Texas study found that 25 percent of public school biology teachers believe that humans and dinosaurs inhabited the earth simultaneously.
In American schools, the culture exalts the athlete and good-looking cheerleader. Well-educated and intellectual students are commonly referred to in public schools and the media as “nerds,” “dweebs,” “dorks,” and “geeks,” and are relentlessly harassed and even assaulted by the more popular “jocks” for openly displaying any intellect. These anti-intellectual attitudes are not reflected in students in most European or Asian countries, whose educational levels have now equaled and and will surpass that of the U.S. And most TV shows or movies such as The Big Bang Theory depict intellectuals as being geeks if not effeminate.
John W. Traphagan, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Texas, argues the problem is that Asian countries have core cultural values that are more akin to a cult of intelligence and education than a cult of ignorance and anti-intellectualism. In Japan, for example, teachers are held in high esteem and normally viewed as among the most important members of a community. There is suspicion and even disdain for the work of teachers that occurs in the U.S. Teachers in Japan typically are paid significantly more than their peers in the U.S. The profession of teaching is one that is seen as being of central value in Japanese society and those who choose that profession are well compensated in terms of salary, pension, and respect for their knowledge and their efforts on behalf of children.
In addition, we do not see in Japan significant numbers of the types of religious schools that are designed to shield children from knowledge about basic tenets of science and accepted understandings of history – such as evolutionary theory or the religious views of the Founding Fathers, who were largely deists – which are essential to having a fundamental understanding of the world, Traphagan contends. The reason for this is because in general Japanese value education, value the work of intellectuals, and see a well-educated public with a basic common knowledge in areas of scientific fact, math, history, literature, etc. as being an essential foundation to a successful democracy.
We’re creating a world of dummies. Angry dummies who feel they have the right, the authority and the need not only to comment on everything, but to make sure their voice is heard above the rest, and to drag down any opposing views through personal attacks, loud repetition and confrontation.
Bill Keller, writing in the New York Times argues that the anti-intellectual elitism is not an elitism of wisdom, education, experience or knowledge. The new elite are the angry social media posters, those who can shout loudest and more often, a clique of bullies and malcontents baying together like dogs cornering a fox. Too often it’s a combined elite of the anti-intellectuals and the conspiracy followers – not those who can voice the most cogent, most coherent response. Together they foment a rabid culture of anti-rationalism where every fact is suspect; every shadow holds a secret conspiracy. Rational thought is the enemy. Critical thinking is the devil’s tool.
Keller also notes that the herd mentality takes over online; the anti-intellectuals become the metaphorical equivalent of an angry lynch mob when anyone either challenges one of the mob beliefs or posts anything outside the mob’s self-limiting set of values.
Keller blames this in part to the online universe that “skews young, educated and attentive to fashions.” Fashion, entertainment, spectacle, voyeurism – we’re directed towards trivia, towards the inconsequential, towards unquestioning and blatant consumerism. This results in intellectual complacency. People accept without questioning, believe without weighing the choices, join the pack because in a culture where convenience rules, real individualism is too hard work. Thinking takes too much time: it gets in the way of the immediacy of the online experience.
Reality TV and pop culture presented in magazines and online sites claim to provide useful information about the importance of The Housewives of [you name the city] that can somehow enrich our lives. After all, how else can one explain the insipid and pointless stories that tout divorces, cheating and weight gain? How else can we explain how the Kardashians, or Paris Hilton are known for being famous without actually contributing anything worth discussion? The artificial events of their lives become the mainstay of populist media to distract people from the real issues and concerns facing us.
The current trend of increasing anti-intellectualism now establishing itself in politics and business leadership, and supported by a declining education system should be a cause for concern for leaders and the general population, one that needs to be addressed now.
Let’s quickly revisit what Bill Keller had to say;
The new elite are the angry social media posters, those who can shout loudest and more often, a clique of bullies and malcontents baying together like dogs cornering a fox. Too often it’s a combined elite of the anti-intellectuals and the conspiracy followers – not those who can voice the most cogent, most coherent response. Together they foment a rabid culture of anti-rationalism where every fact is suspect; every shadow holds a secret conspiracy. Rational thought is the enemy. Critical thinking is the devil’s tool.
You want to make America great again? Cool. Let’s start by educating our youth, providing opportunities for our college graduates and basic incentives to go to college in the first place so Rollerball doesn’t become a documentary. Let’s start with base of courses that teach STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math) based learning.
I won’t bother with the old Santayana trope here. It really doesn’t apply. From the ancient times of the Carpathian Priests, to the scholars of Egypt, to the philosophers of Greece and, later, Rome, to the Renaissance, to the world we live in, there have always been those who pushed knowledge forward, and people benefited from it. No matter whether or not they were directly involved.
Even in the, so called, Dark Ages, it wasn’t that people rejected knowledge, just that it was being denied them. A little book called il Modi changed that. The fact that it was porn and helped people read, and eventually question, the bible is a story for another day.
Or you can just click that link.
But, simply put, I can’t truly recall a time where willful ignorance was celebrated. And if we’re not careful, or Clifford D. Simak’s book, Time is the Simplest Thing, with its talismans and imaginary werewolves, will no longer be the stuff of wild fantasy. It will be what your next door neighbor believes.
Allow me to tackle a couple of easy “pseudo-theories” to get you started. I’m going to ignore the underlying lack of logic in each and just stick to facts.
- Chemtrails – assuming a flying height of approximately 30,000 feet, any chemicals released would be subject to sub-zero temperatures and heavy humidity. Such conditions render most toxins inert. For those that might survive you’re looking at a dispersion ratio so vast that each molecule could be meters away from the next. Add in wind currents and so on and it’s the least effective way to do anything ever invented.
- UFOs – assuming that aliens exist, and I believe they do, traveling to another world, even in a ship such as the one Miguel Alcubierre postulated, and later graphically represented by Mark Rademaker & NASA’s Dr. Harold White, would be pretty large. No matter what stealth technology such a ship might have, albeit needlessly (who the hell sees you in endless space? Just paint the fucking thing black), there would still be proof of their existence via propulsion residue and so on. Certainly such a ship couldn’t enter any atmosphere. And “scout ships” take up even more room, making such a ship even larger and easier to detect. We’ll ignore why the hell they’d make the journey in the first and then just fucking hide.
- Vaccines – since reading is difficult for anti-vaxxers, I’ve brought a visual aid.
There, now you know and knowing is half the battle.