The Great Dumbening (Wait, Is That A Real Word?)

There is a growing contempt for thinking amongst certain quarters in this country and it is as dangerous as any foreign power has ever been.  Contempt for knowledge, real innovation and critical thinking have become a rallying cry for anyone in disagreement with the dogma of the far right.  And while it didn’t begin with the far Right’s outcry about the president’s statement about everyone having the opportunity to go to college, the speech certainly galvanized the anti-intellectual movement.  Now, I’ll be the first to agree that not everyone need go to college. There is value in learning and practicing a trade and it is, admittedly, something that has been devalued in recent years. However there is equal value in education, regardless of what you do for a living. Education doesn’t mean elitism anymore than being skilled at hunting or farming or woodworking means you are an oaf. The world is not as binary as they claim, and I say this as someone who has done both what amounted to trade school as well as graduate school.  Both have been exceedingly valuable. Unfortunately, for the Right it has become an either or declaration of value and a moral litmus test. So much for the people complaining about class warfare – they are as guilty as anyone of fanning any such flames.

America has always had a critical thinking deficit.  It has a long tradition of anti-intellectualism. This is particularly perverse and contradictory, since America’s Founders were the most intellectual group that ever founded any nation we know of. Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, etc. were all brilliant thinkers, well educated and dedicated to the idea that reason was the best guide to any endeavor. The desire to foster free and critical thinking, both in government and in the society at large, was one of their notable goals.  The Enlightenment was the heritage on which America’s Founders depended.  But anti-intellectualism has become a mainstay of the not-so-far Right in America today.

Anti-intellectualism is hostility towards and mistrust of intellectual pursuits, expressed through antagonism of  science, art, education.  In public discourse, anti-intellectuals usually perceive and publicly present themselves as champions of the common folk proposing that the educated are a social class detached from the everyday concerns of the majority. This has become the new mantra of the Likes of Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, etc. And while it was never a pillar of the Republican Party, it has crept in as a mainstay of the post-Tea Party conservative identity. Hopefully, that will change.  In the meantime, it is a fundamental threat to everything the Right upholds as sacred – defense, personal liberty and economic development.

Opinion has become what serves for reason and now trumps critical thinking in the public discourse. But the fact of the matter is that training and education are more than esoteric pursuits.  Expertise in an area, whether plumbing or biology trumps opinions grounded in vague statements of belief, and the bulk of the arguments being presented in the anti-intellectual movement are just that – vague, unreasoned, unfounded speculation or rehashing of familiar dogma.  Flat Earth theory is somehow seen as valid though everything points to its absurdity. So, while I would be inclined to defer to an engineer about matters of structural integrity or to a carpenter about matters of home building, so to would I defer to a biologist on matters of evolution or an psychologist on matters of cognition.  The point is that while opinions are valid, education does indeed confer special knowledge and expertise that is not so much a matter of opinion as training. There is nothing elitist about it.

Education allows for a wider range of perspectives and creative thinking. That leads to more innovation and growth of the economy, political freedom and civil discourse. Leonard Susskind, Felix Bloch Professor of Theoretical Physics at Stanford University, began his career as a plumber. It was that work that led to his seminal work on the nature of black holes and the nature of the universe.  It was at the intersection of these two seemingly binary occupations that imagination and reason flourished.  The imagination deficit we currently seem to be fostering in the US is closely tied to our critical thinking deficit. Minds that are perpetually muddled in uncritically accepted ideas and psuedo-facts, incapable of grasping clear-cut truths are hardly prepared to grasp projected possibilities and judge them soundly.  Hardly a positive situation for innovation and economic growth.  Contrary to the arguments being presented on the far Right this is about opportunity, not indoctrination.

But the current anti-intellectualism was never about elitism or a return some mythical past where everything bordered on the utopian. It was about power and fostering division. It is about training people to be blind followers. It is about control. It allows for power to be held in the hands of a few.  The most vocal about the issue use anti-intellectualism to gain popular support by accusing intellectuals of being a socially detached, politically-dangerous class who question the extant social norms, who dissent from established opinion, and who reject nationalism, hence they are unpatriotic and thus subversive of the nation. And there is nothing new in this, nor is it the sole property of the Right. It was used by Mao, Pol Pot and the Nazis.  Unfortunately, the long-term results of the anti-intellectual movement result in devastating consequences for the rights of citizens, the growth of innovation and the development of the economy. None of these seem particularly smart.

Published by gavinjohnston67

Take an ex-chef who’s now a full-fledge anthropologist and set him free to conduct qualitative research, ethnography, brand positioning, strategy and sociolinguistics studies and you have Gavin. He is committed to understand design and business problems by looking at them through an anthropological lens. He believes deeply in turning research findings into actionable results that provide solid business strategies and design ideas. It's not an insight until you do something with it. With over 18 years of experience in strategy, research, and communications, he has done research worldwide for a diverse set of clients within retail, legal, banking, automotive, telecommunications, health care and consumer products industries.

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  1. anti-intellectualism is what scares me the most. Here’s to the thinkers, the wool-gatherers, the dreamers, and anyone who believes that they can, through the pursuit of creativity and education, improve themselves, and the world in which we all live.

  2. As for the substantive point you make, the rabid anti-intellectualism that blights public discourse in the United States of America is particularly dangerous given its military might, the numbers and deployment of its armed forces overseas, and the rather weird but very popular and patriotic idea that the USA is the great defender of global ‘freedom,’ whatever that might mean. Any objection to this very weird idea is construed as ‘anti-American,’ ‘liberal-left,’ ‘communist,’ ‘queer,’ ‘godless,’ ‘Mexican’ (yes, I know, but some websites I have found are very clear on this notion), or dismissive of the great sacrifices made by the men and women of the USA’s armed forces. The irony is, any attempt to engage these issues in a measured, evidence-based debate is bound to fail because of the very irrationality of these ‘arguments.’ The anti-intellectuals in the US are quite simply employing the same tactics we all remember from the schoolyard – if you don’t like what you are hearing, stick your fingers in your ears, stamp your foot and scream.

  3. I am dismayed to report that the Anti Intellectualism of which this essay speaks is as rife in India too. In a faithful resonance of its American counterparts, the deranged Far Right, usually comprised of Hindu, Muslim and in some cases Christian anachronists bludgeon reason into submission at the altar of entirely fictitious notions of religious, cultural or social stability. To compound India’s tragedy, we have nearly no mainstream satire that can puncture this tragic buffoonery.

  4. Thank you for writing this, I have been having Twilight Zone moments when it seems like nobody else perceives this trend, which to me is frighteningly obvious. The connection with oppression that you point out at the end is of particular import.

    I have noticed a “democratization” of truth in recent years, I believe as a consequence of misunderstood relativism. In previous generations, moral and social “truths” were held to be absolute, and were even codified to abolish the notion of relativism or interpretation. People by and large felt they lived in a world governed by truths that were A) absolute and B) understood by them.

    The social and technological changes of 20th century were unkind to those absolutes. A lot of very smart people came along and pointed out, for example, that being written in an ancient book was no reason for something to be true, and in large degree succeeded in tearing down old absolutist dogmas. These people, for the most part, were probably not of the opinion that there could be no such thing as absolute fact, merely that ancient moral prescriptions did not belong to that class. However, to those lacking knowledge of scientific reasoning (or at least training in critical thinking), this distinction was lost. Suddenly there was no more right and wrong, everyone was entitled to an opinion, and most importantly, all opinions were equally valid.

    Fast forward to the present: on scientific issues such as evolution and climate change, the debate seems to have become a matter of attracting adherents rather than compiling evidence. What percentage of scientists say there is no climate change? The left says it is less than one percent, but the right says it could be as high as 20 percent, and growing! Very commonly when discussing evolution, I am referred to the number of “scientists” who do not believe in it as proof that it is a fiction. This is why I say the truth has become “democratized”: the mentality seems to be that we can all believe what we want, and if there are enough of us, we will win and it will become true. It is thus important to gain adherents for your view and take them away from your opposition, because otherwise you won’t win and your opinion will never be true. The role of evidence becomes one of convincing the skeptics rather than establishing truth or falsity.

    Fundamentally, this comes from the conflation of two different kinds of arguments. A non-evidentiary argument is an opinion. Obama is a buffoon. Fords suck. It’s a beautiful day. You can agree with it or disagree with it (or even agree slightly or emphatically), but that’s all. The only thing that will make it anything other than a matter of individual opinion is gathering evidence. The opinion may be held by more or fewer people, and normally we like it when more people agree with our opinions, but the statement is not capable of really being true or false.

    An evidence-based argument is unavoidably a statement of fact. It is completely non-relative. It is either right or wrong, and which it is depends on A) whether the evidence is valid and B) whether the evidence necessarily leads to the conclusion. It is not affected by whether it is believed by one person or one million people (or no people). Gravity has been found to exert a force on two bodies proportional to the product of their masses divided by the square of their distance. The angles of a closed three-sided figure add up to a semicircle. Thermodynamic systems always evolve such that overall entropy increases.

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