Dumber by the Minute
Call the Centers for Disease Control, quick! No, forget about ebola, the decades-long epidemic of stupidosis has spread to dangerous levels. Symptoms are incapacity for rational thought, and the inability to articulate a coherent sentence. In a way, it’s similar to AIDS, but the virus is mental: Acquired Intellectual Deficiency Syndrome. In this case, though, there is no vaccine, no cure, and no treatment. Once you get it, the disease is terminal. The main vectors of transmission are right-wing talk radio and mainstream media, but there are other factors as well. The problem, as we’ll see, is that it can be difficult to distinguish from ignorance, which is simply not knowing something. The good news is that ignorance is treatable — through education.
I’ve already said my piece about American ignorance (see “Who Needs Science?” and “Don’t Know Much About History,” archives, May 2012 & June 2014), but I can make an even better case for this malady. Twenty years ago I was a mail clerk at a law firm. One day while pushing the cart down the hall I passed an open office, and overheard one of the attorneys on the phone: “You know, Americans are getting dumber by the minute.” A lot of minutes have passed since then, and Americans have gotten a little dumber with each one.
Some guy robs a bank but locks the keys in his car. Two guys rob a Starbucks, but only after they use the Wi-Fi to check their Facebook status. We hear about stupid criminals all the time (the smart ones don’t get caught), but this has spread nationwide, and it isn’t just here. Great Britain and the U.S. are both gradually changing signage, removing the apostrophe. It’s just too confusing to people. So now Pike’s Peak becomes a plural of a medieval weapon, Pikes Peak. So rather than teaching literacy, let’s stoop to the lowest common denominator and encourage further ignorance.
When fundamentalist Christians are not only against abortion, but also the most effective means of preventing it — contraception — that’s stupid. If Mr. Green, patriarch of the family owning Hobby Lobby, think IUDs and Plan B are abortive, that’s just ignorant. After the election of George W. Bush in 2000, many people said they voted for him because he seemed like the kind of guy they’d want to have a beer with (rather than Al Gore). That may be fine if you’re electing the president of a fraternity, but for leader of the free world? Mark that one as stupid. How about this one: Obama is coming for your guns! And the way you know that is because under his administration gun laws are more relaxed than ever, even after a U.S. Congresswoman was shot in the head and the Sandy Hook massacre of children. Ignorant or stupid? You decide.
In 2009 Sarah Palin came out with her book Going Rogue: An American Life. Almost immediately, someone wrote a parody, Going Rouge: An American Nightmare, and a lot of people bought that, thinking it was the Palin book. The same thing is happening now. Emily Schultz published a novel called Joyland as an e-book, in 2007. Since Stephen King’s novel of the same name last year, Schultz’ sales have spiked, because people don’t take the time to actually read the cover of the book they’re about to buy and read. You have to appreciate the irony.
I listen to lots of talk radio, left and right. Every day I hear a caller who seems unable to string a simple thought together: “I, uh, wanted to, um, you know, ask the guy you, uh, had on before, you know, what he was, uh . . . “ You just about have to lay down a string of bread crumbs to find your way back to the topic. For pure dumb, though, it’s hard to beat the tea parties. What ever happened to them, anyway? Did they fall victim to Darwinian natural selection and die off? What? They got elected to Congress? Good grief. Anyway, in the heyday of their billionaire-sponsored rallies a few years ago, the signage was revealing: “Get government hands off my Medicare!” was a good one. There were signs accusing Obama of being a plain woven piece of cotton — Muslin. My favorite sign of them all was this: “Get a brain, morans!” Wow, when you’re so stupid you can’t spell ‘moron,’ you have arrived at the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University came up with this hypothesis, which occurs “when people fail to adequately assess their level of competence — or specifically, their incompetence — at a task and thus consider themselves much more competent than everyone else. This lack of awareness is attributed to their lower level of competence, robbing them of the ability to critically analyze their performance, leading to a significant overestimate of themselves. Put more crudely, they’re too stupid to realize they’re stupid.” It’s easy to see Dunning Kruger in practice, from people texting while driving to texting while walking into an open manhole. If you have Dunning-Kruger, you could be stupid and not even know it. Take the example of two years ago, a guy named Todd Akin, who was running for the U.S. Senate. He said publicly that rape victims couldn’t get pregnant, “because the female body has ways of shutting that whole thing down.”
Have you heard of “coal rollers” or “coal rolling?” You can install a kit on the diesel engine in your big pickup. At the touch of a switch the exhaust emits a thick, black, oily cloud of soot. It’s a protest against Obama’s “war on coal.” They call it Prius repellent, but it’s more often used when passing bicyclists or joggers. I think we have an example here of something that’s simultaneously stupid and ignorant.
This epidemic of dimness has many causes, not the least being the education industry. How can students learn anything when teachers are constantly forced to teach to the next standardized test? Renaissance Learning, Inc. recently evaluated reading levels of students from grades 9-12, and determined the average level is 5.3, or barely over 5th grade level. This is “obviously not high enough for college-level reading. Nor is it high enough for high school-level reading, either, or for informed citizenship,” said Sandra Stotsky, professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas. Critical thinking isn’t being taught either, and the overly influential Texas School Board has even written in their policy that they’re against the teaching of critical thinking. Perhaps they’re confused, and think that means teaching people to be critical. Here’s an example of what we’re up against. A high school student was asked on an exam to provide an example of a simile, using the words ‘as’ or ‘like.’ This is what she wrote: “Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.”
Dumber by the minute, tick, tick, tick. It’s not much better for the adult population, either. Americans’ reading and comprehension averages out to between 7th and 8th grade levels. And to top that, right-wing ideologue David Horowitz keeps pissing and moaning that there are too many “liberal” professors teaching in colleges and universities. David, THAT’S WHAT WE WANT! The liberal arts are about teaching general intellectual capacities, by definition. When I was in high school and college in the 1960s, smart was the IN thing to be. We were going to the moon. Everyone seemed to be an engineering major. Today, intellectuals are regarded with distrust and suspicion, and all too many people seem actually proud of their ignorance. That’s really stupid, but even worse, it’s dangerous.
What’s going on? Are they putting something into the water? No, much of it is intentional. Oligarchs just love stupid and ignorant people, because they’re easy to manipulate. The tea parties expressed much the same outrage that we saw in the Occupy movement, but they believed those who told them it was all the immigrants’ fault, or the blacks, or liberals. Fox News is one of the most egregious offenders. A 2012 study by Fairleigh Dickinson University reported that viewers who got their news from Fox News were less informed than those who watched no news at all. And technology hasn’t made us any smarter, either. Nobody has to know anything anymore, they can just Google it, then forget it. A recent Bloomsbury cartoon captured the meme: “Search is the new learn.” We have a surplus of data and a shortage of knowledge.
A Pew Research poll a few months ago showed that a whopping 49% of Americans didn’t know which party controls the U.S. House of Representatives, and 65% didn’t know who controls the Senate. Wait, I think I’m in that 65%. The Democrats have about a ten seat advantage, but the Republicans filibuster everything put on the floor, so every bill needs sixty votes to override the filibuster. I wonder what percentage of Americans doesn’t know that, and the Republicans are counting on that ignorance. They’re betting that by obstructing everything, Obama will get the blame, and I’m betting they’ll be right.
Are we all getting dumber by the minute, or just those debilitated by stupidosis? Maybe most of us are smart, and we only hear about all this stupidity because those are the people making the loudest racket. Nearly everyone I know is pretty bright, or I wouldn’t bother with them. I’ve got better things to do than hang around with a bunch of morans. In her book The Age of American Unreason, Susan Jacoby talked about junk thought, the mental equivalent of fast food. Way to much of that these days. There’s another possibility, too. Maybe Mark Twain was right in The Mysterious Stranger when he said that we’re a race of sheep, easily pushed around by aggressive political minorities. My dad used to say that the empty wagon makes the most noise, and I guess he was right about that, too. If Twain was right, I don’t see much hope for us.
Jefferson and the other Founders insisted that democracy can only work as long as there is an educated and informed electorate. Each of us has a civic duty to make ourselves aware of political issues and decisions that affect our lives, either directly or indirectly. There’s no excuse for ignorance anymore, if there ever was.
To recap, if you’re afflicted with Dunning-Kruger you don’t know you’re stupid. But I’ve come up with this easy test. First, point to your ass, then your elbow. Could you tell the difference? That’s good. Now hold a mirror up to one ear, and have someone blow into the other. If the mirror doesn’t fog up, you’re probably alright. Remember, while stupidosis may not have a cure, we do have an immune response — a fully functioning cerebral cortex. Now get out there, America, and get smart. And pay attention!
Never argue with stupid people. They will drag you down to their level, then beat you with experience. — Mark Twain