The Dumbing Down

by JAKE NORTON

September 2023
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.’ - Isaac Asimov

The man walked through Camp Muir and onto the Cowlitz Glacier with utter nonchalance like he was at the Puyallup Mall. He was dressed in Bermuda shorts, a v-neck sweater, ball cap, and as my friend and co-guide Tracy Roberts said, had technical gear consisting of Velcro Reeboks and a 6-foot wooden staff.

“I’ll go talk to him,” Tracy said while strapping on his crampons. He sprinted across the glacier after the man, the gaping smiles of late-summer crevasses all around.

Fifteen minutes later, Tracy was back, shaking his head, as the man continued upward toward Cathedral Rocks.

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.’

- Isaac Asimov

“What did he say?” we asked with pained curiosity.

“Well,” Tracy smiled wryly, angrily, “I asked him first where he was going and he said ‘Up, to the top, where do you think?’ I told him it surprised me a bit because he was alone, with no ropes, no crampons, no climbing gear, no knowledge it seemed of the mountain and climbing. He told me to fuck off, to mind my own business, that he didn’t need to know that stuff and he didn’t need me telling him what to do anyhow.”

“I told him what he was doing was dangerous, and he told me it was his decision to make, not mine, and it shouldn’t concern me. I got a bit pissed then and let him know that it was me and my fellow guides who would be pulling his damn body out of a crevasse later today, so it did concern me.”

“But, he kept climbing,” Tracy said, kicking the snow with his cramponed boot. “And, we’ll soon get called on a rescue. Jesus.”

Fortunately, not twenty minutes later, climbing rangers from the National Park encountered the man and used their authority to turn him around. Crisis of stupidity averted.

This story jumped to mind recently as I listened to Charlie Sykes and Tom Nichols discussing Our Surreal Moment on The Bulwark Podcast in which they’re talking about the dumbing down of America, the shunning expertise and intellect, the celebration and adulation of narcissistic ignorance.

In his book The Death Of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, Nichols writes:

No, the bigger problem is that we’re proud of not knowing things. Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is an actual virtue. To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong about anything.

- Tom Nichols, The Death Of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters (Amazon | Library)

There was a time no so long ago when we respected expertise, revered knowledge, and celebrated the wizened, when people with experience and concomitant intellect were cherished, respected, and sought after to share with a new generation.

But, it seems, not so much anymore. Our culture increasingly derides expertise, shuns intellect and experience, while simultaneously lionizing vapidity, placing ignorant virality on a gilded pedestal and learned lucidity in the trash bin.

And this dumbing down is not relegated to the far right Trumpist fringe (although it may be most comically evident there), but apparent across the spectrum. The far left has its fair share of vaccine-denialism (despite nearly all of them having benefited from numerous prior vaccines) and a shunning of expertise when convenient and expedient. No, this is a more generalized malaise affected the whole of society, and we ignore it at our peril.

I say peril because, well, it’s perilous, this dumbing down of our politics, our conversation, our society, our selves. A healthy nation, a healthy society, functions because of expertise - and experts who embody that expertise - and an inherent trust of those experts and their knowledge. That is not to say a blind trust in experts, for they - like all of us - are fallible; but instead to believe that, by-in-large, they and their systems are correct. Again, Tom Nichols:

At the root of all this is an inability among laypeople to understand that experts being wrong on occasion about certain issues is not the same thing as experts being wrong consistently on everything. The fact of the matter is that experts are more often right than wrong, especially on essential matters of fact. And yet the public constantly searches for the loopholes in expert knowledge that will allow them to disregard all expert advice they don’t like.

In part, this is because human nature…tends to search for those loopholes in everything. But equally if not more important is that when experts and professionals are wrong, the consequences can be catastrophic…No one is arguing that experts can’t be wrong. Rather, the point is that they are less likely to be wrong than nonexperts. The same people who anxiously point back in history to the thalidomide disaster routinely pop dozens of drugs into their mouths, from aspirin to antihistamines, which are among the thousands and thousands of medications shown to be safe by decades of trials and tests conducted by experts. It rarely occurs to the skeptics that for every terrible mistake, there are countless successes that prolong their lives.

- Tom Nichols, The Death Of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters (Amazon | Library)

And, it’s not just medicine or science; our entire society, our nation, functions because of expertise, and has done so in spectacular ways since its founding. If we want that to continue, we must fight against the inertia of what counter-Enlightenment philosopher Giambattista Vico called the “Ideal Eternal History:”

Men first felt necessity then look for utility, next attend to comfort, still later amuse themselves with pleasure, thence grow dissolute in luxury, and finally go mad and waste their substance.

- Giambattista Vico

In a deeply prophetic passage back in 1995, Carl Sagan put our current crisis perfectly:

…science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. 1 have a foreboding of an America in my children's or grandchildren's time - when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance…The plain lesson is that study and learning - not just of science, but of anything - are avoidable, even undesirable.

We've arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements - transportation, communications, and all other industries; agriculture, medicine, education, entertainment, protecting the environment; and even the key democratic institution of voting - profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.

- Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Library)

I’m not sure what precisely the solution is, but I know for sure what it isn’t. It isn’t us being that climber waddling across the Cowlitz, Reeboks slipping as we lean on our staff. There is no ranger sweeping down to turn us around, to save us from our collective doom. The responsibility is on us.

Maybe Sagan said it best in a call for expertise, knowledge, understanding:

I believe our future depends powerfully on how well we understand this cosmos in which we float like a mote of dust in the morning sky.

- Carl Sagan

2 comments on “The Dumbing Down”

  1. The followers of the cult of ignorance represent only a small part of the population. Human knowledge will always increase thanks to our intelligence which will however soon be overtaken by AI which few humans will be able to follow.

  2. The continuous business of so many means no time to stop and reflect. To be alone and with onesself.you know that to find myself I had to leave America. It is working. I miss people. I miss the beauty of America. But I do not miss the anger the hatred and the fear. Shalom

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