Dumb and Dumber

I notice that the recent posts on SO have taken a turn towards the political. Nothing wrong with that. These days religion and politics have been so thoroughly mixed that it is hard to talk about one without the other. This is especially so when candidates for high office loudly tout their religious affiliations and convictions and tout them precisely as qualifications for public office. They must think those Founders were barking up the wrong tree when they put in the Constitution (Article VI, paragraph 3) that no religious test may be required for public office.

At my age (just shy of sixty) I find myself looking at the current scene, scratching my head and wondering how the hell we got here. How can it be that ideas and individuals who would have been relegated to the lunatic fringe in the old days are now mainstream? Fifty years ago Republicans would have laughed Michelle Bachman off the stage. Barry Goldwater, derided as extremist at the time, was a model of moderation and sanity compared to some of the current crop. (Goldwater, crusty as ever in his 80′s, was asked what he thought about Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority. He succinctly characterized Falwell as “an asshole.” Goldwater’s brand of conservatism was far more consistent than what passes for conservatism today. For Goldwater, getting the government out of your life meant getting it out of your bedroom too.) However, I think our deepest problem is not really so much the rise of pernicious ideologies; it is the ascendancy of sheer stupidity.
To begin to understand how we got here, I recommend the hilarious and horrifying book Idiot America by Charles P. Pierce. Pierce details how we have descended into the Age of Asininity. Of course, H.L. Mencken long ago quipped “No one every went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” There have always been morons; it is just that they have never had so much power or so dominated public discussion as now.
How did this happen, how did bay-at-the-moon lunacy come to occupy a more prominent place in our public discourse than textbook science? How, indeed, has it ever come to be thought that there is still a scientific debate over evolution, or that pluperfect nonsense like creationism, and its dressed-up cousin “intelligent design,” are worthy of a hearing? How did there come to be a multi-million dollar “creation museum” in Kentucky, with full-scale models of dinosaurs fitted out with saddles? (Adam and Eve needed those saddles. They were naked, and can you imagne the chafing you would get from riding a Triceratops bareback? Yeow.) How is it that the Texas State Board of Education can prefer the propaganda of extremist, ax-grinding cranks over the recommendations of hundreds of qualified scholars—and not be unceremoniously tossed out of office by the voters? How can a presidential administration censor and adulterate science for eight years (see Chris Mooney’s The Republican War On Science) without being savagely mauled in the media?

Pierce blames the rise of religious fundamentalism since the early 1980′s. He also notes (as does Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter with Kansas?) that the Republican Party expanded its base by at least paying lip service to all sorts of strange dogmas and loopy obsessions, from creationism to the “birther” nonsense. Chiefly, though, to really understand the Great Dumb Down, Pierce says you have to follow the money. Many wealthy and powerful individuals and corporations have a vested interest in keeping us stupid. When science tells you that your products or by-products are harming many people, but you are making money beyond the dreams of avarice, what do you do? You attack the science. Big Tobacco established the paradigm. When accumulating evidence linked cigarettes to cancer, Big Tobacco found that it was easy to hire your own “experts” and do your own “research” to undermine the findings of legitimate science. Your aim is to plant doubt in the minds of the public and politicians, who generally are too scientifically illiterate to distinguish your bogus science from the real thing.

Big Tobacco’s anti-science strategy worked amazingly well. Meaningful regulation of tobacco was delayed by years. Of course, millions died, but profits of billions upon billions were reaped. Lately, the tactics that worked so well for Big Tobacco have been adopted by many companies, from Big Oil to Big Food. The cartoon “Dilbert” shows how easy it is. The evil Dogbert walks into the offices of Rent a Weasel. “I need three unsuccessful and bitter scientists and a hundred lazy journalists” he demands. The weasel gladly accommodates. The last panel shows Dilbert reading a paper with the headline “Toddlers Thrive on Pollution.” Wealthy ideologues can even endow their own “think” tanks with the mission of producing skewed statistics, crap studies, misinformation and disinformation, and general obfuscation, all aimed at boosting bottom lines and warding off regulation. To top it off, the obscurantists have been much, much more effective than scientists in getting their message out to the public. Mere reason does not stand a chance against truckloads of money and great PR. Popes and Inquisitions could not stop science, but where dungeon, fire, and sword failed, big money might just succeed.

About Keith Parsons
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11967707883565162538 cipher

    Excellent. You've hit it right on the head. I'd add you and Pierce are both correct – over the past few decades, evangelicals have worked their way well into the middle class, and quite a few have become wealthy. The moneyed interests now include more than a few of them.

    The bottom line is that we're screwed – as a nation, as a global civilization and probably as a species. They won't change, and we can't stop them. I see no way out, no positive outcome.

    This just isn't going to end well.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Cipher,

    Thanks for the thumbs-up. I hate to admit it, but I share your gloom. I'll be dead in twenty years or so, but I fear that my younger friends and relatives by 2050 will be living in the world's biggest banana republic with a tiny percentage of obscenely wealthy and a vast population of peons.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11967707883565162538 cipher

    Yes, agreed – although I don't think humanity is going to last until 2050, or anywhere near that long.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10817974804323066290 shreddakj

    I certainly hope you're both wrong, I only turned 22 this year… But however, I live in New Zealand, we don't suffer so much from insane conservatives on this side of the pacific.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12132821431322748921 LadyAtheist

    In 1980 the Republican strategy to win the presidential election was to cut into Carter's base: born-again Southerners. That was the beginning of the relationship between the strange bedfellows of smart upper class string-pullers and ignorant lower class dolts. Anti-big-government rhetoric in 1980 was really just veiled racism. "Waste, fraud, and abuse" went right to the core of bigots who interpreted it as "black people in the big cities getting fat and watching TV on our dollars." Nevermind that white people constituted a majority of welfare recipients. That took a chunk out of Carter's base in the South right there, plus added some northern bigots (many of whom were union members I know from personal experience). Next, since they couldn't find a candidate who was more of a Christian than Carter, they had to court the leaders of Southern Christians, a.k.a. the "moral majority," a.k.a. white protestants. As time went on, in order to win the primary the candidates had to move further and further toward the edge to prove their bona fides to the ignorant masses.

    We don't have "red states" and "blue states." We have urban vs rural. You can reach the rural audience with talk radio, since for a long time that was the only kind of radio they could pull in. Bigotry is still a major factor in the "rise" of the right.

    Demographics are not on their side, however, because the rich string-pullers in agribusiness have hired smartypants engineers to engineer the small farmer out of business. They can keep them down on the farm with loans and subsidies for only so long. Their children saw the writing on the wall and looked around for alternate careers. But being ignorant they weren't really qualified for much besides suiting up and providing cannon fodder for "militants" in Afghanistan, Iraq, and whatever other place the Military-Industrial complex wants to send its multi-billion dollar toys.

    Anti-immigrant rhetoric bit them in the ass because so many Mexicans are social conservatives, and a lot are also economic conservatives.

    Barack Obama is the perfect target for them, except that he isn't. Even a tiny bit of thought or research shows him not to be stereotypical at all, and even an example of one of the "good ones" that even the most rabid racist has to admit exist. So in order to keep the bigotry stoking the fires, they have to lie about his origins, his SAT scores, and whatever racist tropes they can bend to fit the circumstances.

    In other words, they're nutty because that's the only way they can make a case. Otherwise, they don't have a leg to stand on.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Shreddakj,

    I don't know what it is about the U.S. I lived in Canada for four years, and a conservative there was someone whose politics were like Bill Clinton's. A middle-of-the-roader. There just was not anybody like Rick Perry or Michelle Bachmann. At least, there was nobody like that on public view. Maybe somebody had a crazy uncle or aunt like that that they kept quietly indoors and did not talk about. Nobody would stand up in public and say the sorts of things that fill the AM airwaves here.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11967707883565162538 cipher

    Nobody would stand up in public and say the sorts of things that fill the AM airwaves here.

    I know. It's unbelievable – yet there it is.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11967707883565162538 cipher

    We don't have "red states" and "blue states." We have urban vs rural.

    Yes, that is a large part of it, along with North vs. South. I believe all of the architects of the Republican takeover of Congress in the 90's were from Southern and Midwestern states.

    Anti-immigrant rhetoric bit them in the ass because so many Mexicans are social conservatives, and a lot are also economic conservatives.

    I'm not sure that's true. In any case, I think they've historically voted overwhelmingly for Democrats, and continue to do so. I don't know that the immigration issue had much to do with it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/07515414035373189099 Mellodee

    And yet, those who dare question, and wonder, and investigate are deemed the bad guys! The basic bottom line is that all those people who are behind all the scary rhetoric are only out for their own success….no matter what their area of influence. Pandering to the lowest denominator is insulting, manipulative, and downright scary. Is it possible that it is all just really about money and power? Bet your ass!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Having grown up in Georgia (or "Jawja" as we put it) I have to agree with Cipher that part of what is going on is South vs. North. That late unpleasantness of 150 years ago did not end in 1865. The South has always been culturally distinct from the North. Though obscurantists like David Barton attempt to portray the Founders as fundamentalists (fortunately, hardly anybody listens to Barton except the Texas State Board of Education), in fact the Founders were skeptical, secular men of the Enlightenment (see Brooke Allen's excellent Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers). The ethos of the South has always been anti-(or maybe pre-)Enlightenment. Southern values are patriarchal, traditional, and religious with an ethic based on personal honor rather than rational or pragmatic considerations. The upshot is that anti-intellectualism is endemic to the South and a concomitant deep distrust of Northern "intellectual elites." Just imagine what would happen if a Harvard-educated professor–who also is African-American–were to be elected president. Wow. True Southerners would be ready to fire on Fort Sumter again!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11967707883565162538 cipher

    The South has always been culturally distinct from the North.

    Gore Vidal, among others, has been suggesting for years that we should Balkanize. I'm at a point now at which I'd love to see it happen. It's too late to save the US in any form, but I'd like to spend these last few years free from the ravings and manipulations of evangelicals and good ol' boys. I have nothing in common, ideologically, with a Southerner or rural Midwesterner – certainly not with a conservative Christian – and I'm tired of their preferences and considerations outweighing mine and those of the few people I respect.

    Texas, we can give away altogether. I've recently been given to understand that many Mexicans still feel it was taken illegally, but they're too polite to say so. For God's sake, give it back to them, no questions asked! We can airlift out the few liberals; shouldn't entail more than one or two plane loads. Perhaps we could also get France to take back the Louisiana Territory.

    Oh, hell – let's just give ourselves back to England. At least we'll finally get a public health option.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09925591703967774000 Dianelos Georgoudis

    I share in the sentiments expressed by Keith and Cipher, but wonder if we are not losing some sense of proportion here.

    First of all the US continues to be the foremost soft power there is. All educated people around the world are Americans whether they like it or not. People read American books and technical journals and discuss on the American Internet, watch American movies and listen to American music. By electing President Obama the American people gave an example and an inspiration to the rest of the world. Democracy and economic freedom are really American ideals. Pseudoscience in America is not winning but losing. So there is much good going on.

    Now about the bad. Much is being made of the evil and indeed dumbing down effects of religion in America, but the failure of America’s science education and the general loss of critical thinking is not I think caused by bad American religion. Rather I think the causes go much deeper and are ultimately to be found in the explicitly and centrally materialist culture that dominates American society. It’s all about money and about how to consume more and about how to continue doing so. Even religion is morphing into one more service for feel-good consumption. In such a culture the value of true, humanist, and philosophical education becomes secondary. Given this state of affairs though, I’d argue that if anything and on the whole the American religious institutions are a force for good and against American materialism. Just a few examples: The one American institution which from the very beginning spoke against the disastrous Iraq war was not the Press and not the Academia and not the National Academy of Sciences (and certainly not the New Atheist movement) – but the American Catholic Church. And any audible voices in America against materialism come from religious sources.

    Now I actually understand Cipher’s pessimism, and when I think about the situation I too cannot think of a way out. But being a theist I believe there is a source of reason and of goodness and of moral strength to which all people have access to, and thus *hope* that we shall prove to be a wiser species than we right now seem.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11967707883565162538 cipher

    Pseudoscience in America is not winning but losing.

    the failure of America’s science education and the general loss of critical thinking is not I think caused by bad American religion.

    I could not disagree more.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11967707883565162538 cipher

    Oh, and the Catholic Church in America has hardly shown itself to be an upholder of moral virtue.

    And many atheists and secular humanists were, in fact, opposed to the war.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Science in America's colleges and universities is still robust. Students from around the world still flock to science and engineering programs at MIT, Chicago, Berkeley…and even at my institution, The University of Houston-Clear Lake. Nobel honorees are still disproportionately Americans.

    Where we are declining precipitously is at the elementary and secondary levels. I saw just yesterday that the U.S. ranks 25th,that's 25th, among the nations in the mathematical literacy of its students. Given the magnificent scientific and technological heritage of this country, and the resources we have, we should be head-and-shoulders above everyone in the STEM fields, instead of being somewhere between Portugal and Latvia.

    Does fundamentalist religion have an effect on the "dumbing down?" Sure. I have seen it at work first hand here in Texas. The State Board of Education, which makes all the big decisions about curriculum, is dominated by fundamentalist activists. The chair of the SBOE used to be one Don McLeroy, a creationist dentist. These zealots, openly aligning themselves with creationist organizations like the Discovery Institute, did their best to water down science education and inject creationist themes and programs into the curriculum. Only the tireless opposition of academics and organizations like the Texas Freedom Network kept them from doing even more damage. Where fundamentalists have not been effective in sabotaging science, it is not due to lack of trying, but only because they were stopped.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11967707883565162538 cipher

    I didn't know you were in Texas, Keith. I wouldn't have made that crack earlier. My apologies.

    (Not that I didn't mean it; I just wouldn't have said it.)

    And yes, I'm aware of McLeroy and the SBOE. God, what a debacle.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16641266062186767500 Keith Parsons

    Cipher,

    I live in Texas, but I am not a Texan. No offense taken.

    Actually, I have butted heads with the Texas creationist crowd. A few years ago, the National Center for Science Education sent a speaker here and several of us local folks were asked to participate in giving a presentation on the importance of teaching evolution. The talk was at Montgomery Community College, just north of Houston. Montgomery County is the belly of the beast as far as fundamentalist and far-right fanaticism goes. We had a pretty hostile crowd. One guy apparently disagreed with what we were saying, so he offered his rebuttal by jumping up, thumbing his nose in my direction, and stomping out. I thumbed my nose back at him. Dumb move, it immediately occurred to me. Make rude gestures at a Bible-thumpin', gun-totin' liberal-hatin' Texas shitkicker, and he might be waiting for you in the parking lot with a shotgun. Fortunately, there was no confrontation, and I'll be more careful next time.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11967707883565162538 cipher

    Make rude gestures at a Bible-thumpin', gun-totin' liberal-hatin' Texas shitkicker, and he might be waiting for you in the parking lot with a shotgun.

    Heh! Yeah, I can imagine.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11967707883565162538 cipher

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