The Growing Tide of Anti-Intellectualism

There is an undeniable, politically-supported growth of denial — and even hatred — of learning, facts, and the educated. Greed (and, most likely, fear of minorities) feeds demagoguery. Demagoguery can lead to harmful policies and thereafter to mob actions.

I’ve written on this topic here before. I also have cited an excellent essay from Scientific American about how the rising tide of anti-intellectualism threatens our democracy and future (you should read it).

What prompts this post is a recent article about a thinly-veiled political probe of the National Science Foundation, combined with the pending national election in the US. (Some of these issues apply elsewhere in the world, but this is a US-centric post.)

This view is also reinforced by my current experience — I am on a combined speaking tour and family vacation in Poland. I recently visited a memorial to the Katyn massacre, remembering when Soviet NKVD killed 22,000 captured Poles, many of whom were included because they were educated “intelligentsia.” Later today, I am visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau, where intellectuals were taken as well as Jews, Romani, the handicapped, and other undesirables, over a million of whom were subsequently executed. The Cambodian killing fields were filled with the bodies of educators, scientists, and doctors — even simply people who wore glasses — and their families, because they were viewed as enemies of the ruling belief system who could point out inconvenient facts and fallacies in the pronouncements of the leaders. History is filled with examples of shuttering of universities, burning of books, banning of lectures, and mass executions of the educated. The death sentence on Socrates is a canonical example of the problem.

I will admit to my own partisan (in the US) leaning here — which is steadily increasing as I observe prior cutbacks to NASA, NSF and basic science (e.g., here), claiming made-up medical evidence to attack women’s health choice issues (e.g., this and this), denial of climate change (e.g., here), denial of evolution, attacks against the EPA in favor of big-money polluters, promoting incorrect history books in for secondary school education, rhetoric about shutting down the Department of Education, perpetuating predatory student loan rates and other examples.

There is a clear and growing bias against education and even basic facts, primarily promoted by the GOP. Worse, they are finding widespread social support for these biases. Hiding behind claims of saving taxpayer money (so it can be spent on the military) and promoting religious freedoms (but in practice, only a select set of religions) has become their standard practice; those involved who don’t promote it either tolerate it or attempt to justify it. by picking a few counter-examples or cases of ignorance by other political entities.

For instance, if you read the above examples and were mentally making a list of “That citation is biased” or “All politicians are equally bad” or “But what about when that Democrat said….” then you are almost certainly part of the problem — denying the bigger picture by cherry-picking counterexamples. I won’t debate individual items, because that is to ignore the very clear overall pattern.

Socially, we are seeing the impact — for example, the popularity of Fox “News” stories that continue to present false information, candidates who are lying publicly despite being called out on it because the electorate doesn’t respond (Colbert’s “Truthiness” was a brilliant way of labeling this), the rise of one-issue deniers….

The recent scare-mongering and reactions to the spread of Ebola shows a combination ignorance of science, a political motivation (the GOP claims to want an “Ebola Czar” to make it look like they are doing something, but has been blocking the appointment of a Surgeon General and cutting funds to NIH for years), and even a racial component (1 death and 2 infections in the US is a crisis; thousands dying every week in West Africa merits not a mention).

Another case of malleable facts for political ends? Arguments for voter ID laws are specious and even evil (a veteran GOP US judge called it), but are being justified by made up facts so as to help keep voters disenfranchised who might threaten GOP candidates. (Look at the history of such laws — they are always proposed and passed in GOP-led state legislatures).

I don’t mean to condemn everyone who leans towards the Republicans, nor am I absolving any Democrats of their many peccadillos and faults. Politics tends to breed a certain level of corruption, and people with nuanced views are often unelectable.

However, I am deeply concerned with the direction in which we are headed, spearheaded by one political party, where dumb is considered “statesmanlike,” facts are inconvenient, religious mythology trumps science, and any observation of this is treated as if all views are equally valid. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson is alleged to have responded when creationists demanded equal time to present their view after the airing of Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey on TV: “You don’t talk about the spherical Earth with NASA, and then say let’s give equal time to the flat Earthers. Science is not there for you to cherry pick.”

Beliefs may be equal, but science and history are not “beliefs.” You can choose your beliefs, but you cannot choose facts.

If you have read this far, you are likely educated and capable of thought. You should be concerned about the trends, too. Don’t buy in to “All political parties are the same” because some research into this issue will reveal they are not, at least on this topic. Don’t excuse anti-intellectualism as simply “ conflict of competing belief systems.” Understand it for what is is. Speak out about it. If you are a fan of the GOP’s views on smaller government, immigration, or defense — fine, speak out in GOP forums on issues of science and truth, and make those a priority in your decision-making.

Perhaps more importantly, vote. Urge others to vote. Support candidates of any party who do not deny science, do not belittle education, do not make up their own version of the facts. Get others to vote, and educate them about the candidates. We want the smartest, best-educated people leading the world — not the dumbest, most biased, and most dishonest. Don’t vote solely by political party, although I encourage you to think about the above pattern if you don’t have any other information at hand.

Pastor Martin Niemoller is credited with the famous saying “First they came for the Sociaists, and I did not speak out….Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.” Let us not be the ones left, for whom there is no one left to speak. Let us seek to ensure that our descendants live in a world where knowledge is valued, truth — even difficult truth — is sought, and idiots are not given public acclaim.

And don’t forget to vote!

(Update: a few hours after I originally posted this, Borowitz came up with an appropriate news parody article in the New Yorker.)


5 Responses to “The Growing Tide of Anti-Intellectualism”

  1. Chris Allen Says:

    I agree, but you left out a crucial factor: money.

    The continually-increasing costs of university education (that is used to pay unmerited and unbelievable upper Administration salaries, large salaries for Athletics Administrators, Athletic Departments, and University Aesthetics, while at the same time programs get cut, instructor pay is cut, and long term instructors replaced with what amounts to part-time minimum wage workers) plays a role here. The enormous debt most students must take on in order to get a degree has become an active deterrent.

    Another deterrent is the lack of jobs for graduates: far too many people with bachelor’s or master’s degrees end up working minimum wage jobs; not because that’s all they aspire to, but rather because our employment market is flooded with potential employees, many of whom *had* good jobs before those jobs were shut down and/or shipped overseas. Colleges and Universities need to play a more active role in helping graduates find employment… but also, government needs to take steps to curtail the movement of factories, companies, and headquarters to foreign soil for slave labor and tax-avoidance purposes.

    Given that 1) higher education has become hideously expensive, requiring mortgage-sized loans of students; 2) most people now know that a college degree, in a great many cases, is not likely to help one get a job that allows payoff *of* those student loans; and 3) the actual quality of the education received has dropped in many places, thanks to “cost-cutting” policies that have decimated instructor ranks, along with policies that have restructured Universities to a *business* model rather than an *education* model… it’s not surprising that more and more of our youth are skipping college altogether.

    Illustrating that with a personal P.O.V.: my family has always stressed Education. There are several educators in my family tree. My mother has her 6-years degree in Education; my uncle has a doctorate, and several of my other relatives have at minimum a bachelor’s degree, as do I and my husband. The situation in higher education has gotten *so* bad in this country, that we are seriously considering whether our young son should even *bother* to attempt college here. We don’t want to see him yoked to a huge debt, and we’re concerned that the education he receives may be sub-standard… along with being concerned that a degree may not help his employment opportunities: he might actually do better pursuing a tradesman education. This is a very painful thought for me: not that I have anything against trades (some very intelligent people work as electricians, plumbers, etc.); but because college *should not* be just about grooming for a career—it should also be about exposure to learning that’s not in your field, exposure to new ideas, different cultures… in short, about expanding the mind and the heart.

    We are even considering moving to a foreign country so that he can attend college *there* and hopefully get a better education. That is what we’ve been reduced to.

    Anti-intellectualism plays a big role in “dumbing down” the populace… but so does this curtailment of access to higher education, and the lack of higher education being connected to actual jobs in field that students can assume afterward.


  2. Mark Guzdial Says:

    Reblogged this on Computing Education Blog and commented:
    The issues raised about education are particularly relevant to this blog. State cutbacks of funding to universities send a message about what’s valued and what’s not. CS departments in state schools (and elsewhere) are facing enormous increases in enrollment, and without additional resources, are going to be imposing caps — which will serve to reduce the diversity of computing, as it did in the 1980’s. Where we place our resources indicates our values.


  3. Michael Richmond Says:

    Two observations:
    Politics in America seem to always be reduced to a sporting contest — you’re either with us or against us. This is an attitude that I’ve not encountered in other countries to anywhere near the degree it happens in the USA. With us or against us means that every discourse is in stark black or white terms rather than a conversation about continua. Lets face it, much of politics, life, and values are in shades of gray.

    I agree with many of the points made in the post. But I wonder whether the issue of funding is broader than science education. To quote Toby Ziegler: “There is a connection between progress of a society and progress in the Arts. The age of Pericles was also the age of Phidias. The age of Lorenzo de Medici was also the age of Leonardo Da Vinci. The age of Elizabeth was the age of Shakespeare.”


  4. aaa Says:

    Why people still make use of to read news papers when in this technological world all is
    presented on net?


    • spaf Says:

      Because a great deal of the material on the net is wrong, unverified, and/or biased. Print media is not perfect, but it tends to be better in these regards, in large part because it isn’t easily changed after publication.

      Print media also doesn’t have pop-up ads, viruses, and auto-play video. I read both, and I find print media sometimes is much more of a pleasant experience, as well as accurate (although not always).


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