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.)

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All you need to know for this Presidential election

All you need to know to vote for President: Every US voter — Republican, Democrat, and independent — can now make an informed decision by listening, with open minds, to only two speeches and really caring about the results of the election. Because now it really comes down to a contest between the two major candidates, each with some good points, and each with some flaws. The system doesn’t have a viable 3rd candidate. This is what we have — a system of compromises and choices.

You can stop reading this if you fall into one of several (hopefully, small) groups:

  • If you’re dead-set on voting based on one or two single issues, then you don’t have an open mind, and this won’t make a difference — you might as well stop now and move to a country where that single issue is supported (or not, as your biases dictate).  So, if everything you decide is based on whether the government can tell women what to do with their bodies or you hate homosexuals, you could (for instance) move to Iran where they also ban women’s choices and execute gay people, and voila!  Against government funded health care?  Move to Somalia  where even private healthcare is hard to find. Want strict border control?  Move to North Korea, where approaching the border from either side is a nearly certain death. Problems solved and you have a home for your one-issue biases!
  • If you always vote for the same political party no matter how incoherent or venal the candidates (e.g., you think Herman Cain  or Anthony Weiner are appropriate leadership material) then you really don’t care what happens to the country, so don’t bother reading further. Maybe move to China or Cuba, where there is only one party and everyone votes for it.  You’d be happier not being faced with a decision you don’t choose to consider.
  • If you’ve already decided you’re going to “Vote against the Mormon” or “Vote against the black Muslim,” then you’re an uninformed bigot. It doesn’t matter if you think you’re open minded or fair, you’re quite simply a bigot. Do the country a favor and get therapy; especially don’t pass it along to any children you might have.
  • If you are pathetically uninformed — you think New Mexico is not in the US, you ask questions like this in public, you believe that there is something called “legitimate rape,” you think evolution is false and shouldn’t be taught in schools, you think you can see Russia from your front porch, or anything else pathetically ignorant, then you are a danger to yourself and others.  You probably gave up reading this far, but please take advantage of any remedial education opportunities available to you.  And don’t vote — you are likely to hurt others, if not yourself.
  • If you are convinced it doesn’t matter because the world is secretly run by the Illuminati or extraterrestrials, or that a UN one-world government will soon send in the black helicopters to put us in FEMA-run death camps, then you might want to talk to a health professional about your convictions.  There are medications that will help you feel less isolated and threatened, and can actually make those nasty threats go away.  And please, please, we beg you, stop voting for Michele Bachmann!

But if you read this far (especially if you understood words like “pathetically” and “venal”), and you really care about the future of the USA, then this may help. (If you don’t like either candidate for various reasons, you are not alone.  We don’t have a “none of the above” in our elections.  But don’t stay away from voting because of this: not voting is the same as giving a partial endorsement to the eventual winner…who you may think is more odious than the other candidate.)

First of all, be sure you are registered to vote on November 6. Call or visit your elections board — especially if you are a member of a minority group or a naturalized citizen (in some states, there has been a concerted effort to disenfranchise your vote in the guise of preventing “election fraud”).  If you have any concerns or questions at all, contact the non-partisan League of Women’s Voters.  DO IT TODAY!  Some states have deadlines to register or protest not being on the voter rolls — don’t be left out!  Find out what ID (if any) your state requires to vote, and get it.  Again, call the League for assistance and details.  Get your friends and family to do the same.

Now to the part about helping you decide.

Think for a moment — who can provide deep insight about the office of President?  Who can talk to the challenges, the stresses, the tradeoffs, the incredible demands made in that office?  Who can provide the perspective of handling domestic and foreign pressures?  Well, if you want to know what it is like to be a pilot, you ask a pilot.  If you want to know what is involved in fixing a car, you ask someone who is (or was) a mechanic.  If you want to understand organic chemistry, you ask a chemist.

And if you want to know the minutiae about what it takes to be President, ask a former President.

Luckily, we have two former 2-term Presidents on hand.  Each served 8 years in office, with great approval and support of their respective political parties.  Each gained a lot of insight about what is needed to be an effective President.

So, listen, with an open mind, to Bill Clinton’s speech at the DNC last night (9/5), about President Obama. The press described it in quite positive terms (e.g., the NY Times article).  What I’ve seen so far from Politifact and other fact-checking sites give Bill Clinton’s statements a mostly thumbs-up (unlike the large number of less-than-candid statements in Paul Ryan’s RNC speech, for instance, which even Fox News labeled as deceiving). If you don’t want to listen to the speech (which is really quite good) then at least read the transcript.  It’s full of good information and facts — definitely food for thought.

For comparison, we should contrast President Clinton’s remarks against those of his successor, President George W. Bush.

Unfortunately, I was occupied last week and didn’t get to watch the Republican National Convention.  However, Im sure that with George W. Bush a two-term former President (same as Clinton), who the GOP enthusiastically supported, he must have had a prominent place front-and-center at the Convention. I expect he must have given a spirited defense of the Romney platform — which would reinstate his own administration’s polices on taxes, regulation, trickle down economics, cutting support for public programs, and overseas military intervention. With those policies, President Bush helped turn a budget surplus into a $1 trillion deficit, got us into two wars with hundreds of thousands of casualties, and presided over a major economic downturn that led to millions losing their jobs. I’m sure he has compelling insights to share in support of why the country should bring those policies back, and he shared those with the rest of the GOP and nation.  And of course the proud GOP leadership would want to remind the world about the accomplishments of their party’s last President.  Right?

However, I didn’t watch all of the televised RNC, and I can’t seem to find anything archived of when President Bush spoke there to defend his policies and show his enthusiasm for Mr Romney. I’m sure it’s an oversight — the GOP couldn’t possibly be ashamed of their record and hiding one of their stars.   Maybe they had a rousing endorsement speech by Dick Cheney at the convention, too?  If so, I can’t seem to find that, either.

Hmm, maybe you’re better than I am at this Internet thing.  So, once you find President Bush’s speech about Romney at the convention — about how bringing back his policies will help the nation — please send us the URL.  I’m sure when we compare the two speeches, the conclusion about how to vote will be crystal clear.

(PS. It’s worth noting that the majority of Congressional candidates fall into line, generally, behind one candidate or the other, so this comparison can also help inform your decisions on them, but you should get more info about your specific candidates rather than vote a party line. But be informed — for instance,  about the Senate Republicans’ principal goal so important to them  in helping the nation during times of trouble should build strong opinions.)

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