The Stupidity of Our Times

January 2021

“The remarkable presence of pseudoscientific beliefs indicates that a considerable amount of inadequate belief formation is taking place – too much to blame solely on the members of our society with low intelligence. Purely on a quantitative basis, it must be the case that some people with fairly high IQs are thinking quite poorly. The 22 percent of our population who believe in Big Foot, the 25 percent who believe in astrology, the 16 percent who believe in the Loch Ness monster, the 46 percent who believe in faith healing, the 49 percent who believe in demonic possession, the 37 percent who believe in haunted houses, the 32 percent who believe in ghosts, the 26 percent who believe in clairvoyance, the 14 percent who have consulted a fortune teller, and the 10 percent who feel that they have spoken with the Devil are not individuals with intellectual disability. A large number of them, however, may be dysrationalic.” – Keith Stanovich, What Intelligence Tests Miss

Although in one sense “stupid” means “slow to learn or understand” or “lacking intelligence”, it is the second sense of the word, which means “tending to make poor decisions or careless mistakes” or “lacking judgment”, that I am concerned with here. In this second sense someone who exhibits stupidity may do so because they lack intelligence or for other factors, or partly for other factors, entirely within their control. This is what Stanovich is referring to in the quotation above: “dyrationalia”, he explains, means “the inability to think and behave rationally despite having adequate intelligence”. One dimension of rationality, epistemic rationality, is characterized by various proclivities: to collect information, to seek out various points of view, to critically reflect before choosing what to believe, and to calibrate the strength of one’s beliefs to the degree of evidence available for them. Underlying and guiding these dispositions is a fundamental value commitment – respect for the truth.

One noteworthy aspect of the current rise of irrationalism is its influence on our politics. The essentially private stupidity of the body-detoxers-and-colon-cleansing crowd is being supplemented by a striking public boldness of stupidity as is evidenced by the ongoing anti-masker, anti-vaxxer, and COVID-denying protestors who have been clashing with counter-protestors and the police to exercise their civil rights to assert patent nonsense. Although these protestors have been identified as occupying the right side on the political spectrum, it is not their politics that concerns me. One can easily identify a similar sort of irrationalism by those at the other end of the political spectrum. Consider, for instance, the excesses of the “woke” supporters for what now passes as “critical theory” and “critical studies” where all human interaction is viewed as some variant of the oppressor-oppressed relationship and where science is viewed as – what else? – a tool of the oppressors.

No, to interpret current events through this factional lens is to miss the point and overlook the deeper problem, a problem former US President Barack Obama recently pointed to with his lamentation that the state of politics in his country would not improve as long as the two major factions believe “just completely different sets of facts”. Current events teach us that the contesting of interests that ensures that a society’s politics remain reasonably healthy rests upon a shared, underlying commitment to the truth. The truth is not like what personal responsibility is to the right or equality is to the left, for without a shared willingness to temper one’s political activities by the norms of the sort of evidence-based reasoning that characterizes good science, constructive political disagreement descends into destructive partisanship.

Concern for the truth is not just an aspect of epistemic rationality; it is also a measure of what I call “axiologic rationality”, the dimension of rationality that consists in pursuing and endorsing values that deliver authentic happiness. In claiming that the truth is a mark of axiologic rationality I am distinguishing between merely espousing a commitment to it and actually living this value. Almost everyone, including those across the political spectrum, says that they care about the truth – but the test for being epistemically and axiologically rational is whether one cultivates a proclivity to be guided by this value, that is, whether this alleged commitment is borne out by a person’s conscious practice and habitual actions. This requires that one seek out and welcome attempts to disconfirm one’s beliefs as a matter of standard practice and that one endorse institutional mechanisms that do the same.

The philosopher Robert Fogelin observed that we are the only species that places faith in bizarre fictions of our own construction (while, I would add, insisting that these are not actually bizarre fictions at all). This is because whereas other species operate on the basis of intuition, or what cognitive psychologists call System 1 cognition, we also exercise System 2 reasoning. Current events remind us that not only are the forces of System 1 strong but that the exercising of reason itself is value-neutral. One can reason poorly or well, for good or ill. One can cultivate settled dispositions to have one’s exercising of reason be guided by the pursuit of the truth, or not. And whereas the development of ideals of freedom and democracy were originally predicated on the promotion of the exercising of good reasoning in pursuit of individual happiness and our common well-being, these enlightenment beliefs about the inevitability of our glorious future, as philosopher Joseph Heath has argued, were never a given.

One of the settled insights of the heuristics and cognitive bias research is that since the exercise of intuition is opaque to us, and since it is the exercising of System 1 that generates the sad range of cognitive biases that plague our existence in our current environments, we are wise to view the good exercising of reason guided by a commitment to seek the truth as a social practice. This insight not only helps explain the value of esteeming our rights as citizens to freedom of expression but it also helps to explain the value of exercising principled dissent as academics and intellectuals. More generally it helps ground our rights and duties pertaining to academic freedom and, therefore, it is also a foundational and unifying value of the Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship. This is what those who try to disparage SAFS by claiming that it is a meeting place for right-wing extremists do not seem to understand. For the commitment to truth, as opposed to paying lip service to it, requires that whatever the politics of its members, all are unified by this foundational value commitment. Of course, this is hardly a brilliant insight. That it continues to be doubted, especially among academics, further evidences the stupidity of our times.