Idiot America

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Back in 2003 I was living in Kalispell Montana. I lived next door to Fred, a high school science teacher, who had spent several summers in the eastern Badlands of Montana collecting dinosaur fossils. My 11 year old son, a budding paleontologist, found Fred fascinating.  The two of them spent several hours pouring over Fred’s finds. Alex learned a lot about dinosaurs from Fred.

The University of Bozeman, noted for its paleontology department, was only hours away from our home. I had high hopes that my son would study natural science in high school then move on to graduate from U of B. It came as quite a shock when Fred came home one day and said he had been let go. The local high schools had all decided to add Intelligent Design to their science curriculums. Fred refused to teach it. Whitefish High refused to let him show off fossils. It appeared that the schools of Western Montana were moving backwards in time. This was one reason I moved out of Montana Since then I have often wondered how and why it is America seems to be dumbing down even as we move into an age in which information is just a few keystrokes away. Why is it that the more readily available facts become, the less likely we are to seek them out?

I picked up Charles Pierce’s book Idiot America, hoping to find some answers. The back of the book looked promising. It says, “Pierce asks how a country founded on intellectual curiosity has some how deteriorated in a nation of simpletons more apt to vote for an American Idol contestant than a presidential candidate”. Before you to get offended at that statement, ask yourself this. “What do my co-workers and I talk about?” Chances are you talk TV shows or sports far more often than you do current events.  Or try this. When at work today ask a random co-worker what upsets him more, the fact that Breaking Bad is ending or America’s blind eye to the plight of the Syrian people?  Yeah, now that you think about it, that statement isn’t too far off.

Pierce offers three great premises of Idiot America:

  1. Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings or otherwise moves units.
  2. Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it.
  3. Anything can be true if someone says it loudly and often enough.

From these three ideas, Pierce takes his readers on a historical look at how local crackpots have morphed into today’s national pundits and political mouthpieces. He introduces readers to little known historical figures whose ideas were only dangerous to themselves and maps out their evolution to the dangerous political ideology we hear on TV and radio today.

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There are a lot of ideas to unpack in this book. I could write a paper on Pierce’s indictment of today’s Idiot American, but for sake of brevity will comment on the one that stands out the most; the war on expertise

The War on expertise.

Pierce argues that one of the things that makes America great is the freedom that allows for independent ideas. Our Founding Fathers believed in freedom of expression (let’s be honest, for white tax paying males,) and that any and all ideas were welcome and experimentation was key to our budding country. The country itself was a social experiment. The scientific revolution was at its peak when America was born, and though the Founding Fathers encouraged bold new ideas, they assumed these same ideas would be put to the scientific method. Those who were willing to put their ideas up for debate, tested and passed would be our country’s experts. The problem is this happened infrequently. The country saw the rise of the crank.

Take the story of  Ignatius Donnelly, a congressman from the late 1800’s who left public office in disgrace only to rise up again as the expert on Atlantis. He fell in love the Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousands Leagues Under the Sea and used the book as a jumping off point in his search for Atlantis. In 1882 Harper & Brothers published his book Atlantis: The Antediluvian World. In it Donnelly credits the Atlantean culture for everything from Bronze Age weaponry in Europe to the Mayan Calendar. He claimed that though the island vanished, many of its inhabitants escaped, spreading across the world telling their story and sharing their inventions. Laugh now, but at the time the book was a big success. Donnelly crisscrossed the nation giving lectures to gullible masses, including the media who never questioned his ideas. For a while, he was the leading expert on Atlantis. As the country made scientific and archeological advances, Donnelly’s ideas did not stand up and his crackpot ideas were dismissed.

We see the same thing happening in today’s America. Anyone can now write a book or host a show and call himself an expert , even if he has no training or background in the subject at hand. If an idea appeals to enough people well then, any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings or otherwise moves units.

This happens because of the human tendency towards confirmation bias. The gut drives that which we accept as fact. If your gut tells you that God would never let our planet’s weather patterns change to the detriment of humans, then the facts of climate change will not change your mind. But you will be swayed by “facts” that confirm your gut feeling. Never mind that many of these facts are unsupported or are just blatant lies told to sell a book , more oil, or spread an opinion as fact, your gut will override common sense. People don’t care if they are not right; they  just don’t want to be wrong in their beliefs and will seek out others who share these beliefs. Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is determined by how fervently they believe it. This is why conspiracy theories spread.

The problem with idiot America is that far too many people who let their gut rule their brain now have access to mass media. And if their message reaches enough people who share their gut beliefs we know, anything can be true if someone says it loudly and often enough. This is why talk radio is so popular.

Pierce comments on Idiot America using sarcasm and biting humor. He goes to great lengths to show his readers how opinion is now held has facts and the effects this has on our politics and social values.  He reminds us that our Founding Fathers envisioned a country that valued education. As Madison said in a letter, “a free country is an educated country”. It is much harder to bullshit an educated person. Yet somehow along the way we have devalued education to the point of distrusting scholars and scientists.  As Pieces notes, we are now a country free to believe anything we want, including idiotic ideas.