“Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something” – attributed to Plato (~350 BC; yes, this behavior was recognized that long ago)
This blog series began with the events at Sandy Hook ten years ago and was planned as an attempt to pursue a deeper answer to “Why?” During the preparation of this particular post we yet again experienced Uvalde and then Tulsa, and it has taken some effort to stay focused on the blog plan and accept that reality has forced the question to now become “Why Again?” Some things about human nature do not change.
I came across a discussion recently, one that resonated with my ponderings over this virus that we have been dealing with since late 2019 – Covid-19. With this virus (the simplest of our “Germs”), I had been particularly pondering its unusual and unexpected characteristics – its rapid and unusual transmissibility, its contagiousness without apparent symptoms, and its rapid appearance in mutated forms.
This particular virus has characteristics which mankind has never experienced before. As a consequence, just as Mother Nature abhors a vacuum, human beings abhor an information vacuum. But whereas Mother Nature will attempt to fill a physical vacuum with real substance, human beings will attempt to fill an information vacuum with anything that they can quickly get their “minds” on. And if they can’t find something somewhere, they’ll make something up (for instance, Conspiracy Theories, here, and here). It’s part and parcel of the Gap Syndrome in our human nature.
The virus transmissibility aspect now seems reasonably well understood (long-lived air suspended microdroplets, a thought that even I had “hypothesized” early in 2020 when looking at severe breakouts that occurred in cities in both Spain and in Italy that could be traced back to spectators at a match between their football teams (soccer to us) in an outdoor stadium (here)). However, the rapid appearance of distinct mutations in diverse locations that were all more or less under isolation and/or isolated from each other was a puzzle.
My next “hypothesis” was that the mutations were occurring in the bodies of infected people who may or may not be asymptomatic and then locally transmitted, as opposed to it being “imported” by travelers. The discussion I came across was a validation of this thought. But what was disconcerting was that the comments in the discussion fell distinctly into two classes – the first was that only ~10% agreed with the premise “unvaccinated people can create variants of coronavirus and keep the pandemic going” and these were virologists, molecular biologists, and those with experience in molecular immunology. The second group, the ~90% of “others,” disagreed vehemently. The author of the discussion quoted one dissenting response verbatim, which I also pass along here,
“No evidence just like arms, Mark of the Beast 666 now the Devil laugh at the World, so the life span you in might longer than before vaccines jab, no people got the vaccines jab question yourself how long do you live?”
You can reach this full discussion on in situ viral mutations here (referencing many other articles as this phenomenon is well known).
What interested me more was the impetus driving the 90% of strong dissenting reactions. It is not simply about being against vaccines or believing in a hoax, it goes much deeper and has existed for far longer than we wish to acknowledge.
It’s about our own domestic cultural bubbles that have developed into fortresses and strongholds 1 despite our increasing emphasis on higher education. It will surprise you as it did me.
Skepticism and Anti-Intellectualism
There is a difference between skepticism, the hesitancy to accept something significantly new before deliberately seeking independent confirming evidence, and the real but poorly understood phenomenon of anti-intellectualism.
Skepticism is a healthy aspect of normal life, at least when it triggers curiosity to investigate and solidify evidence-based acceptance or rejection of some topic (i.e., what we call learning). Without that curiosity, if it leads directly to judgmental rejection, skepticism can be unhealthy and risk venturing into outright anti-intellectualism.
Over time the concept of anti-intellectualism has evolved without having a recognizable single concrete definition. In historian Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 book, Anti-intellectualism in American Life (1963), he explains it as,
“a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition to minimize the value of that life.”
To be sure, the phenomenon can be traced back to the 17th century.
Today a working definition seems to have become (source for the following overview,
“a social attitude that systematically denigrates science-based facts, academic and institutional authorities, and the pursuit of theory and knowledge”.
Based upon that definition it should be fairly easy to identify the already strongly developed bubbles, fortresses, and strongholds 1 present in American culture.
Even today the concept is typically misunderstood as a hostile attitude against acquiring new knowledge (i.e., against continuing learning), or the byproduct of the lack of a formal education (i.e., not having demonstrated “learning” in some area of expertise). If present, these appear more or less as passive individual attitudes and result in little action.
The issue is that there is also an active form, in which anti-intellectualism is wielded as an offensive weapon by those with power (or seeking it) as a means to uphold the ideas and systems that benefit them, thus propagating these attitudes (both anti-intellectualism itself as well as these beliefs and systems) over time in society and the culture.
In 1991, Daniel Rigney expanded Hofstadter’s discussion to identify three distinct types of anti-intellectualism (here),
- Religious anti-rationalism: the rejection of reason, logic, and fact in favor of select emotions, morals, and religious absolutes. (Note: This is the basis for the phenomenon in the 17th century);
- Populist anti-elitism: rejection of elite institutions as well as those found within the social and/or intellectual “elite” (e.g., professors, scientists, old-money politicians); and
- Unreflective Instrumentalism (what a mouthful; clearly from an intellectual): the belief that the pursuit of theory and knowledge is unnecessary unless it can be wielded for practical means (e.g., profit).
As mentioned above, anti-intellectualism is not primarily a result of a lack of education or hostility towards acquiring knowledge. Instead, anti-intellectualism
Distinguishes the concept of knowledge between intellect and intelligence, and heavily favors the latter.
(Hofstadter describes intelligence as utilizing ideas (facts) in a practical way, while intellect concerns developing, challenging, and evolving the ideas (new facts) themselves. “Intelligence will seize the immediate meaning in a situation and evaluate it. Intellect evaluates evaluations, and looks for the meanings of situations as a whole.”)
As a result, anti-intellectualism is evoked as a way to halt the acquisition of new knowledge that would undermine groups with power and privilege.
(Note: There is a developing irony here, as our strongly “anti-intellectual” society’s push for people to attend (and successfully graduate!) college assumes the objective of a higher education is to exercise and develop this intelligence (which we know is stable over a lifetime, so perhaps it is simply to treat it as an empty container and fill it with recallable knowledge: “teach them what to think”). This is opposed to higher education’s primary (in my experience) function, which is to exercise and develop the intellect (“learning how to learn how to learn”, continuously). The above anti-intellectual assumption may, however, make sense as the overall societal objective seems to be to help children acquire a better and richer life than the parents had, i.e., to get a better paying job, which ironically, depends upon having a healthy profit motive (No. 3 above). In other words, maintain the old social system and yet move significantly up the system in wealth, influence, prestige, and power).
In 1980, Isaac Asimov (professor and well known author), wrote,
There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” 3
Strong words, and Asimov casts rather wide the dispersion. Although Asimov captures an important aspect, the “reality” is a bit more nuanced,
The aversion many Americans feel toward people who actually know things is complex. At heart, it’s arrogance. People who dislike academics and other people who study complex topics carefully think that their own native “common sense” is superior. They disdain knowledge for the sake of knowledge as opposed to profit (Type 3, above). And often, they disdain knowledge because it contradicts their biases, often religious (Type 1, above). 4
This arrogance cuts both ways, both of “intellectuals” as well as the “anti-intellectuals.” Arrogance seems to be an American cultural aspect, and is not new.
In recent research (2021) by political scientists (Note: given the disdain for “knowledge” demonstrated in the political realm, this label seems to be either morbidly ironic or one of the great oxymorons of all time) looking into Republicans growing mistrust of scientists and other experts, only a part of the rationale is found to be due to an educational divide – college graduates prefer the Democratic party, and white people without a college degree prefer the Republican party (Type 2, above). The greater influence is actually entrenched in deliberate party politics. 5
This mistrust was more about respondents having positive feelings about trusting one’s gut and having negative feelings toward experts, schools, and the “book smarts of intellectuals.” In the paper, the researchers wrote that those who distrust scientists and other official sources of authority “distinguish those who are ‘book smart’ from those who have common sense, the latter of which they view as a superior means of ascertaining truth.” (Note: recall the comments on skepticism and common sense, above). They found that people with this attitude were more likely to align with the Republican party.
Other more recent research shows that this anti-science attitude is strongly associated with a rural identity, an identity held not only by people who live in rural areas but also by people who strongly identify as rural, regardless of where they live (i.e., their “identity” bubble). This correlates with political scientist (there it is again) Katherine Cramer’s work on rural resentment, how many rural people disdain anything perceived to be urban, tying that to their rejection of intellectuals and intellectualism.
The key insight in all this work is that those who distrust vaccines, science, and expertise in general aren’t doing so necessarily because they have a knowledge gap or a misunderstanding,
Distrusting experts (academics, government, etc.) has become a political choice, which means that any message from an official source – whether it’s a researcher, head of a government agency or a journalist – is more likely to inspire the opposite of its intended reaction from those who view the source as part of the political opposition. This hasn’t been helped by the recent fractured nature of information flow, policies, mandates, and opinions coming from on high.
The danger now in our culture is that anti-intellectualism has become more entwined with partisanship and these attitudes have become more entrenched and harder to overcome. Each side takes the position that they have the best sources of information (called epistemic hubris (Note: this must be when Incomplete Information becomes “knowledge arrogance”)).
Our individual Bubbles have morphed into communal Fortresses, which are now being reinforced and replenished as partisan Strongholds.
Yet, not all is lost – it is only miscommunicated (through social media) that way.
A Pew Research survey (2022) indicated that ~74% of American adults are “personal learners,” that is, “they have participated in at least one of a number of activities in the past 12 months to advance their knowledge about something that personally interests them.” Of these, 80% “say they pursued knowledge in an area of personal interest because they wanted to learn something that would help them make their life more interesting and full.” (Note: Let us hope that someone jumping onto Twitter or Facebook to find the latest on anti-vaccine information was not considered a “learning activity.”)
Those numbers should certainly give hope that an anti-intellectualism stronghold hasn’t taken over the entire country. The question then remains as to why does it seem to be so prominent. One reason is that anti-intellectuals make more noise compared to those with a favorable attitude towards the life of the mind.
The numbers also reflect that there exists a significant but little recognized Responsibility to convert Knowledge into Understanding and then put it into beneficial Practice (discussed here).
It appears we again have a Silent Majority – those of who are “personal learners” existing outside of the anti-intellectualism stronghold. Either we’re just too darn quiet, or we lack good communication skills and when we attempt to communicate we come across as arrogant (there it is, again).
Good communication is the key. To have courage to step out of one’s bubble or fortress (and even one’s stronghold) with an openness to listen first, to try and understand the skepticism, and respond sensitively to the felt needs. It’s time consuming. It also depends upon mutual trust or the willingness to develop trust – something we have also grown noticeably lacking (here).
Revealing thought: we have had emerging Stronghold issues in our culture for quite a while. Rather than a negative character issue, however, it now appears to be quite the badge of honor.
“Why?” What part of human nature invariably leads to these types of outcomes?
Time to peal off another layer of the onion.
1 – Working concepts:
- Bubble – the limited cognitive and perceived environment that we live in;
- Fortress – a bubble that is reinforced for defensive purposes against certain aspects of society and culture;
- Stronghold – a bubble that is reinforced and replenished for offensive purposes against certain aspects of society and culture.
2 – Understanding Anti-Intellectualism in the U.S. (6/1/2021), Studio ATAO.
3 – Isaac Asimov/My Turn, Newsweek, January 21, 1980 (pdf accessible here).
4 – Is there any widely held answer to why America is anti-intellectual? (Michael Barnard, Quora discussion, March 28, 2021, Quora.com).
5 – Why Being Anti-Science is Now Part of Many Rural American’s Identify (538, April 25, 2022).
Americans Have Even Less Trust in Scientists Now Than Pre-Pandemic, Poll Finds – Especially Among Republicans, Forbes, February 15, 2022.