Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Gullible Dolts?

The ideal citizen of a politically corrupt state, such as the one we now have, is a gullible dolt unable to tell truth from bullshit, writes Charles Simic in "Age of Ignorance."

But I wonder about how his discourse comes across to those who hold the beliefs he condemns as examples of ignorance (see the list at the end of the article, including "Global warming is a hoax"). They will most likely see him as yet another liberal elitist (like me, presumably) who is talking down to them and not treating them with respect.

As an American living abroad who has little contact with the kinds of people who hold such opinions, I wonder about how I would talk to them if I did have contact with them. Simic tries so hard to say "we" throughout the essay when he talks about who is being "ignorant." But at the end of the essay, even that approach breaks down: "Despite their bravado, these fools can always be counted on to vote against their self-interest." I know for myself that I react very negatively when people suggest that I am being duped in some way (say, by acting like I am a fool for not agreeing with them that vaccination is a bad thing); I can imagine that such a remark will simply end any chance of conversation.

Still, Simic is right: the ideal citizen of a politically corrupt state is a gullible dolt. But the real problem here is not the production of gullible dolts; it is the cycle of political corruption.


Thomas said...

I think there's a subtlety here that is lost on both sides of issues like these. It may be true that most people who believe that global warming is a hoax have been "duped", i.e., are gullible, even dolts. But it is no less true that most of the people who believe in global warming (and hold the orthodox view on its causes) have been "gulled" into it. That is, they've simply believed what they've been told. They haven't looked at the evidence; they haven't formed their opinion rationally. The same goes for creationism and evolution: most of the people who believe in either do so on little or no evidence. They just trust whoever told them about it. And that's really what a corrupt state needs, not for people to believe in falsehoods, but for them to believe what they are told.

Andrew Shields said...

When does my understanding of global warming cease to be a matter of being gulled into it?

The specific question is more interesting to me (though we could replace "global warming" with "evolution"), but the more general question is also worth considering: at what point does the knowledge one has cease to be a matter of being gulled? Is it only in my areas of real expertise that I am not being gulled? Am I even avoiding gulling there?

Thomas said...

I just read the interview with Noam Chomsky in Slate, which reminded me of this post.

"The Republican party now has its catechism of things you have to repeat in lockstep," he says, "kind of like the old Communist party. One of them is denying climate change."

Like I say, there is an equal and opposite catechism on the left: asserting climate change. One is true and the other is false. Both, however, are repeated in lockstep.

Now, Chomsky says climate change denial serves business: "the major business lobbies, the energy associations, and so on. It's no secret, they're trying to convince people that the science is unreliable, that it's a liberal hoax."

On the left, meanwhile, science is presented as something we should believe in, trust. The problem lies in these generalizations about science as something generally good or bad, credible or not. Science, as traditionally understood is the opposite of either: it's neither good nor bad (because it's objective) and it's not there to be believed (because it is critical, testable, etc.) Science is set up to be questioned. That's why it's called inquiry. The moment you trust a scientist, you betray science.

Later in the interview, Chomsky notes Bruce Albert's (editor-in-chief of Science) concerns about science education: "people are being taught factoids; they are taught the periodic table to memorize when they do not understand what it is about. Alberts says this totally misleads people about the nature of science and that it is driving kids away from science. If what he is describing does overwhelm the education system it will presumably lead to a decline in scientific competence and capacity as well."

It's not that they're not true, it's just that they're presented as factoids (that can then presumably easily be tested).

My (perfectly serious) solution to this problem is always to "teach the controversy". Don't refuse to talk to climate deniers, conspiracy theorists, creationists, etc. And don't expect to win the argument at any particular moment. Just have the conversation. Then you're neither gulled nor gulling, neither duped nor duping.