Dumb and Dumber

I notice that the recent posts on SO have taken a turn towards the political. Nothing wrong with that. These days religion and politics have been so thoroughly mixed that it is hard to talk about one without the other. This is especially so when candidates for high office loudly tout their religious affiliations and convictions and tout them precisely as qualifications for public office. They must think those Founders were barking up the wrong tree when they put in the Constitution (Article VI, paragraph 3) that no religious test may be required for public office.

At my age (just shy of sixty) I find myself looking at the current scene, scratching my head and wondering how the hell we got here. How can it be that ideas and individuals who would have been relegated to the lunatic fringe in the old days are now mainstream? Fifty years ago Republicans would have laughed Michelle Bachman off the stage. Barry Goldwater, derided as extremist at the time, was a model of moderation and sanity compared to some of the current crop. (Goldwater, crusty as ever in his 80’s, was asked what he thought about Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority. He succinctly characterized Falwell as “an asshole.” Goldwater’s brand of conservatism was far more consistent than what passes for conservatism today. For Goldwater, getting the government out of your life meant getting it out of your bedroom too.) However, I think our deepest problem is not really so much the rise of pernicious ideologies; it is the ascendancy of sheer stupidity.
To begin to understand how we got here, I recommend the hilarious and horrifying book Idiot America by Charles P. Pierce. Pierce details how we have descended into the Age of Asininity. Of course, H.L. Mencken long ago quipped “No one every went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.” There have always been morons; it is just that they have never had so much power or so dominated public discussion as now.
How did this happen, how did bay-at-the-moon lunacy come to occupy a more prominent place in our public discourse than textbook science? How, indeed, has it ever come to be thought that there is still a scientific debate over evolution, or that pluperfect nonsense like creationism, and its dressed-up cousin “intelligent design,” are worthy of a hearing? How did there come to be a multi-million dollar “creation museum” in Kentucky, with full-scale models of dinosaurs fitted out with saddles? (Adam and Eve needed those saddles. They were naked, and can you imagne the chafing you would get from riding a Triceratops bareback? Yeow.) How is it that the Texas State Board of Education can prefer the propaganda of extremist, ax-grinding cranks over the recommendations of hundreds of qualified scholars—and not be unceremoniously tossed out of office by the voters? How can a presidential administration censor and adulterate science for eight years (see Chris Mooney’s The Republican War On Science) without being savagely mauled in the media?

Pierce blames the rise of religious fundamentalism since the early 1980’s. He also notes (as does Thomas Frank in What’s the Matter with Kansas?) that the Republican Party expanded its base by at least paying lip service to all sorts of strange dogmas and loopy obsessions, from creationism to the “birther” nonsense. Chiefly, though, to really understand the Great Dumb Down, Pierce says you have to follow the money. Many wealthy and powerful individuals and corporations have a vested interest in keeping us stupid. When science tells you that your products or by-products are harming many people, but you are making money beyond the dreams of avarice, what do you do? You attack the science. Big Tobacco established the paradigm. When accumulating evidence linked cigarettes to cancer, Big Tobacco found that it was easy to hire your own “experts” and do your own “research” to undermine the findings of legitimate science. Your aim is to plant doubt in the minds of the public and politicians, who generally are too scientifically illiterate to distinguish your bogus science from the real thing.

Big Tobacco’s anti-science strategy worked amazingly well. Meaningful regulation of tobacco was delayed by years. Of course, millions died, but profits of billions upon billions were reaped. Lately, the tactics that worked so well for Big Tobacco have been adopted by many companies, from Big Oil to Big Food. The cartoon “Dilbert” shows how easy it is. The evil Dogbert walks into the offices of Rent a Weasel. “I need three unsuccessful and bitter scientists and a hundred lazy journalists” he demands. The weasel gladly accommodates. The last panel shows Dilbert reading a paper with the headline “Toddlers Thrive on Pollution.” Wealthy ideologues can even endow their own “think” tanks with the mission of producing skewed statistics, crap studies, misinformation and disinformation, and general obfuscation, all aimed at boosting bottom lines and warding off regulation. To top it off, the obscurantists have been much, much more effective than scientists in getting their message out to the public. Mere reason does not stand a chance against truckloads of money and great PR. Popes and Inquisitions could not stop science, but where dungeon, fire, and sword failed, big money might just succeed.