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Why America has Become an "Idiocracy"

The history of Western civilization has been a back and forth contest between the forces of reason and unreason. From ancient Greece to modern times, little has seemed to change in this push and pull between rationality and irrationality. In the 2500 years this saga  encompasses (and no doubt for millennia before that), the human mind has changed little, except to adopt different perspectives on the world and humanity, while using the same brain processes to think about them.

Thanks to the groundbreaking work of Kahneman, Tversky and Frederick in cognitive psychology, we know that (a) humans often, or perhaps typically, do not use rational processes to make decisions, but instead are prone to a number of cognitive biases, and (b) when deliberately trying to overcome such biases by thinking slowly and logically about decisions, humans are often able to do so. These findings, together, give a picture of the human mind, that no doubt has been true for many thousands of years. We can think rationally, but often don’t, being prone to a number of cognitive biases, such as seeking evidence that confirms our opinions, overinterpreting the significance of recent events, and failing to take in the actual frequency of events when determining their likelihood. Some of these biases can even be found in other primates, suggesting their evolutionary roots and that they may offer an advantage in situations in which quick thinking is required.

But the use of human reasoning is not solely determined by our neural apparatus. Men could build sophisticated structures with tools before they learned to build true arches, and it wasn’t until the Romans that they became a common architectural feature. The development of higher mathematics can be traced in step-like fashion from early use in counting, to geometry among the Greeks, algebra in Persia, and the development of calculus in 17th century Europe. The mental hardware needed to build arches or do calculus  was no different than that existing before those developments came along, yet they are relatively common achievements nowadays, despite there being a time when they didn't exist. So too with logical reasoning.

Logical reasoning, as a discipline developed in Asia (China and India) and Europe. In the West it was the Greeks, both through their development of geometry and through the methods of reasoning demonstrated by Plato and even more so, Aristotle, who created the basis for Western progress in logic and reasoning, although for centuries, their methods, particularly those of Aristotle were lost, only kept alive by the Muslims who preserved and expanded many of the Greek philosophers’ works.

Historically, once reasoning as the basis for making judgments and decisions was developed, its main competitor, other than human nature, was religion. Christian Religion, and to a lesser extent, historically, Islam (mostly after the 13th century), made authority the ultimate arbiter of decisions. The authority was the word of the Bible, or the Koran and the best minds were used to determine the meaning of the authoritative texts, rather than determining whether their claims were reasonable. Those who used reason instead of authority were ignored, banished, convicted or even killed, for sowing doubt about the authority of either the sacred texts or the religious leaders who interpreted them.

So what does all this history have to do with how people think about issues today?

Humans are capable of using logic and reason to think about issues and come to decisions, but it takes extra effort to do so and, in addition to needing the time (and information) to come to a logical decision, the structure of the society surrounding a person needs to support that kind of thinking. That does not appear to be the case today.

In the first place, instant polls, instant posting of social media statements, and generally instant communication, often before one has time for reflection or gathering of additional information, encourages making snap decisions rather than thoughtful ones. Probably more importantly, multiple lanes of information—political, religious, social, entertainment, ethnic—allow each of us to choose where to look for evidence when we gather information and we tend to make very selective choices that confirm the biases we already have. Each of these sources of information and opinion speaks authoritatively to their followers. People have a sense that everyone must agree with their opinion, with little awareness of arguments that run counter to it. People are able to seek out like-minded individuals who share their beliefs and provide further “evidence” for its rightness. The evidence is never questioned, nor are alternative possibilities explored within the circle of those who reinforce each others’ biases. In fact, following the social mechanism of groupthink, those who disagree with the group’s opinion are criticized and ostracized, and within the group, opinions drift toward those of the more vocal and extreme members.

The above scenario, bad as it is, would not be as harmful as it is if there were a counter to it, some respected authority, not which made pronouncements to be taken without question by the populace, but which presented a model of unbiased information gathering and a support for logical decision making (much as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle more or less did in ancient Greece) to help people make thoughtful, informed decisions. That used to be the function of our information media such as newspapers, news magazines, news radio and television news, which at least attempted to present news about events without spinning it toward one point of view or another. These institutions no longer perform this function.

Mainstream news media are those media that reach the largest audience.We all agree that the TV networks, ABC, CBS and NBC are mainstream, although the amount of their airtime devoted to news on the national level is extremely small. In terms of cable “news” channels, Fox, CNN, and MSNBC are the big three. Even though they call themselves news channels, according to a 2013 Pew Research study, only CNN devotes more of its programming time to news than to commentary opinion (54% to 46%) Fox news devotes 55% of its time to commentary/opinion and MSNBC 85% to commentary/opinion.

Chomsky and others have used the phrase “the elite media” to describe publications such as The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, newspapers and periodicals that are read by those who control the political and economic power in the United States. Many smaller papers and news outlets rerun articles from these sources as mainstream news. Even a brief perusal of either the editorial content or the focus of news articles in these publications makes it clear that they also push either liberal or conservative agendas.

While it is true that the mainstream media are biased and as devoted to opinion as to news, the “alternative media” is self-admittedly much more biased both in the stories they present and the opinions they espouse. Most of them bill themselves as alternatives to the mainstream media, which they claim is biased and controlled by those with nefarious interests (wealth, corporations, wall street, liberals), but the glimpses they provide of what is happening in the world and the options available for forming an opinion are very narrow ones.

Without sampling a very large segment of the news and opinion stories presented on both the mainstream and alternative media, a citizen is frankly unable to learn enough about what is going on either within the U.S. or the world at large to be able to reason in an informed way in order to make informed decisions. And even if someone undertook such a Herculean task, the information he or she would encounter would be brief news reports of events, often presented from one point of view or another, a focus upon the reactions of individual participants or observers of those events who are either overwrought with grief or anger, and extensive interviews or opinion pieces by highly biased pundits or “experts,” either arguing with each other or presenting their opinions unopposed or balanced by another viewpoint.

From the kinds of information described above, people sample their news of the world based on what they already believe to be true; they look for confirming evidence, they jump to rash and broad conclusions that are supported by others who have similar beliefs to theirs, and they make decisions that reflect misinformation and faulty reasoning. Among their peers who share their beliefs they are applauded and feel that such approbation must mean that they are right.

Today we have a man running for president who knows little about world politics, who thinks national and international economics is based principally upon making “smart deals,” who has expressed a willingness to set aside constitutional guarantees of religious freedom and to break national and international laws regarding torture and targeting civilians, who expresses disbelief in the scientific community’s consensus on climate change, who has said that he may or may not listen to what our military leaders tell him about how to defeat our enemies, and who gains public support portraying immigrants and religious minorities as a threat to our country. But he has rather easily convinced a large segment of the population to vote for him.

One would think that even a mediocre opponent would be able to defeat a candidate who presented the kinds of ideas that Donald Trump has presented. But the national conversation has not been about the merits of either Trump's or Clinton’s ideas. Instead, it has been a back and forth argument about which candidate has committed the most despicable act or said the most despicable thing, either in their past or during the campaign. Trump is assailed  as “sexist” because of his comments about a beauty contestant, Clinton as “demeaning” for using the word “deplorables” (is it even a noun?) to describe the majority of Trump’s supporters. Clinton’s programs aimed at changing the criminal justice system to rectify the damage it has done to African Americans, are attacked because she once used the word “super predators” to describe young, often black, teen criminals, leading some individuals and groups to label her a “racist.” Trump is called a racist because he failed to adequately disavow support from white supremacist groups. Clinton has garnered the label “warmonger” because she has supported American military efforts to overthrow Middle Eastern despots.

There are arguable points among each of these accusations in terms of whether they represent real issues in decision making and outlook that have enough merit to affect how one decides to vote in the presidential election. But the form of the argument is to first accept the label, and then to reason from there. Of course no one wants to elect a racist, a sexist, or a warmonger to the presidency. But labeling a candidate based upon ill-considered words, failure to condemn those for whom we have distaste, or policies about which we disagree, and then making decisions based upon the label we have attached to the person is not reasonable.

Listening to more than sound bites, gathering and examining evidence from both sides of an issue, weighing alternatives in terms of the desirability of likely outcomes, listening to alternative viewpoints and opinions and evaluating them against your own, are not the way Americans make up their minds these days. Our “debate” between the two presidential candidates reflected this, as it rarely touched upon issues other than accusations about the character and mistakes of the participants. The media’s conversation afterward virtually never dealt with political ideas or plans, but only about who made whom look bad.

America is about to make a decision on who will lead the nation. Our national methods of arriving at that decision are defective. What is alarming is that no one seems to see that they are as much a part of this national inability to reason logically as are their opponents. Most people are self-righteous and dogmatic in their opinions and disparage those who disagree with them. This is just as true of those who oppose both major party candidates as of those who favor one or the other.

The debate about who to elect as president is a symptom of how we, as a people, reason about most national issues. The corners into which we have all painted ourselves do not allow us to listen to each other or to arrive at a consensus. In other times and other countries, this situation has been a prelude to usurpation of the national will by an authority who settles all questions by invoking the lowest common denominator among the mass opinion. I am afraid that if we all don’t examine what we are doing, we will head in this direction.






Reader Comments (3)

Definitely an interesting perspective. Thanks for the vast knowledge..I can always appreciate that...even if your own bias is snugly tucked into it.

October 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth Torph

Excellent, as usual. The choice to use logic in our decision making is CRITICAL to our survival.
Last night we went to a screening of documentary "Command and Control" where the author, Eric Schlosser and the director, Robert Kenner were present for a Q & A afterwards. Eric Schlosser stunningly explained, last night in LA, his motivation for his book "Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety". The need for logic and reasoning during this election was reiterated by the author of this book and documentary. When you have a candidate who is so sickeningly cavalier about the use of nuclear weapons, it's time to call out such dangerous stupidity. ("If we have nuclear weapons why can't we use them?" Trump's quote as alleged by former Republican Congressman Joe Scarborough)
It is time for an increased number of cogent essays and creative videos that explain the fallacies of logic used in the "debates": false cause, name-calling, over-generalization, begging the question, circular reasoning, etc. (Of course, there is one candidate who is over-whemingly, possibly manically, or otherwise psychotically guilty of almost total use of faulty logic.) Afast and pithy essay and/or presentation that presents direct quotes, identifying the type of logic flaws, along with engaging images is what I'm talking about.
There needs to be a Carl Sagan of logic who explains these incredible flaws of logic to the layperson. You're the writer to do it, Casey. How fast can you get it done?

October 1, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterBillie Kelpin

Nice essay, Casey. I like that you are opposed to groupthink-inspired deafness and blindness to the other party's true position on important issues. Unity depends on our willingness to cooperate with people who disagree with us, and that takes respect, patience, and unconditional love--love for the person, not necessarily for his or her words and actions. Logic and reason go hand in hand with a sound mind and calm spirit, however I must disagree with your statement about the authority of religious beliefs relying on groupthink or any human reinforcement. Christ showed God's sovereignty over the natural laws governing the created world which logic and reason atempt to organize, explain, and further develop into something greater. Advancement like that can use logic and reason but it's initiated by God, guided and overseen by Him. It's unreasonable to believe He made a paralyzed man walk but He did, a number of times, and people witnessed it. Not to steer too far away from politics, but my faith is what gives me hope for America's future, even if Trump gets elected. No offense to the blonde haired man.

October 2, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterRobert L.

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