Idiot America

In my various and assorted writings I have had occasion to borrow ideas from other thinkers. My advisor at Northwestern used to say that “we are all intellectual shoplifters.” But I have tried to acknowledge when I have shoplifted an idea here and there. I have even shoplifted my own ideas from time to time! But, as I say, I try to give credit where credit is due.

In any event, I have referred a number of times to the marvelous book by Charles P. Pierce titled Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue In The Land Of The Free. It is a book written by a journalist who knows how to put words together and who has his finger on the pulse of the country he loves.  Despite this love — or because of it — he worried that we have wandered far off the path that founders like James Madison set us on many years ago and are now wallowing in a sea of confusion where we no longer recognize the truth when it stares us in the face; where we have replaced confidence in reason and science with gut feelings and flagrant lies.

At one point in his book (and note here how I give attribution!) he holds forth:

“. . . Idiot America is a collaborative effort, the result of millions of excisions made and not made, to reduce everything to salesmanship. Debate becomes corrupted argument, in which every point of view is just another product, no better  or worse than all the others, and an informed citizenship is abandoned to the marketplace. Idiot America is the development of the collective Gut at the expense of the collective mind. It’s what results when we abandon our duty to treat the ridiculous with ridicule. It’s what results when politicians make ridiculous statements and we not only surrender our right to punish them at the polls but also become too timid to punish their ideas with daily scorn . . . . .

“The rise of Idiot America. . . is essentially a war on expertise. . . . [It] reflects — for profit mainly,  but also, more cynically, for political advantage and in the pursuit of power — the breakdown of the consensus that the pursuit of knowledge is a good. It also represents the ascendancy of the notion that the people we should trust the least are the people who know what they are talking about. In the new media age, everybody is a historian, or a scientist, or a preacher, or a sage. And if everyone is an expert, then nobody is, and the worst thing you can be in a society where everybody is an expert is, well, an actual expert.

“This is how Idiot America engages itself. It decides, en masse, with a million keystrokes and clicks of the remote control, that because there are two sides to every question, they must both be right, or at least not wrong. And the words of an obscure biologist carry no more weight on the subject of biology than do the thunderations of some turkey neck preacher out of the Church of Christ’s Own Parking Structure in DeLand, Florida. Less weight, in fact, because our scientist is an ‘expert’ and, therefore an ‘elitist.’ Nobody buys his books. Nobody puts him on cable. He’s brilliant, surely, but no different from the rest of us, poor fool.”

Pierce is not ridiculing America, he is ridiculing the fact that America has allowed this to happen. And this was before a certain self-proclaimed business tycoon was elected to the Presidency, if you can imagine! Americans can little tell the difference between fact and fiction, they have allowed important distinctions between truth and opinion, between science and faith to disappear in a fog of indifference. Many today, even many teachers of high school biology, accept that dinosaurs lived alongside cavemen; they deny evolution and climate change; and they think science is simply someone’s opinion. Pierce attributes this to national apathy, an indifference to what is happening around us and a willingness to believe whatever we are told as long as it makes us comfortable. We do not allow that there are uncomfortable truths — like the truth about the warming globe we live on, for example.

I do think Pierce is on to something, though I would also fault the education system. That I respect his arguments should be obvious from the fact that I have quoted him repeatedly and at length. But George Berkeley said it long ago in a very few words: “Every opinion should be tolerated for what it is worth.” We need to engage our critical thinking faculties and submit every claim from whatever source it might arise to scrutiny to see whether or not it makes sense and whether or not we must accept it — like it or not. We might do well to bear in mind Curtler’s Law: consider the source: who said what and when? Above all else we need to teach critical thinking in our schools. All of them at all levels.

Truth its not opinion and science is not fiction. And there are some people who know more than others. There are experts and there are dunces. The latter may be entitled to their opinions, but critical scrutiny should allow us to dismiss their claims out of hand. If we do not allow these basic distinctions then we are indeed the idiots that Charles Pierce says we are.


Am I Dreaming?

Lewis Carroll’s classics Alice In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass focus on a perennial philosophical question first propounded by Bishop George Berkeley in the eighteenth century: the things we take to be real, material, and substantial are merely intangible, “sorts of things” in the mind of God. We do not know what is real and what is merely apparent. Further, we cannot say at any given moment whether we are awake or dreaming because there is no reliable criterion that enables us to distinguish the two states from one another.

Bishop George Berkeley
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

In a conversation Alice is having with Tweedledee and Tweedledum in Looking-Glass Land we hear the following exchange that follows their discovery of the red king sleeping under a nearby tree:

“I’m afraid he will catch cold with lying in the damp grass,” said Alice, who was a very thoughtful little girl.

“He’s dreaming now,” said Tweedledee: “and what do you think he is dreaming about?”

Alice said, “Nobody can guess that.”

“Why, about you!” Tweedledee exclaimed, clapping his hands triumphantly. “And if he left off dreaming about you, where do you suppose you would be?”

“Where I am now, of course,” said Alice.

“Not you!” Tweedledee retorted contemptuously. “You’d be nowhere, Why you’re only a sort of thing in his dream!”

“If that there King was to wake,” added Tweedledum, “you’d go out — bang! — just like a candle!”

“I shouldn’t!” Alice exclaimed indignantly. “Besides, if I’m only a sort of thing in his dream, what are you, I should like to know?”

“Ditto,” said Tweedledum

“Ditto, ditto,” said Tweedledee.

Both of Carroll’s tales have a surreal quality and throughout Alice is constantly wondering if she is awake or just dreaming. This generates the pithy problem: how do we determine that we are awake? Berkeley was convinced we could not, that is, we cannot say just why it is that we know we are awake at any given moment and not dreaming. We may have strong feelings. Common sense insists that we are awake and not dreaming when we ask the very question. But the problem is HOW do we know this? We cannot distinguish dreams from reality with any certainty. And this is because any claim to knowledge must produce the criteria that make the claim knowledge and not a pretender.

If I claim that this computer before me is real I can say I know it because I can see it and touch it. But how do I know I am really seeing it and touching it and not just dreaming that I am seeing it and touching it? As you can see, it’s a tough one! No one really answered Berkeley satisfactorily in the many years that have followed his suggesting the paradox and it is still out there.  David Hume suggested reality has greater “force and vivacity,” but this won’t work because many people have very vivid dreams and for many people reality is a blur — especially if they a prone to the occasional tipple. So Lewis Carroll is having great fun with it in his Alice stories. Children’s stories, eh?? I don’t think so!

Carroll later wrestled with the problem in his book, Sylvie and Bruno in which the narrator shuttles back and forth mysteriously between real and dream worlds.

“So, either I’ve been dreaming about Sylvie,” he says to himself in the novel, “and this is not reality. Or else I’ve really been with Sylvie and this is a dream! Is life a dream, I wonder?”

If it is, perhaps we will all wake up soon and discover that this is so and breathe a sigh of relief. Otherwise this dream is a nightmare.