Saturday, October 27, 2007

Experts and the Stupidity Explosion

It seems to be generally accepted nowadays (but I don't agree) that the current youngest generation is "more stupid" or "dumber" than previous generations, but I would like to point out that the people who say that seem to base this contention on experiences they have had with the particular age groups high school or college students. Perhaps they are teachers of them, for example, and are shocked that they don't seem to know fundamental things, or they don't have a grasp of certain basics such as the names of the parts of speech, or the locations of various geographical features. Or that they think they "know" quite a lot of things, but those things that they know happen to be wrong.

I don't have much interaction with high school or college students these days, so I don't have much to go on and I am not in a position to quiz them or to carry on intellectual conversations with them. Just about all I know about those two age groups are what I might happen to read by or discover of them on Internet sites such as MySpace, YouTube, or the Internet Movie Database comment postings. While quite often what I see isn't "good", it doesn't indicate "dumbness" so much as, perhaps, a disinterest in certain intellectual values. Mostly what is displayed in those various forums is an amazing obsession with the elements of surface physical beauty and sexual attractiveness; so much so, that all that really does is underscore what must be a scientific certainty, that the awareness, display, and pursuit of beauty, sex, and mating, is the primary biological task of that age group. As a society, we might not have actually known this quite so clearly before, because never before was there such a broad technological ability for it to be so widely displayed.

I do have a greater interaction with grade school students, however, and there is nothing that I see there that indicates any less degree of brilliance than there ever was. In fact, I have long felt that the brilliance, understanding, and clarity of thinking of grade school students is a hidden and unsung resource.

Clearly, childhood is a time of perhaps the most intense and immense learning and growth that a human ever experiences. Children basically grow from utter helplessness and not really knowing very much at all about the physical world, to full biological adulthood (i.e., puberty) in about ten years or so. If the focus of that growth then mutates in the teen years into a search for an "other", then so be it; far better to understand and accept that than it is to decry what is genetically ordained. Once those hormones have settled down, maybe then they could go back to other concerns.

However, where the so-called "stupidity" and "dumbing down" really disturbs me, though, is when I experience it in ever-more numerous adults (post the teenage hormones stage). For example, recently I broke once again a rule of mine that I have been working on maintaining (demonstrating, perhaps, my own contribution to this stupidity), and that is to not be pulled into an on-line debate with an all-but-nameless, but definitely faceless, stranger on any issue pertaining to "the controversial subjects" such as politics or religion. Those discussions which used to be banned from polite society now more stringently should be banned from "impolite" society, which is how I have come to view such Internet participants. If you ever want to encourage your feelings of disgust with and disdain for humanity, then I recommend that you have such endless and fruitless discussions with such people on-line, but otherwise, keep away from it and keep some sense of hope for the reasonableness of the rest of humanity intact.

The worst person for this kind of discussion is a type that I think of as a "Janet Tweet". There really was a Janet Tweet in my life and I probably should not use her actual name, because I really wouldn't want to hurt her feelings (she really was a very nice person and not out to harm anybody), but as her name is so deliciously appropriate for the concept I apply her to, I can't possibly change it with an alias.

I was in a kind of "brain" competition with Janet Tweet throughout high school. It seemed that she was in many of my classes, because we were both in whatever accelerated section of a particular course was offered, such as Advanced Placement English, and so on. I don't know if Janet Tweet ever got less than A in any class. I think she probably graduated from high school with a perfect 4.0. The same could not be said of me...that is to say, that for me, while I got mostly As, As were not guaranteed, not like they apparently were for her. And this really bothered me, for since I felt I wasn't much of a major player in the high school "mate-seeking" arena that I described above, (and neither was Janet Tweet), where I did feel that I did, at least, have some standing was in this "brain power" arena. Therefore I disliked the presence of this one who somehow seemed like she might be "smarter".

It wasn't until my senior year that I finally discovered something that has benefitted me ever since. I wish I remember what the discussion was or just exactly what it was that led me to have this particular epiphany, but I was having some discussion with Janet Tweet and realized that the way her brain worked, she really wasn't very smart at all! "True" smartness, to me, is what I think of as "synthesis", which is the ability of the brain to figure out something, understand something, or combine diverse elements to create new knowledge. A very, very simple example of this is when my parents told me that there really wasn't such thing as Santa Claus, that all the gifts had come from them, the parents. I immediately understood, then, that the same was true for the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and the Valentine Fairy. One would think then, sure, that's simple enough logic, I mean, duh!. However, two years later, when my parents had the same discussion with my sister, who is two years younger than I am, she refused to believe them. Her response was, "No, there very definitely IS a Santa Claus and there is no way that the gifts come from you." My parents had laid the illusion too well. It wasn't until my parents told my BROTHER (who is six years younger than I am, four years younger than my sister) that there was no such thing as Santa Claus, and he accepted it, that my sister finally "got" that there wasn't such thing as Santa Claus. "Okay," said, "but at least there still is the Easter Bunny." It is very clear by this (and ten thousand other examples) that this sister's brain does not work via synthesis, but requires the insertion of one fact at a time.

As near as I could determine, Janet Tweet could never figure out anything. Instead, what she was, was a phenomenal memorizer. You could tell her ("teach her") any number of strung-along facts and she would henceforth "know" them. "Albany is the capital of New York"; "hydrogen has one electron in its outer shell, oxygen has six"; "the formula for determining the area of a cylinder is pi times the diameter times the radius times the height"; "in Spanish, the word for 'yes' is 'si', but in French, while in general the word for 'yes' is 'oui', the word 'si' is used for 'yes' when your use of that 'yes' is to contradict a negative statement, such as, 'you don't know French, do you?', you would respond, 'si, je comprend Francais,', meaning 'yes, I do understand French'"; "the elements required of the protagonist in a Greek tragedy is a high-born or elevated hero with a fatal character flaw that causes him to be painfully knocked low, and if a high-up person can fall so low, that generates a catharsis on the part of the audience, which being lower in the first place, would never suffer quite as much as that hero"; "the main agricultural crop for Bangladesh is jute, which was used for making rough and cheap textiles such as burlap and twine, but now that plastic is ubiquitous, jute sells for less than the cost of growing it," and so on and so on. So she could ace any test in which all that was required of her was to "Tweet" back these same facts.

Janet Tweet would never be in a circumstance like I was when I sat down to take my calculus final exam at U.C. Berkeley. I realized, upon looking at the test questions, that I really hadn't memorized the formulas required to answer the problems and therefore I was looking at getting an F in that class. Memorizing things is not my strong suit, which is why on stage I would much rather improvise an entertainment for two hours than play a scripted part that requires the memorization of dozens of pages of dialogue. I wouldn't be anxious at all about my ability to improvise, but with memorized lines, I would almost have an anxiety attack over the thought that I might forget everything I was supposed to say.

Janet Tweet would have simply gone to work answering all the calculus problems by plugging the numbers into the memorized formulas and called it a day. I, on the other hand, suddenly realized that I could logically derive all the formulas I needed for the problems, did so, solved the problems, and ended up getting an A in calculus. From an F to an A, synthesized right there during the final exam. Janet Tweet would not have been able to do that.

So this most recent person on the Internet with whom I broke my rule, had a brain that was filled to the brim with historical political concepts and terminology. He knew arcane dates and the names of cabinet undersecretaries who worked on obscure government ministries a hundred and twenty-five years ago, he could quote sections of speeches given on the floor of the Senate, he knew the titles of books that had influenced a particular socialistic concept, he knew the bill numbers of certain pieces of progressive legislation...and yet this guy struck me as one of the most stupid people I have ever had the misery of wasting my time writing to, because he couldn't follow at all the logic of my arguments but instead continued to jump to the most bizarre conclusions from the things I said. I don't really know how to describe it, except to say that I realized that he was a Janice Tweet, and all he could use in his discussion were these sterile facts and concepts, not as stepping stones to construct a meaningful edifice, but as brickabats to throw at my head. It was almost like he was putting slogans over the gates of concentration camps, "Work Makes You Free", or deseminating mind-numbing slogans over a 1984-like television screen, "Corporations are Evil," "The Rich are Parasites," "Redistribute the Wealth", "The Carbon Footprint Must Be Reduced". If he didn't think, in turn, that I was stupid, he must have thought instead that I was evil, or selfish, or heartless, or however in his blindness his fingers feels the dots.

A person like that receives all his knowledge apiece, like a python swallowing a pig. That's no better than taking in no knowledge at all, except that in his case, he feels more meritorious than the average man swilling his beer while watching Wide World of Wrestling on TV. The latter is actually akin to an anarchist. I think I'd rather have anarchy than a true-believer-ocracy.

But it isn't just is SO many adults, these days, yammering on and on, in the media, or leaving inane comments on the Internet.

For example, I read an article this morning that sought to renew the anti-population hysteria. Now THAT is our problem, isn't it, just too many people! However, hadn't I read several articles previously that outlined how the global human population growth rate is diminishing? Seems that "bomb" didn't happen either. Yet how many people don't really know that, but instead, line right up and say that "we countries should all get together to limit population growth". There were even a comment writer or two who praised Communist China's one-child policy, saying that we ought to have a law like that here! Hadn't they heard, like I had, that that program was a disaster? Hadn't they heard of the parents who'd kill their girl baby so that their "one child" would be a boy? And how now China has a generation of boys who are very, very unhappy...the boy-girl ratio was VERY much messed with. So sure, yes, that's a good idea, we always should copy the mistakes of Communist countries! Being the richest, most successful country on the planet make us EVIL. Parasites on the Earth. So say this type.

Well, I live in a very crowded city, and it seems that we have an endless crowd of people pushing in through our porous border. But is the situation as bad as it sometimes feels when you're in the middle of an urban crush?

I knew that one of my favorite writers, P.J. O'Rourke, had written on that subject, in his wonderful book, All the Trouble in the World, in a chapter appropriately titled, "Just Enough of Me, Way Too Much of You." If you want to have a blast while learning something, read P.J. O'Rourke. Just this evening, reading this chapter (which I had already read before), if I didn't laugh out loud over every single sentence, I did, at least, laugh out loud over every single paragraph...and sometimes every sentence in a paragraph. If that sounds heartless or even blasphemous--after all, the book is about "Overpopulation, Famine, Ecological Disaster, Ethnic Hatred, Plague, and Poverty"--one of my personal "aphorisms" is "The essence of humor is understanding." You don't see something as funny if you don't "get" it, and the corollary to that is that if you "get" it, you will often feel that it is really funny. And with O'Rourke, you will for sure get it (unless you just don't get it).

O'Rourke began his chapter on overpopulation in a country that most people presume is an example of a crowded hell on Earth, Bangladesh, which at the time O'Rourke wrote this book (1994) had a population of 118,000,000 people (nearly half the population of the U.S. at the time) all in a nation the size of Iowa. The population density of Bangladesh is 2,130 individuals per square mile. That's pretty crowded, says O'Rourke. But is that Bangladesh's big problem? He notes that that the success stories of Hong Kong and Singapore have a greater population density, 14,315 and 12,347 per square mile, having six or seven times the population density of Bangladesh. Bangladesh actually has the same population density of the city of Fremont, California, on the east side of the San Francisco Bay and just across the Dumbarton Bridge from Stanford University [when I worked at the Stanford University Medical Center, all the new interns and residents, who couldn't afford to live in Palo Alto, lived in Fremont.] The principality of Monaco has a population density similar to Hong Kong and Singapore; in fact the whole Riviera is that crowded in August, O'Rourke says, and no one is complaining about the topless beaches of St. Tropez.

Of course, hysterical population growth predictions have been wrong.

"'Malthus,' says Vice President Al Gore in Earth In the Balance, 'was right in predicting that the population would grow geometrically.' Al, as the father of four childen, should know," O'Rourke writes. "With an air of twerpy concern as thick as his literary style, the vice president announces 'No goal is more crucial to healing the global environment than stabilizing human population.'"

In 1968, Paul Ehrlich wrote the book, The Population Bomb, in which he wrote, "The battle to feed humanity is over. In the 1970s the world will undergo famines--hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate...."

Here's Ehrlich's best case prediction of the future:

America, in 1974, stops food aid to India, Egypt, and some other countries which it considers beyond hope. There's food rationing in the United States. The pope approves birth control and abortion. Famines and food riots sweep Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Arab world, plus plagues and warfare. [Sounds exactly like what the doom-sayers are saying about "peak oil".] Russia has a lot of internal problems. What's left of the world sets a global population goal of 2 billion for year 2025 and 1.5 billion for 2100.

O'Rourke says, "He was right about Russia."

In Ehrlich's worst case scenario, famine, war, and plague hit Asia, Africa, and Latin America by the late seventies, the thermonuclear holocaust ensues, and everybody dies.

O'Rourke writes, "Has this nonsense discredited Dr. Paul Ehrlich? By no means. He is still regularly trotted out as an expert on matters populationish. And the bibliography of [Gore's] Earth in the Balance cites Ehrlich's new book...The Population Explosion."

During the time that O'Rourke wrote this book, there was a hue and cry about dangerous population growth, with various sources citing what the population could "explode" to by 2020. The 1993 Information Please Almanac predicted the Earth's population would be 8.2 billion by 2020. Gore wrote in his book that the population would reach 14 billion.

What was the population at the time? The U.N. said 5,295,300,000. The Statistical Abstract of the United States said it was 5,318,013,000. Information Please said it was 5,321,000,000. O'Rourke said, for calculation purposes let's just say that the Earth currently had 5.3 billion people. Excluding Antarctica (and the oceans), this gave the planet a population density of 101 people per square mile, a little less than Tennessee, which has a population density of 118. New Hampshire had 124 people per square mile, Indiana had 154. If Al Gore's prediction turns out right, the planet's population density would then be 267 people per square mile. At the time of the book, Pennsylvania had a population density of 265.

O'Rourke plays with these density statistics some more. Instead of spreading the people out evenly, but packed them in to urban densities, if we wanted to live like they do in cosmopolitan San Francisco with its urban density of 15,502, then the entire Earth's population of 5.3 billion could be placed in Texas and Oklahoma, "with a few million left over to keep the planet's bird feeders full and rake and weed the rain forests." If the Earth's people wanted a "more get-down, def and slammin' zip code, then--at the Manhattan population density of 52,415 people per square mile--everybody on Earth can live in former Yugoslavia."

So clearly, the Earth isn't really overcrowded. So what is the problem?

Ehrlich began his fear fest, The Population Bomb with "one stinking hot night in Delhi." While in a taxi, he got stuck in a traffic jam. "We entered a crowded slum area. The temperature was over 100.... The streets seemed alive with people. People eating, people washing, people sleeping." O'Rourke says, "Ehrlich goes on to combine 'people' with eight other verbs that describe typical human activities and winds up with this memorable sentence: 'People, people, people, people.' Says Ehrlich, '[We] were, frankly, frightened.'"

"In other words," says O'Rourke, "people are--present company always excepted--just awful. And 'People, people, people, people' are that much more so. Especially if these people happen to be not-quite white. Notice that Paul Ehrlich is not panicked at being caught in the tremendous squash and jostle of rich folks around the bar in the Churchill Downs clubhouse on Kentucky Derby Day." O'Rourke explains that fretting about overpopulation is a perfectly guilt-free, in fact, sanctimonious way for "progressives" to be racists. And truly, behind all this overpopulation talk is the idea that too many people exist leads to unfortunate and even lethal plans for those people. For example, Ehrlich, who had had such a frightening time in India, said that India was one of "those countries that are so far behind in the population food game that there is no hope that our food aid will see them through to self-sufficiency."

However, the facts are that twenty-five years later (and a lot of population increase) after Ehrlich wrote his book, India no longer needed to import food. But Ehrlich had thought that "America should stop all help to India and just let the dusky heathen croak," wrote O'Rourke.

So going back to the beginning of this piece where I spoke of the population being dumbed down, I think there is a reason for the appearance of it beyond "people being stupider", which in general I don't think they are, as people of all ages would have at least the same native intelligence that I see in grade school children. Instead, what people are is caught up in an ever-increasingly complex and confusing world that is extremely difficult to understand without study and effort, an effort people do not make, because they make the (perhaps honest) mistake of trusting the "experts". They listen to people like Dr. Paul Ehrlich and Vice-President Al Gore, whomever it is who shouts the loudest and tells the most hysterical story. They swallow these stories like the afore-described python that swallows the pig--they take in this "received thought" whole hog. Instead, what they need to do is to is to fine-tune their bullshit detector.

O'Rourke ended his marvelous chapter like this:

"There are too many people. Anyone who's spent a week in the library with Thomas Malthus, Paul Ehrlich, Albert Gore, and the writers of Time and Newsweek can tell you--even one of these people is too many.

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