Monday, February 18, 2008

How stupid are you?

So this article was in the Washington Post today. One Susan Jacoby has decided that we are all dumb. Americans are slowly dumbing themselves down, thanks to (no surprise): TV and the internet. We're obsessed with quick hits of info-tainment and are now incapable of extended periods of concentration.

I think it's safe to say that this is a complete load of bulls*#&. How dumb is Susan Jacoby's editorial? Let's consider it subject by subject:

1. Statistics. This one is simply - she has none. There are some statistics about how fewer Americans read books or poems these days, as compared to (when else, of course), the 1960's. However, if Ms. Jacoby had studied statistics she would realize that this proves absolutely nothing. She does not correlate this with any measure of "dumbness", and even if she did, it would not prove that lack of reading causes dumbness. It would simply be a correlation.

2. Math. Ms. Jacoby is not careful enough to distinguish between levels and growth rates. That is, she claims America is getting dumber. But how does one distinguish this from America just being dumb? That is, the level of dumbness could well be quite low (and I'd be the first to support that proposition), but that doesn't mean we're getting dumb-ER. This gets to the next subject.

3. History. This article could have been written at any point in, oh, the last 5000 years. Find me a single generation that hasn't considered the newest generation stupid. In fact, Jacoby begins her article by quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself." Everyone, everywhere, at all times, thinks that most everyone else is stupid. You know why? Because they are. People obsess over trivial matters, hold grudges, and fail to consider rational evidence. If there was a travelling American Idol contest that rolled from town to town in a stagecoach in the 19th century, it would have been the most popular entertainment around. There was NEVER a stage in history when people were cultured, well-read, and not interested in trashy entertainment.

4. Political science. Jacoby claims that this dumbing down is the reason negative ads work in politics (not that she provides evidence). This is patently stupid. Negative ads work because they work - people love snarky backbiting. And they have been going on probably since Ramses II called Ramses III an ignorant goat-banger. Ms. Jacoby should take a few minutes to research some newspapers from the 1820's, and see what they were calling Mr. Andrew Jackson, future president. It was worse than goat-banger. And their illustrious mental capabilities did not stop them from eating it up.

5. Geography. One of Jacoby's claims is that people were more intellectual during FDR's time. He took the time to explain the war to people over the radio, and asked them to get out maps of Europe and the Pacific so he could explain where exactly things were taking place. The reason he asked them is because they didn't know the geography in the first place. It's not like a random American in 1939 could have identified Iwo Jima on a map before the war. People are generally stupid.

The only difference from year to year is that people are generally stupid about different things. And that is what frustrates hyper-critical intellectual elitists like Ms. Jacoby. People today aren't exactly like her. They don't know the things she knows and they don't read the books she reads and they don't like the cultural activities that she likes. So to her it looks like the rest of us are dumb.

Ms. Jacoby would do well to get back to reading whatever it is she considers "intellectual" enough and leave the rest of us alone.

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