Celebrating Stupidity: Why So Ignorant?

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It has been alleged that I like calling people stupid.  🙂

I actually don’t.  It’s just an honest observation.  Group think and mob mentality are well documented psychosocial states.  Sometimes it manifests as a trend in the stock market other times as a guy being dragged to death behind a pick-up truck. Of course, stupidity comes in myriad forms.

I am not talking about people with legitimate cognitive disabilities, but rather people who fail (or refuse) to put adequate thought behind their words and deeds.

Like evil, stupidity is a result of behavior.  It stems primarily from speaking or acting from ignorance.  Ignorance is unawareness of–or disregard for–information, logic, reason, and common sense.  So stupidity is nothing more than ignorance in action.  It is learned and reversible.

And it is rampant in the United States of America.

This is mainly because we accept it.  We allow people to espouse unfounded and illogical beliefs without challenge.  We have a media that simply parrots talking points.  We have an education system that is merely prep for standardized tests.  We elect ignorant people to positions of power and allow them to use their ignorance to impact everyone.

So why do we do this?

As is often the case, it goes back to religion (I’m not trying to beat up on it, I’m just noting where things come from).  Our nation has Christian roots.  And what Christianity teaches us is that the sin that has doomed our entire race to suffering and strife is the acquisition of knowledge.  Not envy, or wrath, or greed, not murder or rape, but knowledge.  I’ve considered the Adam and Eve story allegorical for as long as I can remember.  A disappointingly large number of people take it as literal.  Either way, it’s unsurprising that after inculcating, even beating, this story into millions and millions of kids over the course of centuries, we have learned to distrust knowledge.

This distrust is nothing more than willful ignorance.

My all-time favorite sign. 😀

Education, discussion, and exposure to new people and experiences can do away with involuntary ignorance.  Hey, I didn’t know cause I didn’t know.  But with willful ignorance, commonly expressed as, “That’s just what I believe,” this baseless, line-in-the-sand positioning becomes a bulwark against enlightenment.  It is often considered principled, even noble, to hold firm to one’s beliefs regardless of their validity.  Unfortunately, it’s used to hurt people for “honorable” reasons.

But it is not noble or honorable.  It’s hubris.  It’s dangerous.  And it’s antithetical to progress.

Essentially one is saying, I am going to keep believing in something even though I have no reason to believe it other than I want to.  At issue in these instances actually isn’t the belief itself but rather the feeling of safety, security, comfort and stability one gets from believing it.  Ignorance really is bliss.

This is common refuge for religious people.  To some degree I understand the obstinance.  Faith deals with ideas that are often reassuring, unquantifiable, and–most importantly–unfalsifiable.  It feels good to believe it and it can’t be disproved, so there’s little motivation to stop believing it.  Plus, science doesn’t have any better answers in many cases.

While this type of reasoning is actually unsound, there is a pure logic to it that appeases common sense…until you actually think about it.  Pleasant fiction is still fiction.

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The above graph clearly illustrates that belief in evolution increases with education level (i.e. greater exposure to information and usage of reasoning skills). It should be noted that as a scientific theory, evolution is to be accepted or rejected, not “believed in.” The framing of the question establishes a theological context.

The troubled waters really begin when this type of thinking spills over into other aspects of life, especially legislation.

When stupidity dictates policy you get Stand Your Ground and Sharia Law bans.  You get our crumbling education system.  You get bigotry, tribalism, and antipathy.

You also get the Texas state GOP rejecting higher thinking skills, including critical thinking, on their official party platform.  Or you get the Louisiana lawmakers who passed a school voucher program allowing people to send their kids to Christian schools pulling their support for the program after people started using those same public funds to send their kids to Muslim schools.  It’s how you get people scoffing at global warming every time  it snows or refuting radiometric dating without an iota of expertise.

Of course, these are right-wing issues.

Note the disclaimers!

On the left, fear of vaccines and other pharmaceutical drugs are built largely on conjecture, unfounded claims, and circumstantial evidence.  Any charlatan with an alphabet soup after their name can write a book and present it to the masses as a breakthrough.  The lay person lacks the acumen to challenge it.  But does that book hold up to the scrutiny of other experts in their field?  The only thing these miracle herbalists and holistic healers need to do is demonstrate–to other experts in the field–that their methods get consistent results–that anyone who follows their processes can duplicate.  That is the standard for the scientific method.

Most of the people I’ve had discussions with could not articulate that standard of proof.  We haven’t been taught to think in those terms.  We believe what we want to believe.

So we do need better education.  But we also need to let go of our own arrogance.  We need to stop presuming that we’re right all the time.  We need to stop thinking that we know and start proving that we know.  We’ve got to stop being scared of challenging our beliefs.

I lean towards skepticism because it makes the fewest presumptions.  It’s mantra is simply that I will believe whatever there is sufficient reason to believe.

It’s a renunciation of absolutes and it’s far from sexy.  For some, it may seem like a cold proposition (of course, that is once again basing one’s beliefs on feelings rather than facts).  Admittedly, the argument that there’s more to life than what you can measure and calculate has merit.  But in terms of what rules we make to live by, we should go by a reality that we can mutually demonstrate.  The standards should rely on independently verifiable evidence.

This means getting past life by je ne sais quoi, and into the realm of the provable, quantifiable, and falsifiable.

That means getting past stupidity, which means letting go of our ignorance, which begins by admitting that we are ignorant.

I know, it doesn’t feel good, but it gets better (I hope! :o).

And  it’s important to remember that the problem is not the lack of knowledge but rather acting on the lack of knowledge.

Changing the culture is a generational thing.  But it’s possible.  And it starts with each of us.

Free. Thought.

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Beyond Belief: The Albatross

Ah ! well a-day ! what evil looks
Had I from old and young !
Instead of the cross, the Albatross
About my neck was hung.

–From The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The line between free thought and subjugated thought is thin but absolute and can be determined with a simple question that requires no modification of current beliefs:  If there is no God, if we are all that is, would you want to know?

I believe abjectly that human potential is virtually limitless.  We have just scratched the surface of what we can do and become.  Unfortunately, we are constrained by a fatal flaw in our design (it also happens to be one of our greatest attributes):

Faith.

I’m not just talking about religious faith–although religion is a crucial aspect.  I’m talking about faith as the trust we have that we are correct about what we believe (i.e., hold to be true).  Because of that trust we make presumptions.  We hold some presumptions so dearly that we actually consider questioning them taboo.  But  presumption is simply unfounded belief, no matter how logical it may seem or profoundly we may believe it.  Religion then exalts these unfounded beliefs as the Will or Law of supreme and/or supernatural beings–who are themselves unfounded beliefs.   It uses evidence to justify–rather than evaluate–beliefs and either disregards or denounces contradictory evidence (such as evolution and radiometric dating).

It may seem like I’m calling humankind delusional, but as instinctive and intuitive animals, we are right so much of the time–purely by guessing–that belief has become innate.  Whether it’s navigating through traffic, recognizing whether a door is automated or manual, or realizing that an unattended child is getting into something, we guess right an overwhelming majority of the time.  It verifies our faith. It’s probably why it’s so embarrassing and even unsettling when we’re wrong; we’ve failed in our perception of reality.

Faith was crucial when we were ignorant of the natural world.   But as we have passed from the age of faith, through the age of reason, and into the age of knowledge it has become imperative for us to re-evaluate the principles and processes by which we discern what is true.

We have not only acquired more knowledge–beliefs supported by evidence–we’ve gotten better at acquiring it; knowledge chafes against the limits of faith, religious or otherwise.  Our understanding of the world, once buttressed by faith is becoming increasingly imprisoned by it.  We resist accepting new truths because they may dispel older ones.

It has become untenable.

If we are skeptical–which is to say we presume as little as possible, only accepting beliefs supported by evidence–we can get closer to the reality of existence than we ever could by faith in unfounded beliefs.  Because that faith may be displaced.  Skepticism is the purest search for truth and truth encompasses all possibilities.

So this is not to denounce religious beliefs.  The exploration of a transcendental origin, nature, or purpose for existence is at the very least well-intentioned.  And it may very well be true.  But until it is supported by evidence, it is only a belief in what is possible and therefore should neither be the basis for social law nor the arbiter of morality.

The only way to liberate thought is to prioritize truth.  Science and philosophy which share this mandate with religion, will always trump religion because science and philosophy admit to fallibility.  A core tenet of scientific method is scrutiny through peer review and the first rule of philosophy is that we may be wrong about everything. Meanwhile religion, particularly Christianity, Mormonism, Islam, and Judaism, profess, without evidence, to relay the infallible, yet wildly interpretive, word of God.   None hold up to objective scrutiny.  Their only defense is to restrict investigation, deny contradiction, and denounce skepticism.

It’s been successful.  We have been programmed to avoid intellectual conflict.  Never talk about politics or religion.  By default I would add money to that list.  But these are the core, substantive issues affecting the quality of life on earth.  What better to talk about than money, politics, and religion?  Or should billions suffer and starve so no one has to admit they may be mistaken?

When we are wrong–which is inevitable–failing (or refusing) to re-examine what we hold to be true diminishes our potential.  We deny possibilities for no reason outside our own minds.  It limits our ability to understand, even to question.

Thus faith has become the albatross around the neck of human thought.

We absolutely must free ourselves from the yoke of this superstition.  We must define truth as beliefs justified by–and better, arising out of–evidence and always subject to greater truth.  Only skeptical reason, tempered by compassion, can elevate society beyond unfounded belief and into the realm of knowledge in the noble quest to understand.

Free thought.


The Education Fix

I come from a family of educators.  My mother, aunt, both uncles, and my grandmother have all been teachers in some fashion.   My youngest brother is currently studying to become an educator.

Being familiar with education, my family has never been supportive of the testing craze currently dominating our education system.  It stresses a limited range of skills and specific types of learning.  And in the end, all we’re really doing is teaching our students how to take a test.

Education is the way by which Americans will compete in the increasingly global economy.  It is also how we can understand the world in which we live, our place in history, and our responsibility to it.  Unfortunately, we are falling further and further behind in this regard.

I really don’t understand why education isn’t a higher priority–actually, I do.  It’s this austerity bullshit our politicians are trying to force down our throats.  They want to gut education to justify tax breaks for billionaires. 

I honestly believe the Republican party–and to a lesser extent the democratic party–has a long term goal of creating a 3rd world economy here in the United States, with a super-rich, elite ruling class, and a docile, ignorant, working class majority that has limited opportunities outside of whatever jobs the elites make available at whatever wages they deem acceptable.

They want no mandatory health care programs, no collective bargaining rights for workers, no Social Security, no Medicare, no minimum wage, no child labor laws, no government regulation of business, and enough education for workers to perform skilled tasks, but not enough to think critically.  They want a flock corralled by religion, conditioned to endure hardship, and never question authority.

The best, most effective way for us to recapture control of our future is with a broad, robust education system; one designed to maximize the potential in each and every student–not meet standardized testing requirements.

If history has taught us anything, it’s that powerful nations crumble from within long before they are conquered from the outside.  Approaching education with the same attitude we have about our military–that we will be the best no matter what it takes–would take us a lot farther toward ensuring our security than we could in building another squadron of fighter jets or ballistic missile platform.

We have an outdated, industrial-age education system that promotes discipline, routine, and rote memory.  Yet we have an information-and-technology-based economy that stresses initiative, critical thinking, and problem solving.  We need a system that to develops the ability to manage, evaluate, and understand information–especially with the myriad ways information comes to us.  But more than that, we need a system that fully develops whatever abilities a student may possess.

In this we are failing ourselves and future generations.  But it doesn’t have to be this way:

So do not buy into the Republican voucher program talking point–the voucher will not be enough to send your kid to a good school.  Do not support politicians who want to cut education funding, including college grants.   Then let’s call for an education revolution.  Tear it all down like the Romans did Carthage, “leave not one stone upon another.” Get away from the testing mania.  Begin rebuilding with evidence-based (i.e., proven teaching method) pilot programs that integrate technology and stress active learning (as opposed to passive learning in which students sit and listen to a teacher lecture) to find the most effective teaching methods.  Dramatically increase teacher pay, especially for grades K-5.  Make it a more prestigious position to attract even better candidates.   Then we’ll be ready to start building a 21st century education system.

Our future literally and critically depends on it.

P.S. thanks to my mom for help with refining the technical jargon and conceptual whodjamawhatsit.  You can visit her blog here.

The Non-believer’s Guide To Prayer

The title is a bit misleading (Guess I just liked the sound of it).

This post is really for the non-religious.  Being skeptical of a theistic, intervening deity–which I am–is not the same as being cynical of any greater power whatsoever–which I am not.

I was never much of the “praying type”.  It  always seemed kind of selfish to me.  Even when I prayed for other people, I was doing so because I wanted good things for them.  I suppose there are worse things you could do with your time.  But I always like the concept of praying, putting good vibes out there.

A key aspect of myriad religions and philosophies, prayer covers a wide range  topics and there are innumerable methods and purposes.  In general, I consider prayer as a kind of active, focused, positive thought.

I posted a blog recently discussing my rejection of religion.  It sparked several wonderful conversations with friends,  family, and fellow internet geeks on both sides of the issue, and has helped me more clearly define my own beliefs while being introduced to new ideas and perspectives.  I can already tell this is just the beginning of my exploration of the subject.

However, I’ve already come to the startling and identity-smashing realization that I am an Atheist. I have likewise become entrenched in my rejection of religion and furthermore believe that religion is in desperate need of a new reformation–as happened with Christ, Mohammed, the Great Schism, and the Protestant Reformation.  Religion is the bridge between a people and their deity.  As such, religion must reflect both sides to be relevant, which most of today’s Western religions do with plummeting effectiveness. Civilization is in peril because modern technological capability is being governed by iron-age theosophy and agrarian morality.  (But more on that another time.)

This is not a rejection of faith or even God.

Epistemologically speaking, “God” as the Creator, exists.  The proof is existence itself.  I exalt that “trinity” of creation, destruction, and recreation.  My limited and casual understanding of the sciences suggests to me that these forces are at least interwoven if not one.  While violent and terrifying from our subjective view these dynamics are, in reality, nothing more than the restructuring of particle groups and the principles that drive it.   I believe, by the intricate flawlessness of these organizing principles, that some kind of intelligence drives them or comprises them or perhaps originated them.

I won’t speculate as to  what kind of intelligence that might be or how it works.  Nor would I hazard a guess as to sentience, especially not sentience as I know it.  This, to me, is one of the places where reasonable people can, for the time being, come to their own conclusions.

For me, the  staggering actuality that I–a collection of individually lifeless molecules, inexplicably arranged into sentience–am able to experience even this infinitesimal speck of all that is, has been, and will be, is more than miracle enough to compel my continual, embarrassed, and humble gratitude.

The question is, how exactly do I show that gratitude?

Again, I am an atheist, theologically speaking.  Yet there are “higher” concepts that I do believe in:  Salvation, enlightenment, even bliss.  These ideas still hold profound meaning for me.  To my mind they are all modes of thought, or more accurately, modes of thought procession. From perception and understanding to joy, forgiveness, and guilt, thought is how we experience existence.

This means that thought has power–unequaled power from the human perspective.  So logically, I must therefore believe in the power of positive–and negative–thinking.

What I mean when I say positive is anything that drives us toward the combined states of individual contentment, environmental equilibrium, and social exceptionalism.  In other words, I’m talking about states of happiness, balance, and growth as individuals and as a species.

  • I define happiness as the cessation of need, the tempering of desire through both achievement and self-control, and the unfettered pursuit of emotional, spiritual, and intellectual interests.
  • I define balance as maintaining a respectful, pragmatic equilibrium between the utilization and replenishment of our natural and cultural resources.
  • I define growth as progressive improvement in the quality of life and equality of opportunity for all people.

Experientially, these are modes of travel not destinations (to steal a motivational poster slogan).  Salvation, enlightenment, and bliss are the ultimate forms of these modes.  Our belief systems are how we achieve such modes which serve as the highest material functions of belief.  In plain terms, faith can help make us better people.

Prayer then, along with reflection, meditation, and study, have their place as ways of attuning and refining thought positively, regardless of belief.  You can pray to God, Allah, Yahweh, Mormon, or Buddha; you can pray to Oblivion; you can pray to the Blind Luck of the Universe if you want.  The purpose is to give profound thanks for the opportunity to experience Life and to seek, within yourself or from God, the capacity to endure, overcome, and achieve.

I find something very reassuring about that.

And if praying is not your deal, then don’t do it.  There are people of even devout faith who rarely pray.

Besides, if you’re doing it right, no one should know the difference.

And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

-Matthew 6:5

( Praying hands: http://www.prospectorjewelers.com/About_Us/Praying_Hands.htm.  Kohlberg’s stages of moral development: http://klooste-mycave.blogspot.com/2010/10/gender-typing-are-there-flavors-as-well_22.html.  Buddha statue:  http://blogs.babble.com/famecrawler/2010/10/18/what-is-aqua-buddha-rand-pauls-campaign-is-getting-a-little-crazy-watch-the-ad/)