By George B. Kauffman
(Editor’s note: The sources for the information in this article are documented in the online version of the article, which is available at www.fresnoalliance.com.)
People are stupid! Marketers, corporation executives, politicians, governments, royalty, the wealthy elite (1%), network anchors, salespersons, merchants, many celebrities and the powerful persons who control society have known this fact since ancient times. It explains the current fascination with Donald Trump. However, few persons in public life ever state this fact.
Among the few, Bill Maher makes his point how dumb, ignorant and uneducated the majority of Americans are, and he backs it up with facts. Those who dislike and hate Bill Maher are the same people who belong to that category of ignorant and embarrassing dummies.
Similarly, Jonathan Gruber, professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who has been dubbed the “Obamacare Architect,” took a dim view of Americans’ intelligence. He discussed “the stupidity of the American voter,” said “Americans were too stupid to understand” one of the Affordable Care Act’s tax increases and described the law’s “exploitation of the lack of understanding of the American voter.”
“Two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I am not yet completely sure about the universe” is a statement attributed to Albert Einstein by psychiatrist and psychotherapist “Fritz” Perls. Much earlier, Guy de Maupassant quotes Gustave Flaubert, “La terre a des limites, mais la bêtise humaine est infinite” (The earth has its boundaries, but human stupidity is infinite).
This stupidity is really the unwillingness of many people to take the time and effort to become aware of the actual facts that are more accessible than ever before because of the ubiquity of the Internet. However, the Internet, like many things in life, is a two-edged sword. Persons who access it for information must be able to differentiate between valid, unbiased information and that posted by sources with nefarious, malevolent intentions or attempts to suppress information that is contrary to their schemes. This ability apparently seems to be beyond the willingness of most people to expend any effort to do this.
Capitalism successfully seeks to coerce people into consuming items or services that they do not actually need. On my daily morning walks with our dog Princess I pass by bins overflowing with items that the owners considered essential not long ago but now consider useless, unnecessary junk.
Vodka (водка, literally little water) is a distilled beverage (minimum 40% by volume, 80 proof) composed primarily of water and ethanol (C2H5OH). Despite the fact that all ethanol is essentially the same, people choose to buy expensive brands such as Smirnoff, Absolute or Stolichnaya, convinced that they can tell the difference between brands.
A number of articles have recently appeared describing how stupid people are conned into buying luxury goods to signal their social status. For example, many wealthy consumers use specific expensive brands of purses (Chanel, Prada, Louis Vuitton), watches (Rolex), cars (Cadillac, BMW) and other goods to signal social class. Consequently, manufacturers can produce a product with conspicuous branding or tone it down, depending on whether the user intends to signal loudly or quietly.
However, the stupidity of people has much graver consequences than those that I have mentioned above. Play some martial music and some contrived stories, and otherwise peaceful people are ready to rush off and invade another country, without considering whether the stories are true.
On Sept. 11, 2001, 19 militants associated with the Islamic extremist group al-Qaeda hijacked four airliners and carried out suicide attacks against targets in the United States. Two of the planes were flown into the towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, a third plane hit the Pentagon just outside Washington, D.C., and the fourth plane crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. Often referred to as 9/11, the attacks resulted in extensive death and destruction, triggering major U.S. initiatives to combat terrorism and defining the presidency of George W. Bush. More than 3,000 people were killed during the attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C., including more than 400 police officers and firefighters.
Although the attackers were Islamic terrorists from Saudi Arabia and several other Arab nations, the neocons, led by Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, Kenneth Adelman and David Frum persuaded dimwitted President George W. Bush that Saddam Hussein was the center of an “axis of evil,” who possessed “weapons of mass destruction” (none of which were ever found). Deceived with visions of a “mushroom cloud” and a war that would be a “cakewalk,” naïve Americans acquiesced with our invasion of Iraq, believing that the war would pay for itself and that we would be greeted as liberators.
Now that the Iraq war has been discredited, neocons and liberal interventionists alike contend that President Bush left Iraq in pretty good shape in 2008 before President Obama’s withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011 created a strategic opening for Iran today. In a March 11 editorial, the Wall Street Journal claims that the Obama administration is primarily responsible for Iran’s military surge in Iraq because the withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2011 helped destroy the sectarian peace that Washington had brokered following the surge in 2007 and the failure to deploy U.S. ground troops or rally a coalition of surrounding Sunni states to fight the Islamic State created security vacuums for Tehran to exploit. However, U.S. troops left Iraq according to the timetable President Bush himself had negotiated with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in 2008, and the hatred and rivalries that are so much a part of Iraqi religious and tribal animosities were bound to erupt in the absence of a strong unitary state.
The agreement reached between the Islamic Republic of Iran and a group of world powers, the P5+1 (permanent members of the UN Security Council—the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, France and China plus Germany), is a historic achievement that decreases the likelihood of an Iranian nuclear weapon and forestalls the risk of another costly U.S. war in the Middle East. Nevertheless, rather than hanging their heads in shame and having enough sense to shut up, the neocons are now calling for a war with Iran. Will they never learn?
Related to my contention that people are stupid, agnotology (formerly agnatology) is the study of culturally induced ignorance or doubt, especially the publication of inaccurate or misleading scientific data. This neologism was coined by Stanford Professor of History of Science and Technology Robert N. Proctor and derives from the neoclassical Greek words γνωσις, agnōsis, “not knowing” (Attic Greek γνωτος “unknown”), and -λογία, logia. It also highlights the increasingly common condition where more knowledge of a subject leaves one more uncertain than before.
A prime example of the deliberate production of ignorance cited by Proctor is the tobacco industry’s conspiracy to manufacture doubt about the cancer risks of tobacco use. Under the banner of science, the industry produced research about everything except tobacco hazards to exploit public uncertainty. Some causes of culturally induced ignorance are media neglect, corporate or governmental secrecy and suppression, document destruction and myriad forms of inherent or avoidable culturopolitical selectivity, inattention and forgetfulness.
Agnotology also focuses on how and why diverse forms of knowledge do not “come to be,” or are ignored or delayed. For example, knowledge about plate tectonics was censored and delayed for at least a decade because some evidence was classified as military information related to undersea warfare.
The creation of systemic unknowns where any potential “fact” is always already countered by an alternative of apparently equal weight and value can be used to try to discredit almost anything. Thus conservative media such as the obviously biased Fox News network, which prides itself as “fair and balanced,” tries to cast doubt on anthropogenic (human-caused) global warming although the scientific consensus for it is overwhelming.
The availability of such large amounts of knowledge in this information sage might not necessarily be producing a knowledgeable citizenry. Instead, it may be allowing many people to cherry-pick information in blogs or news that reinforces their existing beliefs and to be distracted from new knowledge by repetitive or base entertainments. There is conflicting evidence on how television viewing affects intelligence as well as values formation.
George B. Kauffman, Ph.D., chemistry professor emeritus at Fresno State and a Guggenheim Fellow, is a recipient of the American Chemical Society’s George C. Pimentel Award in Chemical Education, the Helen M. Free Award for Public Outreach and the Award for Research at an Undergraduate Institution, and numerous domestic and international honors. In 2002 and 2011, he was appointed a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Chemical Society,