what you don’t understand about anti-intellectualism can literally kill you

We often think anti-intellectualism and ignorance are the same thing. They're not. Anti-intellectualism is a lot eviler and more corrosive, and a lot more dangerous.
breath of fresh air
Illustration by Peter Jacubinas

One of Isaac Asimov’s most often cited quotes is about the spread of anti-intellectualism in the United States, a trend he said was “nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is as good as your knowledge.'” Today it’s often dismissed as arrogant paternalism by the millions who use social media and demand to know who experts are to question their view of the world and how it works, but it was a prescient warning about the so-called “marketplace of ideas” protected by the caricature of expertise and education. You see, anti-intellectualism is not ignorance. It’s an attempt to bend public opinion to your whims, even when those whims defy reality, by pitting your audience against a paternalistic buzzkill or a cartoon villain.

It’s true that often times, anti-intellectuals can be angry ignoramuses upset at those who dare tell them that their problems are more complicated than they thought or putting a damper on their grand plans. But they can also be paid shills for industries which weaponize scientific and expert disagreements on the minutia of something beneficial to their employers to pretend we aren’t being actively harmed by them while often knowing full well that we are. The makers of cigarettes knew smoking caused cancers and other diseases. Opioid makers knew that their pills were addictive and dangerous when taken over the long term. And fossil fuel oligopolies knew they were contributing to global warming and climate change for decades.

And yet, armed with reams of documents that they were actively harming their customers, and employees, and shareholders, and themselves, they attacked and intimidated those who dared to expose things they wanted kept secret, recycling the same playbooks. For example, fossil fuel companies even hired the same people tobacco companies paid to argue that smoking wasn’t dangerous. Consider that in these cases, The Man who you’re told is there to act as a thought police is trying to keep you from developing cancers and addictions, and clean up both the air you breathe and water you drink while those who told you to question everything are actively profiting from you willingly remain in the dark about the side effects of their products.

the complete impotence of the marketplace of ideas

Perhaps the anti-intellectuals’ greatest ally is the so-called “marketplace of ideas” sold to us as the next stage of scientific enlightenment, a space where every idea gets aired so the public at large could make the decision about its ethical and factual merits. From a purely abstract, the-world-is-my-debate-club-where-nothing-matters standpoint, it seems like a perfectly fine way to build a worldview. But from a standpoint in which facts matter and not all ideas are created equal, this is nothing more than a pretentious veneer for embracing cognitive dissonance and simply picking and choosing whatever you want to be true while derisively dismissing anyone who can point out factual flaws as a paternalistic thought policing “elite” you humbled.

In other words, we’re being told that “let’s go for a hike” and “let’s slam our genitals into bear traps” are both ideas equally up for debate and anyone who says that maybe it’s a really, really bad idea to let a bear trap shut over your privates is a busybody limiting people’s absolute right to at least consider mutilating their bits in inhumane hunting equipment. Now, I’m sure you’re thinking that it’s an obvious extreme and since only a complete lunatic would choose to do that, the marketplace of ideas works. But we know it’s failing miserably when it comes to topics that require specific and technical knowledge to realize you’re being manipulated under the guise of “broadening people’s horizons,” like Dr. Oz does on a regular basis.

Even worse is that thanks to social media, even if 99% of people decide against slamming their genitals into bear traps, the one percent that do now have a place to gather, pat themselves on the back for being wise enough to see through the anti-crotch-in-bear-trap bias of shills for Big Emergency Medicine, and carpet bomb platforms with ads and pages urging you to try genital mutilation with hunting implements. Kind of like anti-vaccination activists will urge you against getting your shots and vaccinating your kids. So, even when it renders an informed verdict on a notion, the marketplace of ideas is ultimately powerless in excising ideas it considers to be bad, raising the question of why we even need it at all.

why we can’t simply vote on reality

In Penn and Teller’s show on the basics of skepticism and critical thinking, appropriately named Bullshit, there was a scene illustrating why your opinion on facts doesn’t matter by asking the viewers to vote on the sex of a rabbit, then just gently flipping the animal over and looking at the relevant biological indicators. Who cares if you thought the bunny was female and so did all of your friends if it has a penis? So why do we pretend that our vote on reality is relevant, that it needs to be respected, and that anyone telling us otherwise is the enemy? In no small part, it’s thanks to the strain of anti-intellectualism we were just discussing and just how welcome it’s been in far too many social circles.

By insisting that no one could claim to have an authority on knowledge, that all of us can be nigh omniscient polyglots thanks to the ubiquity of the internet, and conflating the simple act of making a choice with understanding that choice, we allowed the anti-intellectuals among us to paint actual experts, fact checkers, and authorities on subjects as old fogeys who sit in pious judgment of those seeking new knowledge or original ideas. In reality, the people to whom they refer as “grown up adults to tell us what to think” with the requisite sarcastic air quotes, are just a loose constellation of academics, educators, and experts in the field who are consulted by journalists trying to be accurate or to separate truth from fiction.

As we can see from a mountain of corporate and political scandals, by either demonizing them or dismissing them as irrelevant, we allow countless bad actors to spread anti-intellectualism and the worship of personal choice in what reality we choose to believe, and profit off people’s cognitive dissonance. They can pollute, poison, and exploit as they please, fattening their margins at the expense of our lungs, livers, kidneys, wallets, and even our reproductive futures, telling us that science and facts can’t be trusted and anyone trying to warn us as an authority is doing it only because they think they’re better than us and should be scorned for their arrogant insolence. And those attitudes are awfully convenient for these bad actors, aren’t they?

# science // critical thinking / skepticism / social media


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