‘Information Age’ has not made us smarter
We live in the so-called “Information Age,” yet American society’s collective intelligence – and in many cases its common sense – is in rapid decline.
Sound the alarm, eggheads!
We have finger-tip access to more information than we’ve ever had. We have more college-educated people than we’ve ever had. We have better communicative technology than we’ve ever had. Yet 21st Century America is experiencing a significant decline in rational thought and appreciation for expertise.
Thomas Jefferson’s admonition that “an enlightened citizenry is indispensable for the proper functioning of a republic” seems to be having the opposite effect. Many of our so-called enlightened citizens tend to dismiss science and its methods, rather than embrace it. We tend to confirm our own biases. Our egalitarian efforts for fairness and an insistence for relativity tend to elevate opinion to the same status as fact.
Author and professor Tom Nichols examines these issues and makes a solid case for all of it in The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters, published in January. Well aware that naysayers will no doubt label his efforts another righteous indication of elitism, Nichols is concerned that a lack of intellectual argumentation and a refusal to acknowledge and understand multiple viewpoints is hurting our democracy.
“We no longer have those principled and informed arguments,” Nichols writes. “The foundational knowledge of the average American is now so low that it has crashed through the floor of ‘uninformed,’ passed ‘misinformed’ on the way down, and is now plummeting to ‘aggressively wrong.’ People don’t just believe dumb things; they actively resist further learning rather than let go of those beliefs.”
It goes without saying that the purveyors of “fake news” and the distributors of misinformation, whether it be unsavory Internet trolls or foreign interlopers, have helped to confuse the masses. But a public’s insistence to believe only what they want, only what confirms their opinions or an alleged ideology, has allowed them to be fooled.
Experts are often dismissed in favor of belief, no matter what evidence may be shown to prove otherwise. Nichols cites experts who, during the 2016 debate over whether the United Kingdom should leave the European Union, warned that it was a bad idea. But Michael Gove, a leader in the “Brexit” movement, opined that facts were not as important as the feelings of British voters. Brexit, and the voters’ feelings, passed.
There are people who believe the Holocaust did not happen, that Americans did not land on the moon in 1969, and that the Sandy Hook school shooting was staged by the government (for what reason is anyone’s guess). There are people who have jumped onto the bandwagon to dismiss the value of childhood vaccinations, and others who ignore verifiable scientific fact.
Truth is not relative, subject to how one believes. There is a discernible, objective reality. Expert information and evidence help us to determine what is and what is not. Nichols isn’t saying that expertise is dead, but he’s sounding an alarm.
Nichols’ complaint is that too many Americans are proud of their ignorance. People seem determined to prove experts wrong, even without expert evidence. American individualism has morphed into a serious ego problem. No one, regardless of educational standing or expertise, wants to be told that their thinking may be flawed or, worse yet, to be proven wrong.
There has been a streak of anti-intellectualism running through the fabric of American society throughout our history. The reasons why have been outlined, extrapolated, and hypothesized by a number of educators, researchers, and intellectuals over the years. But this is more than worrying how many people cannot find countries on a map or the numbers of people who don’t know a basic timeline of history.
This is about America’s collective ability to think and reason. To do that well we must realize that wisdom can’t be found on the Internet, that our own ideas could be fallible, and that expertise isn’t a bad word.
A freelance writer and photographer, Bernie Schmitt also is an assistant professor of English at Vincennes University. He lives with his wife, Nancy, and family in Vincennes.
By Bernie Schmitt