Excuse me, please, but let’s first talk stupid: Slow of mind; obtuse; given to unintelligent decisions or acts; acting in an unintelligent or careless manner; lacking intelligence or reason; marked by unreasoned thinking or acting. Senseless. – Merriam-Webster
We all know stupid people, right? Hey they’re all around us. But not us of course. Almost everyone (93%) thinks they are an “above average” driver. Worse, some 90% of Americans believe that they have an above average ability to discern the truth regarding the myriad “news” blurbs that they run across. Most of us think we’re more attractive than others do. Gosh we’re great! And for decades, men thought they were flat out smarter than women, as countless idiotically sexist ads flouted men’s superiority in everything except cooking (sometimes), washing dishes and laundry. And people bought it. Spent their money on it. Yikes.
Scientific American put it this way: “Inflated perceptions of one’s physical appearance is a manifestation of a general phenomenon psychologists call “self-enhancement.” Researchers have shown that people overestimate the likelihood that they would engage in a desirable behavior, but are remarkably accurate when predicting the behavior of a stranger. For example, people overestimate the amount of money they would donate to charity while accurately predicting others’ donations.”
OK, I’m a psychologist and I prefer to call most of this self-aggrandizement sheer ego defensive stupidity. No, pal, you’re not really a generous, nice looking political savant and a pro behind the wheel.
Even a casual glance at IQ data in this country reveals a disturbing downward trend in recent years. John R. Schindler writes in the Observer that “If you’re imagining that the population around you is getting dumber, you’re right. This has become a legitimate crisis for the U.S. military, which is having a devil of a time finding sufficient numbers of recruits who are not stupid, obese, and/or convicted criminals.” The U.S. military, especially today, demands that recruits are of course bright enough to understand and operate complex weapon systems and equipment, tactical decisions and their role in carrying them out.
Per the Pentagon’s data, a whopping 71 percent of young Americans are ineligible to join the armed forces once they disqualify those among the 34 million Americans ages 17-24 who are too stupid, obese, and/or have criminal records. Holy bleep. Seventy-one per cent. Imagine if we had to win World War II after tossing aside nearly three quarters of candidates in the service pool. Think operating and maintaining Navy warships, crawling through the jungles of Bataan and other Pacific islands, or battling hostile forces in Europe while freezing was simple? Uh, no. And we will forevermore commemorate Memorial Day because of the not only brave but thinking Americans who gave their lives to a just cause. On a destroyer, in a tank or the trenches, on a bomber or in a fighter plane. Take your pick.
Couple more examples. Forty per cent of Americans believe that in their present form, humans have existed for about 10,000 years. The true answer is closer to 200,000. Two thirds of Republicans believe that Trump was the legitimate winner of the 2020 presidential election 2020… despite zero evidence or court proven claims of sufficient fraud anywhere to have tipped the outcome to Biden. And let’s not forget the over 30,000 false statements or outright lies perpetuated by Trump while he held office. Or right-wing media’s insistence that the January 6 insurrection was driven by left wing extremists or the FBI.
The problem is, millions of Americans get their “news” from screwy, biased, inaccurate sources. Fox News, a popular source of information among older whites, rates lower than average in most evaluations by independent experts. Did you notice that Fox no longer says “fair and balanced?” Wow, who looked in the mirror?
Oy. My head is spinning. But where does this massive problem and threat to all of us come from? And what on earth can we do about it? Hmm. Let’s start with a few simple ideas.
First, and obviously, we need to look at our educational system, a massive topic in itself. While Americans can boast the most outstanding colleges and universities in the world, K-12 consistently comes up short. No surprise, most folks think highly of their own children’s school system. Far higher than they rate other schools. My challenge is this: are we teaching our kids skills that will help them separate facts, science and technical expertise from, ah, baloney? It’s scary how many folks get their news from Facebook, for example, among other social media sites that remain awash in garbage. I’ve got nothing against social media per se, but how many of our kids and young adults are consistently encouraged to scour relatively reliable news sources such as Reuters? Or the New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, BBC, CNN, Time Magazine? How many teachers take the time to assign news readings so they can be objectively discussed in class? It certainly never happened in my day at an excellent public high school.
As for parents. Probably most of us could do a much better job of helping our kids navigate their way through the tsunami of easy access and often unreliable, inaccurate news sources. “Hey, Johnny, how about putting Facebook, TikTok and Instagram aside for a while and talk with your dad and me about this article on Bloomberg? Or this one in Forbes? They’ve got some good stuff to say about what kinds of great jobs are out there for you. And some really cool ideas.” Or, “How ‘bout we hit the science museum this weekend? We could grab an early dinner at Appleby’s or someplace afterward. C’mon, whaddya say?”
OK now for high school curricula. My high school offered psychology basics during the summer but most schools don’t (won’t?) touch it and most kids’ first exposure to psychology coursework doesn’t come until college. Maybe we could encourage more kids to look more objectively at how we social animals usually process data and our own experiences in a way that protects our egos rather than elevates truth. Yeah, we all need a few defenses (Vielen Dank, Dr. Freud) but we tend to overdo them at the expense of confronting the world and ourselves truthfully. Hey, remember that line from ET, “this is reality, Greg”?
Schools also do a dismal job teaching history. A 2014 report by The National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that only 18 percent (!) of American high school students were proficient in US history. The problem runs pretty deep. A 2012 story in Perspectives on History magazine found that 88 percent of elementary school teachers considered teaching history a low priority. But as David Cutler noted in The Atlantic magazine, “high school history doesn’t have to be boring. By tying past events to contemporary issues, teachers can move beyond rote memorization.” Wish someone had told my teachers that.
So my friends, we have a long way to go in elevating truth over nonsense and minimizing stupidity. This is a team sport. We all need to suit up. How about we use an owl for our logo? Maybe Wise potato chips can chip in.