The Depressing World of Anti-Intellectualism

I’ll admit, I’ve been a bit depressed as of late by the state of things in this country. In my field, I’m often asked for my opinion about topics of current affairs, or other generally complex subjects. But that hasn’t seemed to have made difference about how people view me, and other “intellectuals” in general.

I recently had a conversation with one such individual who had, in the past, asked for information on a few topics. But as soon as I gave them an answer they didn’t like, the “discussion” turned hostile.

“You think you’re so smart.”

I’ve heard that phrase, used as a way to try to shut me up, pretty much my entire life. I can recall hearing it specifically as young as third grade, and by a teacher. I didn’t have any tact as a child (still don’t have a lot, I just don’t have it in me to be less than usefully honest), but it stuck with me, that the teacher seemed to be threatened that I actually knew something more about whatever it was than she did. I don’t remember the exact subject, just that I was right and she sneered at me, “You think you’re smart, huh?”

Huh? Why wouldn’t someone want to know that they were wrong?

Of course, I now know that the phenomenon is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, and it has been well documented. Those with a little bit of knowledge about a subject tend to think they know more about it than they do, and they are more confident about the accuracy of their knowledge than they really should be. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been as confident as a child in my own knowledge as I was, but when I know something, I know I know it. Simply put, no one has ever been able to gaslight me other than myself.

But back to my original question. Why wouldn’t someone want to know that they were wrong? To me, this gets at the heart of what’s happening across the country. Many who try to argue with me will accuse me of Appealing to Authority, or saying something is correct “because I’m smarter than you”, even though this is considered a logical fallacy and frowned on in the Sciences. I always try to bring evidence to bear in a discussion – a peer-reviewed journal article, verifiable data, ecetera. And that frustrates people “talking” to me, as they want to “win” the argument.

“You think you’re so smart, don’t you?”

Recently, I’ve finished reading an article published about research on how to help students tell apart fact from fiction, or more precisely a factual statement (regardless of the statement’s accuracy) from a statement of opinion. This work, conducted by Amy Mitchell, Jeffrey Gottfried, Michael Barthel and Nami Sumida, can be read here. The researchers found strong links to our ability to tell the difference between a factual statement (The sky is blue) and an opinion statement (A blue sky makes people happy) to our overall worldview. If the statement matches our already established ideas about how the world works (let’s go with political parties here), then we are more likely to think the statement is factual. And it becomes more and more difficult to be convinced that it not only isn’t a factual statement, but isn’t even an accurate “fact” the more strongly it matches that worldview. Because we’ve tied our personal identities into that worldview, or that political party, so if it’s wrong, then that means I’m stupid, which just can’t be, because stupid people are bad.

Whew, that was a steep rabbit hole.

That slide from discovering something you thought was true isn’t to “stupid people are bad” is called Reductio ad absurdum, or “reduction to absurdity”, and is considered another logical fallacy. But it explains a lot, to me, about why anyone would want to continue to think something incorrect was true long after they’ve been shown mountains of evidence to the contrary.

There’s a great scene in The Big Bang Theory between Sheldon and his mother, which goes something like: Mrs. Cooper: You watch your mouth, Shelly. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. Sheldon: But evolution is not opinion, it’s a fact. Mrs. Cooper: And that is your opinion!

Because you’ve wrapped your entire self-worth and value into your opinion being fact, you now can’t separate the two. So the person who pointed that out to you becomes the problem, which makes you double down and use another logical fallacy to continue to be “right” – attack me personally. Known as anAd hominemargument, it means that if you can make the other person out to be a “bad” person, their argument must also be wrong, right? Or telling me that while I might be right, I’m “saying it wrong”, which is better known as tone policing.

There’ve been a lot of logical fallacies in the media and in our own personal discourse in the last few years. Maybe I’ll write about that soon.

So, as I’ve said, I’ve been a bit depressed lately. Because I’m fed up with the Ad hominem attacks simply because I pointed out that your opinion isn’t fact. But I keep doing it anyway, because I honestly believe that you deserve to know.

-dlp