The culture of anti-intellectualism in America is fueling hateful, racist demagogues -- in politics and on TV. While study after study demonstrate that political conservatives are relatively stupid.
|Illustration provided by Graham Richardson.|
"Several studies even found a positive correlation between how often one watches Fox News and the degree to which one’s worldview is misinformed."
By Phil Torres
It’s a cliché to say that democratic states can’t function properly without an informed electorate. But it’s absolutely true. And this is why, heading into the 2016 election year, I’m nervous about the future. With Donald Trump leading the Republican presidential contenders, even many Republican die-hards are shaking in their boots.
But Trump isn’t the cause, just the symptom. The deeper cause is a strain of anti-intellectualism that runs through the roots of American culture. And while this strain is found on both sides of the political spectrum (see some liberals on vaccines and chemtrails), it’s mostly concentrated among religious conservatives on the political right. For those who espouse anti-intellectualism, conspiracy theories have the same clout as legitimate science, the opinions of non-experts are just as credible as those of the experts, and ideology takes precedence over the cold hard facts.
The US has fostered a culture of anti-intellectualism more than “most other Western countries.” While traveling through Europe and the UK for extended periods of time, I’ve often been quite envious of how respectful other countries are toward those with knowledge in the fields of science and the humanities. In the UK, for example, it’s generally not seen as “uncool” to have a higher degree from a good university. Often, it confers the degree-holder a certain social respect and admiration. Many of the top comedians in the UK have attended institutions like Oxford and Cambridge, including Michael Palin, Eric Idol, John Cleese, David Mitchell, Richard Ayoade and Stephen Fry. And shows such as “QI,” which combines academic discussions with uproarious, irreverent humor, are popular hits.
Not only is the U.S. unique for its love affair with anti-intellectualism, but this romantic relationship appears to have grown stronger over the past few decades. A primary reason for this is no doubt the huge influence that conservative media have had on American culture, such as Fox News, which is currently the most trusted news network in the country. The problem is that “Fox News” is a misnomer. The network is, to quote Jon Stewart, more of a “relentlessly activist” organization for conservative causes than an intellectually honest conveyor of information. Indeed, there are to date at least seven academic studies that have found that Fox News’ viewership constitutes the most misinformed audience out there.
From climate change to healthcare, the Iraq War to the country of Obama’s birth (no, it’s not Kenya), denizens of Fox News are more confident about falsehoods than viewers of any other news network. Several studies even found a positive correlation between how often one watches Fox News and the degree to which one’s worldview is misinformed.
What’s most dangerous about Fox News, though, isn’t its cynical use of Orwellian doublespeak, as in “Fair and Balanced” and “No Spin Zone,” to conceal a conservative agenda. Nor is it the network’s repeated failure to accurately report the facts. Rather, the most dangerous consequence of Fox News is that it discourages that most important form of rigorous curiosity called critical thinking. If people want a single phenomenon to blame for the gradual decline of the American empire, direct your wagging finger at the devaluation of critical thinking skills.
It’s not an accident that Fox News wants an audience that isn’t preoccupied with carefully dissecting complex social, political, economic and religious issues. Critical thinking is perhaps our very best strategy for apprehending the true nature of reality, and as the great comedian Stephen Colbert once declared, “reality has a well-known liberal bias.” In other words, critical thinking could lead to liberalism — or worse, to that most dreaded form of liberal fanaticism called secular progressivism.
Scientific studies actually back up this line of reasoning. Consider a 2012 studypublished in Science, one of the most prestigious journals in the world. This study found that when people are prompted to use their critical faculties, they become less likely to affirm religious statements. In other words, there’s a causal link between “analytical thinking” and religious disbelief. Perhaps this is why the Republican Party of Texas literally wrote into its 2012 platform that, “We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs [that] have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs.” God forbid children start questioning their “fixed beliefs” about religion — or politics.
Yet another peer-reviewed paper found that people who think “deliberately” and “effortfully” about certain topics tend to express more liberal views. As the authors put it, “political conservatism may be a … consequence of low-effort thought,” meaning that, “when effortful, deliberate thought is disengaged, endorsement of conservative ideology increases.” Moving from how people use their brains to the brain’s innate capacity, multiple studies have reported that liberals (and atheists) have higher average IQs than conservatives. One study even found that low childhood IQ predicts conservative and racist beliefs later in life. It follows from such data that the divide between right and left isn’t just about differing social, political, and economic philosophies. It’s also about the the role of the intellect in determining our normative worldviews.