The Great Dumbing Down

Cliff Berg
9 min readJun 25, 2023

Today I read an article in Medium, Why a Black Hole is a Laughable Idea. The author, whose bio only says that he is a “Structural Philosopher”, claims in the article,

“The center of gravity in my washing machine is such that no laundry was found in the center when the spin of the machine was really high.”

By analogy, he claims that because of centrifugal force, there cannot be anything inside a black hole. And he writes,

“No clown, not even a clown showing us he has the highest physics degree in the world, can tell us something that is not true.”

So theoretical physicists are clowns?

Sorry, but I have known quite a few theoretical physicists, and they are not clowns.

One reader’s response to the story was,

“I guess it’s the age we’re in. Anti-intellectuals claiming they and only they see the folly of those who actually utilize scientific methods. When I flush my toilet everything gets sucked out leaving a void in the center… must be that black holes are drains in the universe…”

My entire life I have taken for granted the reality that most Americans dismiss intellectuals as irrelevant and tiresome. But things have gotten a lot worse. It used to be that people at least gave lip service to admiring brainy people, but today stupidity is actually celebrated. Being stupid is trendy.

And take social “influencers”. One has to wonder who they are influencing.

Trusting Vaccine Deniers Over the Entire Scientific Community

Okay I don’t want to get into politics. But this issue transcends politics. The fact that it is politics actually proves my point.

And before you make assumptions about my own political beliefs, don’t: you will be wrong. I don’t fit one of the patterns. I do not fit into either of today’s left-leaning or right-leaning camps.

For decades, scientists had talked about the possibility of creating mRNA-based vaccines. Two of the challenges were packaging and delivery: RNA is unstable, and getting it into cells before it degraded or was attacked by our immune system was an unsolved problem. Then a few years ago there was a breakthrough: the creation of bio-neutral nanoparticles with the right shape and charge polarity so that they would not only protect the RNA, but enable it to pass through the cell membrane and release the RNA into the cell. (I have been fortunate enough to be shown in a lab how this is actually done.)

And just then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and this new RNA vaccine technology was immediately used to create the first vaccine — the Moderna one. It proved to be immensely safe and effective — far safer and far more effective than vaccines using earlier technology.

And yet, somehow, a large portion of the US population was brainwashed to think that these vaccines are dangerous — despite the fact that nearly everyone in the US has had vaccines made using more dangerous techniques.

Self-appointed experts made all kinds of incorrect claims. One was that the mRNA vaccines modify your DNA. Not true. Another that the vaccines are dangerous. Not true — they are extremely safe.

Scientists spoke up, but a very large portion of the US population preferred to believe these anti-vax people over the scientists.

That’s what is shocking to me: the distrust of the entire scientific community, which was more than 99% unanimous about the safety of these vaccines.

But something like 100 million Americans listened to anti-vax nutcases instead, despite that most of those nutcases had minimal credentials or had some kind of ax to grind.

I think it’s because Americans don’t relate to intellectual people. They think of them as “other” — another “tribe”. The nerds from the playground who played by themselves. The ones who read books and launched rockets instead of going to the football games. The ones who went to top schools. The ones who became doctors.

Here’s a test: Can you name two living sports players?

Two movie stars?

Two musicians?

And now, Can you name two living scientists?

How about two mathematicians?

There’s the problem.

And it’s not your fault: it’s our culture, and the forces that are driving it.

Celebrating Simple Talk

During the 2010s there was a movement to speak truthfully, and avoid political correctness. I am all for that. And I support speaking plainly, avoiding abstractions and sophisticated words. Say what you mean. Don’t mince around. And speak truth to power.

But there is a difference between speaking plainly and speaking stupidly. We recently had a US President who would say things that you would expect to hear from a ten year old, or even a five year old — and a mean one at that. Things like “a total low-life!”, “low I.Q. Crazy Mika”, and “I’d look her right in that fat, ugly face of hers…” [ref], not to mention an endless stream of childish tweets.

That experience greatly degraded public discourse. It normalized talking stupid. It made it “normal” for people in high positions to act stupid, and therefore be stupid — to be anti-intellectual, to mistrust those who are intellectual. To deride those who are intellectual.

We are now in a country in which a large part of the population hates intellectuals, instead of admiring them.

What we should admire is intelligence and honesty. But the “talk truthfully” movement turned into the “talk stupid” movement. Just look at some of the things that Marjorie Taylor Greene has claimed, including that Democratic politicians should be assassinated, and a whole raft of conspiracy theories that are indescribably idiotic. And yet, she gets to be on the Congressional committees for Homeland Security and Oversight and Accountability.

Politics aside, why do Republicans in Congress support her? How can someone like that get elected? This has nothing to do with policy. She is an idiot, a nutcase, and a nasty troublemaker.

What comes to mind is the movie Idiocracy. It is here.

White House Meeting, from the movie Idiocracy

Amplified by the Sports and Entertainment Industries

If one steps back and looks at how our current socio-economic system works, it is no surprise what has happened.

The forces that drive our system are mainly economic ones, and the primary economic forces are consumer-based. And guess which kinds of products are the most attention-getting for consumers? Entertainment, sports, and social media in which people can talk about entertainment and sports — and products (enter the “influencers”).

Science does not sell in large numbers. Math does not sell in large numbers. Big companies and trend-makers want large numbers. They go for the lowest common denominator, and it is sports and entertainment. And chatting with friends, about nonsense mostly — social media.

So industry intentionally amplifies those things, to drive demand from the majority. We see it everywhere. Every fall we hear about the coming Monday Night Football. And why does the New York Times have so many front-page articles about Taylor Swift? (Is there a payoff happening there?) I mean, is that really front page news?

In fact, part of the reason that women struggle with attaining equality is because these industries benefit from keeping women in “their place”. Think about it: women who sit at home, obsessed with their appearance, running the household — they are the perfect consumer. Just look at the new updated Barbie Dream House. It’s all about sitting around and looking pretty, while Ken goes out to work:

The new updated “Barbie Dream House”. Barbie lounges, looking pretty, while Ken — dressed for business — loiters outside

and if you are intellectual? They have that covered: there is a girl using a laptop, but she is in the same scene as a girl in a wheelchair. The message is that using a laptop is like being confined to a wheelchair: it’s a challenge to overcome, not a benefit.

There is a girl on a laptop, and beneath her another in a wheelchair. The implicit message: being intellectual is equivalent to being disabled.

So we are brainwashing our kids to think this way, from the time they are very small.

And since when did going to college become about getting a sports scholarship? Why is college so much about sports today? Sports always played a role, but it seems like these sports scholarships are out of hand. College is supposed to be about learning. Want to play sports? Join a sports team. Why are the teams part of college?

We can also see a change in what version of masculinity is celebrated today. Today’s men are less macho — or are they? Consider the masculine movie hero of the 1960s, James Bond (see photo).

and then consider a more contemporary masculine hero, Vin Diesel’s many characters. Where is the suave sophistication? In the Bond movies, Bond often demonstrated his knowledge of the world and his mental acumen. Vin Diesel’s characters seem mostly about brawn and brute force.

It’s not that Vin Diesel’s characters are not good characters. It is that the images of those characters depict grit and grunge, and those don’t bring intellect to mind. We don’t celebrate intellectuals: we now celebrate looking like a bully.

What To Do

This amplification of the unintellectual portions of our culture crowds out the intellectual portions. For that reason, intellectual people find their niches where they can converse and learn, out of sight of most people. But that separates us.

Here are some ideas for how to resist the trend, and protect yourself from it:

Don’t get your news from cable TV. Don’t listen to the radio, generally speaking, although I would make an exception for the BBC news, because it’s neutral and does not try to trigger emotion.

Don’t listen to or read political pundits — 90% of them are toxic assholes who seek to drive their own readership by making people angry at something. There are some exceptions, but be choosy, and watch out for attempts to make you angry at others.

Read a range of sources that are close to the political center. I personally read two news sources each morning. One leans somewhat liberal and the other somewhat conservative — they balance each other. Here is a media bias chart to help you pick: https://www.allsides.com/media-bias/media-bias-chart

Consider subscribing to a science magazine.

Close your Facebook account. LinkedIn groups are better places for thoughtful discussion, and people are polite because their account is linked to their professional identity. A lot of professionals also belong to mailing lists and other invitation-only forums. (E.g. I belong to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and can chat there with scientists.)

There needs to be meaningful public discussion. That is how a society’s shared ideas advance. Yet today, it is impossible to have meaningful discussion in a forum that is open to the general public. Too many people get angry, and insult others, and make incorrect assumptions about what others think. It is not polite. It is not intellectual — it is emotional. Emotional discourse is garbage discourse.

Take an interest in technical things — don’t ever, ever say things like “I am not a math person”, or “I was not good at science”. It’s baloney. Studies have shown that math and science anxiety are mostly behavioral, and have little to do with people’s actual aptitude.

Don’t deride intellectuals — let’s retire the word “nerd”. Too often people apologize for “being a nerd”. Why does being intellectual call for an apology? The opposite is true.

Take another look at science — science changes the world. It is because of science that life is different today from how it was a thousand years ago. It is because of science that we have engineers. Science is what creates change, and change is interesting. Take notice. There is fascinating activity. You don’t have to be an expert to get the basic idea — just take an interest.

Ignore people who act stupid and talk stupid — saying simpleminded things is not something to celebrate. Ignore influencers who have few credentials — they don’t know what they are talking about. Ignore politicians who seek to drive emotion, particularly negative emotions — in order to manipulate us, under the guise of “plain talking”. It is a lie.

Continue to learn — learning does not stop when you leave school. Lifelong learning is necessary, unless you want to be left behind in so many ways. Read books. Take courses. Read articles about a range of topics.

Don’t use free services — I am talking about the ones that make their money by using your information. They will subject you to ads, to manipulate you. Cancel cable TV. Cancel everything that has ads.

Go your own way — don’t buy things because they are popular, or because “that’s what everyone’s doing”.

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Cliff Berg

Author and leadership consultant, IT entrepreneur, physicist — LinkedIn profile: https://www.linkedin.com/in/cliffberg/