What makes people stupid
in "educated" societies? We suggest
a few factors...
equalizes fools and wise men
and the fools
know it." (Oliver
Fools thrive when controversies arise over
false dichotomies. In other words, when
multiple-choice issues get reduced to "either/or"
questions. For example:
"What can be
done about Evil Dictator X?"
military action or nothing"
Reducing multi-valued issues to two-valued
(either/or, yes/no, right/wrong, etc) controversies
has the effect of stimulating territorial ("us"
vs "them") instincts and emotional
identification with a "side". At this
point most people begin to look stupidised.
If someone says: "you
won't find truth in the media",
you might feel tempted to agree or disagree
outright (two-valued orientation). An
arguably more intelligent approach involves
a multi-valued rating of the statement. Say
between 0% and 100%, depending on the percentage
of media content judged as untruthful. For example:
"I'd say that statement was correct
in 20% of cases".
Many people seem so conditioned to see issues
in territorial (two-valued) terms, that any
other approach looks like a threat to
them. A multi-valued approach to international
problems thus seems "soft" or "appeasing"
("bad" traits which favour the side
of "evil"). Any criticism of
a fundamentalist's "good versus evil"
dogma will seem (to the fundalmentalist) like
the Devil's work.
We can't communicate well without a degree
of abstracting/generalising. However, a type
of generalising known as "dead-level abstracting"
(so named by Wendell Johnson) can have a stupidising
effect. This happens when you get stuck at one
level of abstraction. The following statement
(taken from a UK alt-media site) seems a good
media corruption means that power is freed to
manipulate the public to suit whatever cynical
ends it chooses. This is the secret of elite
control in an ostensibly 'democratic' society."
This consists of nothing but high-level abstractions.
It boils down to: "Media corruption
means control of the public". The words
"elite", "power", etc, add
nothing specific. Stupidisation occurs when
people read into such statements anything
but high-level abstraction. (Note that such
statements seem written in such a way as to
make them appear more specific/factual).
At the other end of the spectrum one finds
simple reports of sensory perceptions
the lowest level of verbal abstracting. For
example, gossip containing reports of what somebody
"She said I
should mind my own business. I said you're
one to talk. She said at least I'm being
honest. I said are you calling me a liar
you dirty bitch
It takes a higher level of abstracting than
this to conclude: "So we exchanged insults
and got nowhere it was a waste of time".
Constantly mixing high and low levels of abstraction
prevents IQs from plummeting.
Politics and advertising
Politicians use "high" dead-level
abstracting to avoid specific criticisms and
to stifle probing debate. For example:
"I make no
excuse for our tough stance in the struggle
to protect our nation's way of life from those
who would threaten it". (The
words "tough" and "struggle"
don't sound abstract. But what, in this
context, beyond highly abstract judgements,
could they denote?)
Advertisers use dead-level abstracting to associate
nothing but abstract qualities to brand names
(eg: "Abbey because life's complicated
enough"). The brand names connote abstract
qualities; the ads often denote nothing
factual/specific about the products being sold.
Experience "Coke: the real thing",
not fizzy water with added sugar and chemicals.
("The real thing" doesn't sound
abstract. Don't expect high-level abstractions
to sound abstract).
The person who wrote "the secret of
elite control" (see above) might argue
that a brief definition of "elite"
would clarify his meaning. But definitions operate
at levels of abstraction at least as high as
the terms they define. A dictionary definition
of "dog" says: "carnivorous
quadruped". A bigger dictionary might
add "of canine genus". Look
up "canine", and you get "dog".
Definitions don't help much to clarify high-level
abstractions. Whenever you suspect someone of
stupidising you with words (intentionally or
not), demand specific examples, names/dates,
reports of sensory data, verifiable facts
lower-level abstractions. Then, if necessary,
demand definitions to see if the specifics
fit (by definition) the abstractions.
"High" dead-level abstracting often
entails circular logic. Here's an example (from
a UK alt-media forum):
"Although the Guardian
is ostensibly a truth-loving newspaper, the
reality is that it continually suppresses truth,
as it's essentially part of power, whose main
function is truth-suppression".
Circular reasoning provides nothing but self-confirming
abstractions: "X suppresses truth because
it's part of Y, which suppresses truth".
And how do we know that X is part of Y? "Er
because X suppresses truth". (Some
good examples of circular reasoning in classical
economic theory are given in an extract from
The Tyranny of Words
by Stuart Chase).
Connotations and weak inferences
The term "conspiracy theory" doesn't
denote crackpot theories. It merely has
the connotation of "crackpot" to those
who infer that only crackpots have theories
We can take the connotations/inferences further.
George Bush theorised about a secret plot between
Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. Some might
call that a "conspiracy theory"
(a theory about a conspiracy). But since the
media assures us that Bush is no crackpot, we
can infer that what took place between Osama
and Saddam was no "conspiracy" (it
was merely a "plot to attack America"
not half as wacko a claim, you see).
See how far you can get with connotations,
inferences and circular reasoning? You can spin
out whole newspaper columns even books
just by building one inference on top
of another. And if you cleverly add in some
"high" dead-level abstracting, nobody
can refute you with verifiable facts
because your claims operate at a level of abstraction
above mere facts. Welcome to the rewarding world
of stupidising PR, political speech-writing
and media punditry.