This article was originally published on 20 November 2015 and is republished as part of the RM site update. I will finish the series by the end of the summer and hopefully have the book: Science in the Age of Stupid published early in 2017.
See the French translation
The following is Part 1 of a ten-part blog on governance to be serialised over the holidays. Today our personal decision-making process is strongly influenced by the latest social media applications yet EU and American government policy mechanisms, developed in the last century, have not been adapted to these communications tools. This discrepancy has created opportunities for less-scrupulous activists to abuse the process, converting positions lacking in proper evidence and rationality into victories or disruptions in the regulatory arena. In other words, these campaigners have been able to turn “stupid” into policy. This series: How to Deal with Stupid, essentially a policy pamphlet, will examine how stupid has been able to rise, be used by clever manipulators to achieve legislative success and what can be done to begin to return stupid to its cage. The first step in this process is to define “stupid”.
With the explosion of social media Google-trained experts, activist Mommy-bloggers and health experts with a “Dr.” in front or a “PhD” after their names and on their book covers, there is a wave of badly deduced or mal-sourced information being panhandled around the Internet that can only be considered as the phenomenon of “stupid”.
“Stupid” has recently been overused in on-line discussions as synonymous with the expression: “I disagree with you!” It has become very hard to dispute someone without resorting to name-calling (Godwin’s law). As the taboo of such an insult diminishes, “stupid” needs to be redefined within the context of a communications medium that has cut off the ability to dialogue and engage with those who have other opinions. In a few short years, the misuse of the once touted revolution in the digitalisation of knowledge has brought us crashing into what historians will likely look back on as the Age of Stupid.
Stupid has become ubiquitous. Ignoring its rapid rise as merely a limited, social-media driven event is not advisable. Make no mistake, stupid can be very clever and will take advantage of any opportunities that arise when innocent people adapt slowly to emerging communications tools.
What is stupid?
Stupid is more than the result of poor education, judgement or logic. We often think of it as a naivety or simplicity of mindset but there are more appropriate adjectives for those. It differs from ignorance (when one admits to not knowing a subject) in that stupid pretends to have the answer, acts on it or tries to influence others.
Stupid (defined here as a noun) is the result of an inappropriate (although often opportune) use of an assumed expertise to fashion information outside of sufficient evidence or rational thought. It is the fruit of some action: speaking out, making a choice, trying to influence, doing something that has an effect on others (eg, creating fear, rhetorical responses to facts, using pretend intellectual game play in policy debates …). It is not the lack of knowledge (not knowing is normal and part of the thinking process), but rather its misuse in some activity that might have consequences on other often confused individuals.
The liberation of information onto an easy access digital platform has created a large number of Google-experts who have shunned specialised expertise, have sought to find solace in the comfort of simple solutions to complex issues and have felt enabled to take on the responsibility of sharing (enforcing) their new-found “expertise” with others. While the Internet has not created a new type of stupid, it has given many more opportunities for stupid to spread.
You’ll find stupid lurking behind statements that question the value of technical expertise like: “If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it” or “How can you trust the authorities when they are working with industry?” Stupid has its own defence mechanisms (no one likes to be called stupid) and in this sense, can be quite clever or cunning. What (clever) stupid does is eat away at the value of the expert, raising doubts and fears on the available information (“We just don’t know if that is true!”). Stupid can be dangerous when it attempts to replace widely-held understanding with simple, reassuring common sense folk-wisdom (perhaps gaining trust but also diminishing the value of evidence and expertise).
Stupid indeed rises rapidly when trust in the authorities and institutions are low. Social media tools like Facebook and twitter have successfully undermined trust in external, distant information sources, replacing it with a more comprehensible populist interpretation tailored closer to one’s familiar, shared intellectual comfort zones. Trust develops from, among other elements, familiarity, kinship, proximity, agency and vulnerability – features often lacking in messages communicated from legitimate sources of technical expertise, creating a void easily filled by the cunning social media guru with a book, diet plan or referral fee to sell.
Examples of stupid
Stupid is not uncommon (and breeds in any number of fear festivals provided by religions, wars, economic crises, …), but I will focus on environmental-health risk episodes. These cases have thrived on social media as this enabler source has allowed stupid to exponentially soar from a local phenomenon (the town crank) to a global epidemic (zealots getting together with an activist mission). Wherever there is uncertainty and the need for a personal risk decision (ie, a potential for fear), stupid will arrive to offer a solution to the intellectually insecure.
Stupid that leads to dangerous advice
- Crank-cancer cures: One of the heaviest emotional burdens to fall upon an individual is the diagnosis of cancer. At a most vulnerable point in life, one needs to make hard decisions on the type of treatment to receive. Recommendations for cancer treatments that may involve rejecting modern medicines and technologies in favour of lemon juice, baking soda, ginger or coffee enemas (to name just a few) are cases of stupid bordering on the criminal.
- Anti-vaxxers: Since the beginning of this millennium, doubts have been raised on the safety of certain vaccine procedures like the measles, mumps and rubella triple jab, linking them to the rise in autism. While the 1998 Wakefield article, the only real study on this subject, has been thoroughly debunked and his credentials revoked in the UK, seventeen years later, the anti-vaccine movement has grown in strength to now be responsible, in certain countries like the US, for having the potential of a major public health crisis.
- Organic food activists: The organic lobby has been campaigning for a shift away from modern agricultural technologies (synthetic pesticides, fertilisers and GMOs) without reasonable consideration of how this will stress food security, land use and public health with a more vulnerable, growing global population. They explain away the benefits of Golden Rice, food safety and biodiversity without concern for evidence, logic or humanity.
For examples (without drawing more search-engine attention to their websites), just look at any news feed on any day from http://www.naturalnews.com.
Stupid that raises unfounded fears
- Glyphosate: Facts are very hard to find in the glyphosate fear-mongering campaigns. When a herbicide so beneficial to farmers is less toxic than salt or vinegar, would entail a personal daily consumption of over 400kg of fruit and vegetables to pose any health hazard and has been subject to thousands of studies, and still suffers relentless attacks from those without toxicological backgrounds, it is evident that stupid has reared its ugly face. Stupid even got inside of IARC, but that apparently is not very difficult. (RM note: this blog was originally published well before the “Stupid” on glyphosate got out of control. See my congratulations to stupid when glyphosate’s reauthorisation in the EU was abandoned.)
- Endocrine disruption: Campaigns against synthetic endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are trying to get certain substances banned for having trace elements of potential endocrine disrupting properties. Meanwhile, the activists, often vegans, drink coffee (a known EDC) and feed their infants soy milk (an EDC having the toxic equivalence of five birth control pills a day). Stupid rears its ugly head on a daily basis with those suffering from the naturalist bias.
- Renewables: Activists promoting renewable energy sources have created illogical fears over nuclear energy, hydraulic fracturing, hydro-electricity and fossil fuel CO2 emissions (compared to transportation and livestock emissions). While creating significant populations of energy-impoverished European citizens and headaches for energy providers to keep the grid operating, these campaigners seem oblivious to the environmental consequences of their renewables solutions.
How does stupid evolve?
We are becoming locked in an online world where hard facts are no match for confirmation bias; where anecdotes can serve as evidence; and where learning is increasingly emotionally and experientially transferred. Knowledge has a hard time breathing in this thin atmosphere.
Social media platforms like Facebook and twitter allow bad ideas to fertilise, spread and contaminate logic. There are several ways this can happen: Repetition allows odd ideas to become common-place, especially as friends in my online trust circles spread the information. Relentless exposure to a bad idea helps render logic and rationality immobile as emotion takes over the thought process. Also, those with bad ideas used to feel isolated as they kept their thoughts to themselves or within a limited outreach. With search engine optimisation, these bad ideas find friends, prosper and reinforce themselves (on a global scale).
Chapter 2 will look in more detail at how social media has fostered the rise of a new, politically dangerous form of stupid.
How to Deal with Stupid: Table of contents
- Defining Stupid
- Social Media: Where stupid learns to fly
- The New Religion: Eco-fundamentalists and the natural bias
- The Activist Playbook: Understanding how clever stupid can be
- Commonality: Shutting down dialogue and engagement
- The Denormalisation of Industry: The challenge of eco-topian idealism
- Post-normal Science: Inviting stupid to the policy table
- Nudging: The dangers of a sanctimonious choice architecture
- Passivists: Waking up the non-involved majority
- How to Deal with Stupid