People don’t read anymore.
The Risk-Monger has been cataloging the meteoric rise of Stupid over the last decade. He has coined new words (contrapreneur, possibilist, transparocrite …) to show how this widespread ignorance has been exploited by manipulative opportunists but he has never been able to capture the right lexicon for people who themselves believe and do very stupid things.
I often think of myself as a friendly, sociable person who has become despised, to a large part, because of a poor choice of words. When I illustrated how we are living in the Age of Stupid, people took it personally (nobody likes to be called “Stupid”). So it would be better to refer to this increased influence of poorly informed people as “untelligence”.
noun (adj: untelligible, untelligent; adv: untelligibly)
The ability to acquire and express ideas based on limited associations without proper information or research. Involves a willingness to accept widely-shared messages based on anecdotes rather than evidence, implying an emotional rather than rational bond with concepts (allowing for a tolerance of contradictions and destructive consequences).
“Jane’s insistence on buying organic food despite the evidence is pure untelligence.”
“Claiming vaccines lead to food allergies adds to the untelligence of the debate.”
Synonyms: stupid, irrational
Antonyms: intelligent, scientific
There are many forces behind the rise of untelligence that vary according to political, regional, historical and economic circumstances. Concerning environmental health untelligence, the following phenomena can be seen behind most occurrences.
Social media has created the perfect environment for untelligence to flourish. People who used to passively acquire information via TV are now repeatedly exposed to large volumes of emotional, graphic images (memes and GIFs) tailored to the bias of their echo chambers (that they then actively propagate via unregulated social media channels). Grouped in tribes, trust relationships with opportunistic, reassuring gurus allow for the easy confusion of anecdotes with evidence. These tribes close themselves off from those who think differently and gain affirmation and support from the internal bias of their closed communities.
Manipulative fear-mongers from NGOs and toxic tort law firms actively run PR and activist campaigns to generate public uncertainty and vulnerability with the goal of increasing donations and cultivating jury bias. In the last five years, the big NGOs (who had some structure, accountability and research skills) have lost influence to opportunistic digital start-ups like SumOfUs and Avaaz. While some zealots actually believe the scare stories they peddle, very few of these groups have ethical codes of conduct or feel that honesty and fairness apply to them.
Opportunistic industries have flourished with the rise of social media allowing claims to be widely spread without any scientific validation. The organic food industry has capitalised on the fear campaigns their lobbyists have funded; supplements manufacturers are finding loopholes in regulatory standards and are using gurus to profit via non-conventional retail networks; ecommerce channels like Amazon create a proliferation of profitable, cult product lines from GMO detox kits to EMF radiation-protection hats. And people, in their moment of fear, do pay the price for relief from the scare stories.
Failure to Combat Untelligence
Those with an interest in exploiting untelligent people have created many built-in defence mechanisms. The old channels of education and communication have failed due to the rising distrust of authorities. Some examples:
- scientists and science communicators are identified as industry shills (thus perceived as irrelevant or threatening);
- ridicule of untelligence is futile as the tribes reinforce their trust relationships, internally shielding themselves from challenging ideas;
- lack of strong political leadership has allowed local, online gurus to gain moral authority;
- as eco-religious cult value systems propagate, green choices become essential virtue signals for vulnerable people seeking meaning in life (shifting the debate from reasons to values);
- the restructuring of traditional media companies has created a void in credible information channels (leading to less fact-checking and critical analysis);
- well-financed activists have expanded their influence into governments where regulators have found precaution to be the tool of choice for lazy cowards;
- recent affluence has allowed policymakers the luxury of taking poor policy decisions without immediate consequences.
I fear untelligence will continue to spread and negative socio-economic consequences will rise. Untelligence flourishes with affluence. There is little at the moment that can be done but try to keep the flame of scientific rigour and methodology alive (perhaps in China) until the time that people wake up to the deviousness of these zealot cults. Bodies may have to start piling up, economies suffer and further brain drains from western societies harm the societal fabric before voices of reason will be heard above the yelps of untelligent fear-mongers.