A lot of social media has become a cesspool, but one of the few remaining bright points on Facebook for me is a science group that I follow where members routinely ask genuine questions and people weigh in. Some of the questions are “traditionally science-y” and it provides a great opportunity for people who don’t personally know experts in a given field to get some good answers, often with links to peer-reviewed sources. Other questions are more general, but because it’s a group of people who generally like asking and answering all kinds of questions, it still flies. Interestingly, most of the answers could probably be found with a quick Google search, but the discussion is as of much importance as the answer.
The other day someone asked what Americans mean when they say “smart.” Of course, it would be easy to look in a dictionary, but language is a sort of science of its own and the nuances of language are difficult to condense into a dictionary definition. The question elaborated that in British English, “smart” more regularly means nicely dressed, but do Americans mean it more as clever, intelligent and good at problem solving, or as knowledgeable, capable of retaining and recalling information? My brief perusal revealed answers all over the place, and though I didn’t comment, it poked at a thought I’ve been mulling over for some time, and I decided to discuss it here instead.
Both of those definitions fall under “smart” to me, but I hadn’t thought of the distinction before, and yet, they aren’t the only qualifications, either. In another group, I saw someone mention that the word “dummy” is ableist, and that’s been on my mind as well, but that might be a whole other can of worms.
For the purposes of clarity and this post specifically, then, if I’m examining whether society has “gone to Jupiter” (to get more stupider, obviously), I ought to define both “stupid” and “smart.” I think “smart” is comprised of both problem solving and information recall. After all, I say that my dog is smart because he can recall a variety of words and commands (even ones we didn’t specifically teach him) and he solves little puzzles and tracks down treats that we’ve hidden for him. But when I apply that to a person, the people I think of as shining examples of “stupid” don’t necessarily lack those qualities. We all know people who are that kind of smart but are still undeniably stupid. There must be more to it than that.
I try not to be an intellectual elitist, but I know I often fall into that pattern. I know objectively that many people do not have resources to access education and that many people have developmental differences or injuries that affect how their brains and nervous systems work. This does not make them less valuable as human beings. When I talk about stupid people, these are not the people I mean. Instead, the missing quality that draws the line between smart and stupid is about curiosity and the desire to learn more.
“Smart” then is a blend of those qualities, and is rarely evenly balanced within an individual: problem solving, information recall, and curiosity. And by contrast, when I say “stupid,” what I more accurately mean is the lack of those qualities, but particularly the curiosity part. “Willfully ignorant” is the most correct term, but stupid is more fun to say. Foodies and beverage enthusiasts often talk about food and drink having a “mouthfeel.” Words have a mouthfeel too, and “stupid” has a good mouthfeel.
And with that definition, I fear the unavoidable answer to the title of this post is yes.
Like most people, I consider myself pretty smart. I have spent my life gathering evidence that confirms this belief. Of course, every data set has outliers; even the smartest among us do stupid things now and then, like walking into glass sliding doors or jumping around with paint cans tied to our feet as stilts or failing to move one hand away from a sharp object wielded by the other hand. Nobody’s perfect. I excelled all through school (academically speaking, anyway. I struggled a bit socially, but I’m sure that surprises no one). My parents even said I qualified for the gifted program, EER, but opted out because I was happy in regular classes where my friends were. I don’t actually remember the testing, but I do remember my parents asking if I wanted to be in EER, and that was my answer; I only knew three kids in EER, and I wasn’t close with any of them, so I don’t think Mom and Dad were just stroking my ego. But even knowing I got better grades than some of the other kids, I didn’t really feel like most of them were that much dumber than me. Sure there were a few you could tell really were struggling, but even in my youthful naïvete, it was pretty obvious that there other issues to consider.
But I’ve been out of school for a long time now and even though I have my share of stupid moments, I feel like there are a lot of people having a lot more moments that are a lot stupider than mine. There’s a joke going around the internet, I think it’s a tweet that’s been screen shot and reproduced endlessly. But it sums up my suspicions perfectly:
I’m just not smart enough for there to be this many people who are this much dumber than me.
So here is the question: Are we, as a society, perhaps as a species, becoming less intelligent, or am I just at the point in my life where I’m becoming aware of how stupid humanity on the whole really is? Part of me wants to think that maybe we aren’t really as stupid as we seem, maybe I’m just noticing little flaws in the bigger picture, so to speak. But after a lot of interaction with the public when I worked at the library, I one day realized that, in terms of average IQ, 100 seems a bit high.
I also remember seeing a stapler in one of the offices where I worked that directed users to an instruction manual for information on how to use the stapler. Friends, it was a normal office stapler, with a hinge on one side and an opening for papers on the other. You pushed down on the open part to dispense a staple. I encountered this more than 10 years ago and I still don’t know why the stapler needed a manual.
“Maybe it was tricky to reload or to unhinge for stapling to a flat surface?” you suggest. And those features can vary from stapler to stapler and be a little tricky, but no, those instructions were depicted on the stapler itself with pictures.
And in the last couple of years, Missouri repealed its helmet requirement for motorcyclists. The result, unsurprisingly, is that only about 1 in 10 motorcyclists that I see are wearing a helmet while they zip in and out of traffic on a contraption that ER nurses regularly refer to as a “donorcycle.” I’m sure the wind through one’s hair does feel nicer than a snug helmet, but the helmet feels a hell of a lot nicer than cracking your skull like an egg on the asphalt. But it’s not legally required, so, how important can the helmet really be?
I also see things like the the mass underfunding of public schools which is undoubtedly related to the growing influence of anti-science movements, with an alarming number of people believing nonsense about the Earth being flat, or vaccines causing autism or containing mind control computer chips. I’d like to believe this is actually a very minute portion of society, but there are people in congress who believe that wildfires are worsening not because of global warming, but because of “space lasers.” Congress! The people making the laws! I try to watch my language here, but I can only respond with What the actual fuck?
And I also wonder if maybe it’s just a cultural anomaly, that the United States is suffering from stupefaction, but other countries aren’t. And it certainly seems worse here, but I hear whispers of our conspiracy theories spreading as other countries also have nutjobs who think that 5G cell towers are for mind control, and an alarming regrowth of fascism in countries that have already seen the horrors it brings.
So why are we getting stupider? At the risk of mistaking correlation for causation, I think it must be related to the increasing effort required to disseminate fact from fiction. I don’t know if someone very smart and powerful has made a concerted effort to make people dumber and easier to control. Check that, I do know that that happens all the time. It’s just not a single supervillain mastermind, and I doubt those responsible are really all that much smarter than the average person. They just have more money to make it happen.
There’s a dangerous connection between stupidity and laziness. Humans are, essentially, predatory mammals, and it is natural for us to be lazy, conserving energy until we really need it to acquire food in various forms. But when we stop nurturing our curiosity, our drive for new information, we become mentally lazy as well. We are mentally lazy when we can’t be bothered to solve a relatively simple problem. Willful ignorance. And it’s this mental laziness, willful ignorance, that is being taken advantage of.
With the rise of misinformation on the internet, especially as spread through social media where there is little to no vetting process for what anyone says or puts out there for the world to see, it has become increasingly easy for anyone sufficiently cunning to make extraordinary claims. And because it takes considerably more effort to step away and research whether those claims are grounded in any kind of reality, the misinformation takes advantage of our laziness and slips through the cracks. And anyone who refuses to look for those answers unwittingly falls victim to their own willful ignorance. Curiosity takes work, but being stupid is easy.
Why can’t we tell what is real anymore? I don’t know if it’s a cause or effect, but I can’t shake the feeling that there is at least a haunting correlation with the term “literally.”
A few years ago, more and more people began using the word “literally” when they very obviously meant “figuratively.” As in, “He told the funniest joke, I literally died laughing.”
I’m not an idiot, I know this has been happening for a very long time. There is literary precedent, even, but relatively recently, it has become so frequent, many dictionaries have updated their definition of “literally” to include that, sometimes, literally means not literally.
I understand that language is sort of alive, and it grows and changes with use, and that even the most steadfast grammarian will be left in the dust if they refuse to acknowledge linguistic developments. It’s why “smart” means different things in British English than in American English. But I also recognize that if words mean whatever anybody wants them to mean in the moment, they lose meaning altogether.
It seems like such a small thing at first blush for “literally” to mean both “literally” and “figuratively” when context reveals which meaning is correct in a given circumstance. And yet, in a society that has become so mentally lazy, and is growing more so year by year, it seems like the first pebbles in the avalanche of our own intellectual downfall. Language isn’t limited to the intellectually elite (nor should it be), but when the masses twist words so thoroughly that the true meaning is lost, we will never be able to discern the truth of what was actually said in the first place. And when we can never discern the truth, we are blind, and the blind are far easier to control and manipulate than the enlightened.
It’s not just about being smart to lord it over other people. Being curious, seeking answers, staying smart is necessary to saving society. So don’t be stupid. Ask questions, look for the answers, adjust your views based the facts you find, and then question those facts and look for more answers. And if you insist on being stupid, then I guess do us all a favor and at least go for a Darwin Award. But surely it’s less painful to just watch a documentary now and then.