We are now living in what are bizarre, interesting and yet manifestly dangerous times, an age where increasing perturbations are rippling through the natural order of things. Now is an era where verifiable facts are routinely reduced to the status of mere opinion and where science no longer sits at the high table in judgement over what is correct and what is not. As terabytes of data course through the electronic veins and arteries of our planet on an hourly basis, the logical and coherent are now challenged at every juncture by column after column of ignorant insurgents who wear their lack of knowledge on their sleeves as a badge of honour. We exist in a time where wise counsel and ludicrous chicanery now receive equal billing, the latter gaining traction at the expense of the former. Information has never been easier to acquire and facts harder to discern and it is becoming increasingly difficult not to think that we are regressing as a species. And there has been plenty of time for thinking over the last few months for very obvious reasons.
With a pandemic sweeping the globe I, like many other millions, have had time on my hands and, of course, idle hands inevitably misuse that most precious and finite of resources. In my case, lock-down temporal abuse revolved around immersion into the seedy world of alternative facts. I call it “Moron Porn” and it exists, of course, in that audio visual smorgasbord that is the worldwide web. There, the endless supply of idiocy is like alcohol, both addictive and toxic, at first a pleasure then, later, dangerous to both mind and body. Occasionally fatal. For years I have dipped my toes in the murky waters inhabited by the anti-science battalions, particularly with respect to the comedy gold that is creationism, but the last few months have led to my full immersion in order to gawp at the stupidity that can be found shoaling there. Observing the idiots is, at first, almost voyeuristic, initially one just laughs at the ignoramuses, maybe sometimes even pitying their stupidity, but with increasing doses of their lunacy, and the realisation of the harm they can do, you become hardened and start to get agitated. How can all this claptrap have come to pass? one inevitably begins to ask. What process generates these worshippers of all things dumb? one ponders. Stupidity, at least to a degree, is fine – we all have a bit of it in ourselves – but when people choose stupidity over reason, fabrication over facts and rumour over reality, well, that is when things get problematic. More so because much of this stupidity is now monetized. Then is becomes weaponized and then it can, and occasionally does,become lethal.
For every well established concept, for every learned field, there now seems to be an army of nay-sayers that have, they believe, a raft of plausible alternatives that are, more often than not, plucked straight out of the rear ends. These people coalesce in opposition to science in a surprisingly wide range of areas, some so uncontroversial it seems all the more pathetic that human effort is expended generating these alternative realities. In the 21st century it is hard to believe that there are large – and probably growing—numbers of people who believe that the world is flat, space is fake, the moon-landings just a film-production But there are. Greater numbers will have you believe that the world and all that is in it was created by an omniscient god some six thousand years ago as they adhere unflinchingly to every last word in the Bible, all the way from Genesis to Revelations. Then there are the anti-vaxxers who promote the scientifically unsupported line that inoculation of our children against debilitating diseases poses a greater danger to their health than the pathogens that they would be protected against. And it goes on: climate change denial, 5G conspiracies, AIDS denial, quackery, homeopathy, chiropractic, anything that Gwyneth Paltrow says or sells, and half a hundred other fields of anti-science too tedious to mention. If there is a truth out there someone will always come along to sell you the lie.
The year 2020 has brought things to a whole different level as a new front in the denialist war on reason has been opened: the emergence of a flu-like virus that seems to have recently spread from bats (or some other mammal) to humans somewhere in the Far East. A virus that kills humans, mostly old humans. Humans get diseases from animals, always have done and always will, and this inescapable fact provides a powerful and verifiable explanation for why humanity is now being afflicted by COVID-19. But applying Occam’s Razor (simply put, keep it simple) to their thought processes is never enough these days for the conspiracy crowd. If the explanation is simple and elegant, reject it and find something complex, inelegant, implausible and conspiritorial in its stead. As a consequence, the coronavirus must to be a bioweapon devised by an evil genius working for the Chinese or the Americans, maybe the Jews or the Illuminati, or whoever. But hey, it’s not that bad really...just a minor case of the sniffles, a bit of hydroxychloroquine can fix that in a jiffy. And as for those masks, wearing them is dehumanising, pointless, an affront to your god-given rights and a positive danger to your health due to….reasons. And what about those 5G masts that are popping up everywhere, aside from burning skin and frying our brains they must also be generating the virus on the side, right? It’s all part of a world-domination plan. Wrong, all wrong. Verifiably wrong.
The question one has to ask is this: how can facts be so readily cast aside in favour of the alternative twaddle that immediately rises up to counter rationality whenever the latter raises its often inconvenient head? Well, what we are seeing seems to be the mass unleashing of that most interesting of human psychological ticks: the Dunning-Kruger effect. Now, aided and abetted by electronic dissemination platforms that neither know nor care about veracity, everyone afflicted by this condition can have their bias confirmed in seconds and the stupidity metastasizes exponentially as a result. The tiniest sliver of knowledge in the wrong hands is a dangerous thing when those hands are attached to an individual afflicted by a touch of the Dunning-Krugers. As the elegant graph below shows, in a way that is understandable to all, dumb people effectively think they know what they are doing when they patently don’t whilst smarter people are a bit more circumspect. Armed with an understanding of this effect, we quickly come to realise that we all know someone afflicted with this character trait. Some, including myself, occasionally fear during rare periods of introspection that we have exhibited D-K type behaviours ourselves. Its explanatory power is large and helps us all make sense of what is happening in the world today. When Dunning and Kruger first proposed the concept in 1999 it is probably safe to say that they did not expect to see the leader of the free world so obviously illustrate the concept they so ably encapsulated, nor envisaged the danger that the afflicted could pose.
Once there was time when gaining a platform to engage with large numbers of people required hard work and was beyond all but those with something worth saying (or hearing) and a modicum of ability to say it. Getting published required at least some form of literary talent and the capacity to think. Speaking to the masses once necessitated a gathered crowd and a dais, a spot on TV or radio, or perhaps a column in the paper. In those bygone days much of the dross would get filtered out, moronic ideas more often than not stayed close to where they were birthed and the R value for idiocy was much, much lower. Idiots were less pathogenic. Now that has all changed and our global information superhighway has become a conduit for the good, bad and irrelevant in what seems like equal measure. We are now living in a world where Dunning and Kruger’s wonderful concept is being illustrated on a daily basis, from the Whitehouse all the way to the White Lion. Now, at every juncture, there is someone pretending to know better, to promulgate an alternative narrative, to challenge the learned whilst knowing little or nothing about which they so effusively pronounce upon. Pretending to know something that they manifestly and demonstrably do not.
So why care about all of this? People should be free to believe whatever they want to believe, right? Well, no, not really and here is an example of why drawn from personal experience. Twenty-odd years ago I had a discussion with the mother of an autistic child regarding the then newly emerging claims that the MMR vaccine could be the causal agent of her son’s condition. This chat went decidedly badly as the aforementioned woman’s grasp of science and statistics was so poor that any logical discourse on the topic was impossible and I was rapidly, and emotionally, dismissed. That woman, who just happens to be my sister, had, like considerable numbers of other mums and dads in the western world, bought into the MMR/autism lie hook line and sinker and over the two decades that have past since that ill-starred conversation thousands of children will have died as a consequence. The promoter of the lie, a charlatan called Andrew Wakefield, stripped of his once impressive British medical credentials, legged-it across the Atlantic and now makes his living promoting the MMR lie – his lie - from the more accepting shores of the USA. With a supermodel girlfriend in tow – the sort that I doubt finds poor people attractive—I suspect he is making a more than adequate living pedalling his baloney. He has monetized his own stupidity to exploit the even greater stupidity of others who, like the rubes of yesteryear queueing up to hear the carpetbagger, buy the snake oil, take it home, find out it doesn’t work then go back for more. With dumb there comes danger and this provides just one example of the power of stupidity to cause harm. And here’s the rub. Wakefield, a credentialed and once respected gastroenterologist, came up with his bogus theory after conducting utterly flawed experimental work. He also threw in bit of fraud for good measure, massaging the data to further bolster his illusion. But he thought he was right. Still does. But what matters most is the fact that lots of others think he was right based on a trail of evidence that says the exact opposite. His lack of expertise as an experimental scientist empowered him and his shifty self-promotion and dishonesty did the rest. In the two decades that have passed, pop-stars, actors, politicians and a host of others, despite know nothing of the subject, confidently repeat his mantra, spreading the lie far and wide. The Dunning-Kruger effect in action. Killing a child near you sometime soon.
The Wakefield saga provides just one example of how stupidity is dangerous and catching, just a single ignition source and then pretty soon the whole forest is in conflagration. It is probably not even a particularly good example and Wakefield could be considered what I shall call smart- dumb, not without intelligence but like all of us at some time or other he got himself into areas beyond his immediate sphere of expertise. Most rational people stop there and turn back but the erstwhile clinician ploughed on regardless: there was fame, money and adulation beckoning. He is not alone in this respect, plenty of other scientists labouring under the illusion of their own self-proclaimed genius have wandered off into domains beyond their ken and made utter arses of themselves. Most, however, do not leave a body count in their wake. The danger of Wakefield’s lie reside in the fact that his flawed thinking swiftly got into the hands of the scientifically illiterate and, as such, the D-K effect we see here largely expresses itself within his legion of adherents. Like all the other bogus ideas doing the rounds, this is where they do the damage, from COVID-19 to 5G, from climate change denial to homeopathy. Go read the comments page at the bottom of any Daily Mail article reporting on a scientific, medical or climate-associated issue and you will see the D-K effect working its magic. Try it, it is fun...for a while.
Unspectacular scholar that I was, I still managed to leave school with enough learning to understand (and possibly demonstrate if necessary) that the world is a ball, that climate change is a real and inescapable consequence of human activity, that the Earth is very old and biological evolution an inarguable fact. I knew that the genius of Jenner gave us the vaccinations that have spared millions, that the insight of Darwin gave us the origin of biological species, that Maxwell, Boyle, Newton, Boltzmann and their ilk gave us the means to understand how the matter around us behaves. That was a long time but that stuff has stayed with me down the years. But it raises the question: how can it be that continuous schooling for, say, twelve to fourteen years leaves so many people bereft of even the most basic inkling of how the world works? How can this lack of a capacity to think critically, to assess what is before them and draw conclusions that are congruent with reality be so widespread? It all beggars belief. Well it beggars my belief. We are surely approaching the age of Peak Dumb and to go any further must bring us close to a precipice as there is only so much idiocy one planet can accommodate. This is the age of unreason. Dangerous times indeed.