Sister blog of Physicists of the Caribbean in which I babble about non-astronomy stuff, because everyone needs a hobby

Thursday, 5 November 2020

How can you be so stupid ?

With the US election result still undecided, the obvious question is : how is this possible ? How is it that ~70 million people can be dumb enough to vote for someone manifestly opposed to all that America claims to hold dear ?

Spoiler alert : I don't know. But to expand on the last post, there are a few key points I want to raise :

  • There is no known method to guarantee a correct determination of the truth with 100% certainty.
  • Data can only ever inform the conclusions you can draw, not decide it by itself. All conclusions are ultimately subjective.
  • As a result, cultural change has been more radical and more frequent than we often recognise. We have a bias in believing the current, local cultural situation - whatever that happens to be - is normal and stable.
Societies throughout history have believed far more outlandish things than the idea that a talking racist toupee would make for a good benevolent dictator. The Aztecs sincerely believed that the earth needed to be fed on human hearts, and wore the bloodied skins of their enemies inside-out. The ancient Chinese based their society on a philosophy which amounts to little more than almost comically-pantomime villainy. The Greeks and Romans, for all their other achievements, were warlike conquerors unashamed of slavery and human sacrifice, with little notion of equal rights for the entire feminine half of their population. 

(Think about that : a full 50% of your populace treated as lesser despite this flying in the face of all available evidence. Mad as clams, the lot of 'em. Good job we don't have such problems today, hah hah.)

Even as ideological revolutions raged through the end of antiquity, and societies collapsed and transformed themselves towards their modern incarnations, it was hardly a linear or stable process. Medieval rulers believed themselves appointed by divine right; social mobility was essentially a non-starter. The Mongols and Timurids had no compunctions about annihilating entire cities merely for the sake of a warning - a very much bloodier business considering the equipment available. In contrast the Victorians thought that showing an ankle was the height of impropriety, while some of their finest minds happily endorsed racism, eugenics, and other forms of bigotry. Barely a few decades ago it was considered perfectly acceptable to openly ban "blacks" and Irish. Hell, go back to the original Bill and Ted movies to see "fags" used as an insult that no-one batted an eyelid at.

These differences were by no means uniform, to say nothing of the hypocrisy often at work. The point is that what seems ludicrous to us today was absolutely normal in other circumstances - some of them not so very different from our own. Human beings are capable of believing absolutely anything, no matter how stupid, in very large numbers. And they can change. The modern Swede is far more likely to be found assembling flat-pack furniture than he is in terrorising monks; the modern Mexican is more likely to be cheerfully drinking tequila than delighting as he rips the heart out of yet another sacrificial victim.

I believe that rather than drawing Stephen Pinker's conclusion of almost inevitable linear progress, what this show us is that people are very, very stupid.

Or rather... they are highly malleable. Circumstances are everything. So with Trump the issues for me are twofold :
  1. How do Trump supporters ignore the mountains of historical and contemporary evidence demonstrating time and time again that their cult leader's ideas are about as disproven as it's ever possible to be ? What's odd is not (so much) the stupidity itself, it's the way it's so strongly polarised against everyone else around them. Virtually the entire Western world (as well as America's own professed values) is against Trump, whereas in the historical cases the entire world was radically different. What, then, are the particular conditions that allow Trump to flourish, and moreover, continue to flourish in spite of his utter lack of any positive achievements ? How can they say, "this failed businessman would surely be good for the economy" ? There's no existing culture that says, "failed businessmen are the most fiscally sound people".
  2. How do they ignore his personality ? Do they actually endorse his "pussy grabbing" antics ? Do they think it's fine to be so incoherent he can practically contradict himself in two words ? Are they okay with fantasising about dating their own daughters ? I mean, I can't imagine anyone thinking, "sure, this lying egotistical maniac with incest fantasies seems like someone I'd like to invite round for dinner", much less, "decide on foreign policy". Is his personality actually an asset for them, or do they overlook it due to other concerns
The difficulty is the fire-is-hot problem : with enough evidence, given the known methodological practises of the day, sometimes conclusions do seem to be all but inevitable. So do Trump supporters have not even the most basic clue about how to argue a position ? Are they so tribally indoctrinated (or indeed inoculated) that they automatically dismiss everyone outside their bubble as a liar ? Do they just fundamentally lack any concern for the truth ? Has the left drastically overestimated its own cultural influence ?

I don't know. What's clear, though, is that for such a culture to persist in the face of such a contradictory onslaught indicates that something has gone badly wrong. Only radical reform, not incremental changes but wholesale slash-and-burn tactics, have any chance of altering this in the long term. Cultures can and do change, and fortune's wheel is ever turning. But put it like this : the change from being feared for Viking raids to being lauded for affordable furniture was not small. Minor adjustments just won't cut it. Good luck, America - and to us all.

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