Reflections on the intersection of economics, history, politics, psychology and science

It feels like America has gotten dumber over the last few decades. Is that indeed true, and if so, why? As that is a bit vague and pejorative, the podcast looks at more specific issues, including ignorance, intellectual stubbornness, and lack of critical thinking.

These can often result from the tendency to oversimplify issues, using coping mechanisms, or what is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, a cognitive bias whereby people with limited knowledge or competence in a given domain greatly overestimate their own knowledge or competence in that domain. 

Although it feels like we’re in a particularly “dumb” stage of American history, the country has a tradition of ill-informed decisions or downright ignorance, everything from the Know-Nothing Party of the 1850s to the invasion of Iraq. But the problem does seem to have gotten worse as the modern Republican party has evolved into one that now both celebrates ignorance and leverages it for political power. The examples are endless, from Sarah Palin to Tood Akin and from Ben Carson to Donald Trump. 

Unfortunately, there is a feedback loop between this normalization of dumb words and behavior with political power. Whether it’s Ted Cruz, Ron DeSantis, Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, or literally thousands of politicians on both the national and local levels, they seem to leverage the banner of “populism” to rally political support for issues that are objectively harmful to those same people. Another result of this feedback loop is a re-framing of intellectualism as somehow bad, dangerous, or at least out of touch. This is how quack COVID cures go mainstream and QAnon becomes more than a laughable fringe movement. 

But things have indeed changed over the last few decades, including with the influence of media (particularly Fox News) and the role of social media in fueling manipulation, confirmation bias, and the ability to profit from trafficking in paranoia, hate, and ignorance. All voices have a right to be heard, but not all voices are equally valuable to the community when making public decisions. Expertise matters, but identifying it involves hard work.

While ignorance has risen, accountability has fallen for those who leverage it or celebrate it. Whether it’s Tucker Carlson, Donald Trump, or hundreds of federal, state, and local officials who traffic in ignorance, they often just get rewarded instead of being properly “canceled” as they may have some time in the past.

Although this phenomenon seems to have affected every corner of the world, America once again stands out in leading the trend. Why is a nation so advanced, so well-educated, so successful in generating new ideas, technologies, and businesses, making such ill-informed choices? This could be due to many factors, including the U.S. tendency toward jingoism, Americans’ relative cultural isolation, the hyper-focus on the individual in American society, and also the role of religion in U.S. politics. 

The podcast ends with the hosts offering some suggestions on how we can mitigate this trend and help “Make America a Critical Thinker Again.”

Key Terms Used

American Exceptionalism, Cognitive Dissonance, Confirmation Bias, Conservatism, Dunning-Kruger Effect, Jingoism, Progressivism, Nehemiah Scudder