Smart Idiots

Just because you’re educated doesn’t mean you’re not dumb

by Gordon Campbell

Supposedly, education makes you smarter. Less prone to dogmatism. More reasonable, more able to see the grey areas and acknowledge the other fellow’s point of view. Isn’t it one of the comforting beliefs of liberal democrats that if we could only sit down and talk about things reasonably we’d find out what we have in common, and could go on from there? Education, surely, is one of the main gateways to this kind of civilised discourse. Won’t world peace be just round the corner, once everyone’s learned how to think?

Unless of course… education only makes us crazier, and even more inclined to be set in our ways. What are we to make of this recent piece on Salon via Alternet by Chris Mooney which explores the author’s encounters with what he calls the ‘smart idiot’ effect. On contentious issues, there is some evidence that the more dogmatic and less ‘rational’ positions tend to be taken by people with more education, not less. Opinion polling shows for instance, that Republicans with tertiary education will be significantly more likely to disbelieve in global warming and likewise, be more likely to believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim – and that such beliefs are less widely held among less well educated Republicans. For Democrats, the reverse seems to be true on the same points : climate change denial and suspicions about Obama’s Muslim origins tend to be the hallmarks of the less well-educated.

Before this begins to look like an indictment of the idiocy of the centre right, one should look hard at Mooney’s explanation for this phenomenon. Basically, he argues, you need to know something about politics in order to become entirely confident about your beliefs. Education usefully helps to entrench those beliefs by enabling you to envisage the objections to your chosen system of political values, and reject them. In other words, education helps you to debate, not to think. The citadel of your political faith needs its defences, and higher education can help to supply them. Unfortunately, Mooney clearly thinks this tendency to practice faith-based political thinking is far more prevalent on the centre right than on the centre left. I think he’s wrong about that, but he does describe the process involved quite well :

For one thing, well-informed or well-educated conservatives probably consume more conservative news and opinion, such as by watching Fox News. Thus, they are more likely to know what they’re supposed to think about the issues—what people like them think—and to be familiar with the arguments or reasons for holding these views. If challenged, they can then recall and reiterate these arguments. They’ve made them a part of their identities, a part of their brains, and in doing so, they’ve drawn a strong emotional connection between certain “facts” or claims, and their deeply held political values. And they’re ready to argue. What this suggests, critically, is that sophisticated conservatives may be very different from unsophisticated or less-informed ones. Paradoxically, we would expect less informed conservatives to be easier to persuade, and more responsive to new and challenging information.

In fact, there is even research suggesting that the most rigid and inflexible breed of conservatives—so-called authoritarians—do not really become their ideological selves until they actually learn something about politics first. A kind of “authoritarian activation” needs to occur, and it happens through the development of political “expertise.” Consuming a lot of political information seems to help authoritarians feel who they are….where-upon they become more resistant to change.

Dogmatism is of course, very much in the eye of the beholder. Put up policies about welfare reform, tax cuts, oil and gas drilling etc and I think you’d end up with the same pattern of educationally-defended prejudice. I’m not talking about the quality of the evidence for and against the particular positions : this is really about the degree of entrenchment, and the levels of resistance to what counter arguments may exist. Education helps to develop the tools and the arguments necessary to promote and to defend one’s political belief system – and that’s the case among among left and right wingers alike. In politics, facts get filtered in terms of their compatability with your prior ideological commitments. Never more so than among those clearly able to see just where a particular issue fits on the political spectrum.

This situation also goes some way to explaining the peculiarly intense heat that’s evident in online political discourse – which has little to do with even handedness or an interest in compromise. Good faith debating tends to be rare online. Instead, the marshalling of arguments and the deployment of supportive statistics are tools in something that’s much more like jihad than a search for the common ground.

I’m not lamenting this situation, or arguing for the superiority of the grey middle ground. Anger is a good motivator, and often it’s the only acceptable response to greed and stupidity. However, the smart idiot syndrome does signal a need (in individuals and political parties alike) to be selective about the tactics of persuasion – and to figure out when and with whom its worth the effort. And to repeat : more often than not, the real lost causes are not the rednecks or the silent majority – but the people who have schooled themselves into positions of intransigence.

So finally….if all of us really are bigots at heart when it comes to our core political values, we should at least try and get some feedback about where on the political spectrum we truly belong. The real advantage
of this particular test is that the results don’t simply place you on a right vs left divide, but include a dimension that tells you whether you’re emotionally hardwired to be a liberal or an authoritarian brand of left or right winger. It’s a multiple choice test. Hey….you’re smart, you’re educated, you know how that works.