The Age of Idiocy

Portrait caricatureThe eighteenth century is known as “the age of reason.” I was going through our magazines, trying to clear them out, when I ran across an article in an old issue of The Economist that made me fear the late twentieth and early twenty-first century will be known as the age of idiocy. “A growing body of research,” writes the author of “Hunkier than Thou,” “suggests” that women’s “preference for certain types of male physiognomy may be swayed by things beyond their conscious control.” No, really? Women can’t control whom they are attracted to?

Are you f*#!ing kidding me! People are getting money to do this sort of “research”!

It’s not just one cognitively challenged, or intellectually dishonest moron, whose conned someone into giving him (or her) money for this inane “research”; there’s apparently a whole “body” of such “research.” Who is doing this research, I want to know. Is it extraterrestrials? Because we earthlings have known for millennia that we can’t control our attractions.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the inability of people to control to whom they are attracted one of the most obvious fact about homo sapiens? Is it not the most popular subject of the world’s great literature, from The Iliad to “The Awakening,” with, I hazard a guess, 75% of everything in between.  Who could not know this obvious and sad fact of human nature. If we had conscious control over whom we were attracted to, then people would always marry absolutely the right person and infidelity and divorce would be unheard of.

Is this not the single most idiotic subject of a scientific study you have ever heard of? The intellectual progress of humanity, of which we have been so proud in the last couple of centuries, has suffered a serious setback if we are suddenly doing “research” to establish the truth of things that have been obvious to most of humanity throughout its long history. Okay, Homer didn’t do an empirical study. Empirical studies should be something of a last resort, however, in our attempts to understand human nature and human society. You don’t do them to tell you stuff you already know. You do them to tell you things you don’t already know. Ah, but there’s the rub: We’ve become so infatuated with empirical studies and the statistics they generate, that we’ve sort of erased the accumulated wisdom of human history and decided that it’s time to reinvent the wheel.

Nowadays, we’re disinclined to believe anything that doesn’t have a study to back it up, apparently forgetting (what most of us knew not so long ago) that you can get a study to support any conclusion you want, so long as you are sufficiently careful in the crafting of your questions. An empirical study, is, as a means of gaining information, the crudest sort of imitation of the awesome mechanism of a run of the mill inductive inference. Let me draw an analogy here to make it a little clearer. The empirical study is to a human brain functioning properly like instant coffee is to real coffee: a pale, sad imitation which no person in his right mind would prefer to the original but would accept only if the original were, for some reason, unobtainable.

Let me give you a few examples of what is problematic about empirical studies. I remember hearing a few years ago that studies showed wine was better for you than beer because people who drank wine tended to be healthier than people who drank beer. Later, someone who still remembered how to think pointed out that people who drank wine tended to have more money than people who drank beer, and that they tended to have better health care and exercise more and to have a healthier diet – and all of that might have something to do with why they tended to be healthier.

Something similar happened with a study on breast cancer. The study found that women who had children when they were younger tended to have a lower incidence of breast cancer than women who waited to have children until they were older.  Later, someone who still remembered how to think pointed out that the women who had children when they were younger tended to live in more rural, less developed, parts of the country and that women who waited to have children until they were older tended to live in more developed, urban and hence polluted areas — and that it might be environmental toxins that explained the higher cancer rates.

The mind boggles at the specter of the hodgepodge of incoherent speculations we will be expected to accept as “facts” based on empirical studies alone. A study is nothing before it is interpreted, and the interpretation requires a brain relying on its own devices and not on other studies.

Our infatuation with empirical studies started, I believe, with formal logic as an attempt to understand the amazing reasoning power of the human brain. At some point, however, the whole thing went horribly wrong, and we began to believe that this lumbering, awkward process of arriving at conclusions was, in fact, superior to the real mechanisms of the organ it had originally been trying to model.

To be fair, my suspicion is that part of our infatuation with empirical research is an understandable and justifiable reaction to the elitism of the medieval scholastics, who could not have cared less what the data showed when they had “the philosopher” on their side. Empirical research is, after all, as much a child of the Enlightenment as is democracy. Still, anything, even a good thing, can be taken to a ridiculous extreme. We have free public education because some wise heads years ago were aware of the dangers inherent in letting ignorant and illiterate people vote. Are we not similarly aware of the dangers inherent in having ignorant and, apparently, illiterate, people crafting empirical studies?

Perhaps, after all, history is just a series of pendulum swings, back and forth, between overweening confidence in our inherent reasoning capacities and pathological skepticism concerning the truth or reality of anything we can’t define ostensively. It looks to me like the project of the Enlightenment to wipe out intellectual elitism has turned into a case of throwing out the baby with the bathwater. We meant to discredit a particular, deviant, exercise of “reason,” but we were finally unable to control this new skepticism and ended with the reductio ad absurdum of discrediting reason itself.

David Brooks writes in the  New York Times that what he calls “the rising philosophy of the day” is “data-ism.”

He’s got that right. We can’t think anymore. We can only count.

(An earlier version of this article appeared in the online journal CounterPunch.)

4 responses

    • You are so right. Someone should do an article/book on the wisdom of the narrative imagination. That’s actually a great argument in favor of the humanities. They clearly do make people smarter (or is it simply that smart people are attracted to them)

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