The Short-Circuiting of the American Mind (Part 2: Generation Q)

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“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” – Thomas Jefferson

In many ways, the current circumstances in the U.S. mirror those of the old Soviet Union. Political leadership is stale and ineffective, public trust in institutions is low, expertise is vilified, propaganda is used to sow confusion and doubt, and nobody can get anything done. America’s “can do” spirit has been reduced to gaming the system for money and power.

The country’s inability to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic is particularly troublesome, exposing the faulty decision-making processes of governments, businesses, and individuals alike.

Writing about America’s apparent inability to rise to the challenge, Clay Jenkinson asks:

“How did it happen that the richest nation on earth, with its scores of world-class research universities, think tanks, schools of epidemiology, and our Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, can have mounted such a weak and inept response to the coronavirus pandemic? Don’t you expect more of America than this?”

David Leonhardt, writing about the U.S. failure to control the virus, highlights the inconsistent messaging coming from the White House:

 “In no other high-income country … have political leaders departed from expert advice as frequently and significantly as the Trump administration. President Trump has said the virus was not serious; predicted it would disappear; spent weeks questioning the need for masks; encouraged states to reopen even with large and growing caseloads; and promoted medical disinformation.”

Jamelle Bouie, also writing about the Trump administration, describes a leadership team that is blinded by wishful thinking:

“The obvious problem with building a cocoon of praise and sycophancy around oneself, as any failed authoritarian could explain, is that it hinders one’s ability to respond to conditions on the ground, whether that’s a pandemic or a presidential race. You can’t change course if you refuse to see what’s happening in front of you.”

It would be tempting – and perhaps comforting – to blame this willful ignorance solely on Trump and his enablers. But, as with the traditional suspects in the downfall of the USSR, the rise of Trumpism is a symptom of a much deeper issue, which is that the U.S. has systematically degraded and dismantled its own learning and decision-making capabilities over the past three decades.

The roots of these efforts lie with the end of the Cold War itself. With the Russians (temporarily) out of the way, U.S. politicians, business leaders, and other representatives re-directed their attention toward internal power struggles. Fighting for the support of a slim majority of the American electorate became a sophisticated blood sport that targeted the country’s ability to recognize and respond to problems.

As the two sides began locking in their coalitions, one of the major fault lines that materialized had to do with American’s trust in experts. We as a people have always valued self-reliance and common sense, especially in finding solutions to practical problems (see: Yankee ingenuity). But as problems grow more complex, the ability of any single individual to understand and address them becomes more and more difficult.

The proposed remedies – more training, more specialization, and more collaboration – start to rub the rugged individualist the wrong way. Suddenly, people are telling you what to do and offering you options that are disagreeable at best and demoralizing at worst (low-flush toilets, anyone?). It almost comes as a relief when someone starts telling you that the experts are wrong. Suddenly, you have a psychological out. You don’t have to change your opinion or challenge your worldview … you just have to question the credibility of members of the opposite side and your mind can rest easy.

There is a built-in incentive for political leaders to support this constant denigration of experts because it primes their followers to ignore valid counterarguments and remain loyal to the cause. Critical thinking becomes a bad thing because it threatens to alter the balance of power. Huge efforts are made to build a cohesive narrative that papers over the truth. Soon even the belief of outrageous lies becomes a sign of tribal allegiance.

Tom Nichols, writing about the country’s declining trust in expertise, states:

“Americans have reached a point where ignorance—at least regarding what is generally considered established knowledge in public policy—is seen as an actual virtue. To reject the advice of experts is to assert autonomy, a way for Americans to demonstrate their independence from nefarious elites—and insulate their increasingly fragile egos from ever being told they’re wrong.”

The problem is that no matter how hard people try, the truth has way of seeping through even the most hardened information filter. These occasional glimpses of reality can have a corrosive effect on the thought processes of people who’ve been fed a steady diet of lies and falsehoods. Faced with a gap between what they see and what they believe, many choose to double down on outrageous claims and conspiracy theories.

Writing in Psychology Today, Dr. Joe Pierre, a health sciences clinical professor at UCLA, notes the explicit connection between conspiracy theorists and the distrust of expertise:

“[P]sychology research has shown greater degrees of certain cognitive quirks among those who believe in conspiracy theories—like need for uniqueness; needs for certainty, closure, and control; and lack of analytical thinking. But the best predictor of conspiracy theory belief may be mistrust, and more specifically, mistrust of authoritative sources of information. Which means that those most likely to become QAnon believers mistrust mainstream sources of information, spend a lot of time on the internet and social media looking for alternative answers.”

Quassim Cassam, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick, goes further and suggests that conspiracy theorists suffer from flaws in their intellectual character.

“[The conspiracy theorist] believes what he does because that is the kind of thinker he is or, to put it more bluntly, because there is something wrong with how he thinks. The problem with conspiracy theorists is not … that they have little relevant information. The key to what they end up believing is how they interpret and respond to the vast quantities of relevant information at their disposal.”

The threat that conspiracy theorists pose to our society increases with their influence on critical policy decisions. While conspiracy theories are nothing new in American culture, they’ve never been embraced to such an extent by a major governing coalition. Now, many Republicans fully support fringe groups like QAnon while Trump himself asks his followers to believe that the COVID-19 virus is a hoax, climate change isn’t real, immigrants are storming the borders, and violent criminals are planning to burn down the suburbs.

We can’t address our country’s problems if we can’t even agree on what the problems are. Such a stalemate suggests that our decision-making process is broken. To paraphrase John Boyd, we have gotten inside our own OODA loop. We can’t agree on what’s happening, we can’t agree on how to interpret what we’re seeing, we can’t agree on a course of action, and, therefore, we can’t act.

As we saw with 1980s-era Soviet Union, this kind of situation is untenable. Ignoring problems doesn’t make them go away. At some point, reality intrudes and burns anyone caught unprepared. The question is: can we reform a generation of citizens that has developed a radical relationship to the truth in time to stave off a disaster?

Image credit: Anna Kinde

Series: The Short-Circuiting of the American Mind

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