Reason, Listening and Fixing “How to Fix American Stupidity”

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In a Time Magazine opinion piece, “How to Fix American Stupidity,” the philosopher Steven Nadler laments what he sees as a creeping intellectual stubbornness afflicting American citizens and offers some ideas about how to cure it. He calls this cognitive pandemic stupidity. As evidence of our country’s stupidity, Nadler cites the growing denial of anthropogenic climate change, denigration of Islam, and repudiation of evolution by natural selection.

Being stupid, Nadler advises, doesn’t mean being uneducated, ignorant, foolish, unsavvy, or unskilled. Rather, “a stupid person has access to all the information necessary to make an appropriate judgment, to come up with a set of reasonable and justified beliefs and yet fails to do so. The evidence is staring them right in the face but it makes no difference whatsoever.”

Standing opposed to stupidity is rationality. “The rational person,” Nadler claims, “only believes what the evidence warrants him in believing; he does not merely accept things on faith. And when the evidence falsifies his beliefs, he abandons them. It is irrational — stupid — to hold onto beliefs when they are plainly contradicted by the evidence.”

Nadler has put his finger on a particularly acute frustration. But his taxonomy of dialectical failures is incomplete. Lacking the relevant information or skill and pretending to authority anyway are, it’s true, not the only ways for me to fall short of dialectical expectations: I can also be perfectly knowledgeable yet refuse to alter my beliefs in the face of clear counter-evidence. But to such failures of knowledge and failures of rationality we should add another genre: failures of interpretation.

“Failure,” perhaps, is not quite the right word, since it might imply that we know, preceding any situation, what successful interpretation looks like. But we don’t, and that’s the point.

In other words, it’s not always obvious what should be obvious. Unlike, say, something’s mass, something’s obviousness — its salience, relevance, or significance — isn’t just there. Nothing’s obvious in itself; what’s obvious is always obvious to someone. And for all sorts of understandable reasons — differing construals, competing interests, or varying purposes, for example — what’s obvious to you may not be obvious to me. (This is, of course, not to deny the prevalence of shared judgments of obviousness.)

But if the contradictoriness of counter-evidence isn’t obvious to both of us, you can’t diagnose me as stupid. For being stupid, according to Nadler, is holding on to beliefs in the face of obviously countervailing evidence. In this case, then, it’s not about who’s rational and who’s not, but about what’s obvious and what’s not.  

My failure to appreciate the obviousness of something (that you or others find obvious) is different from my failure to revise my beliefs in the face of counter-evidence, and from my failure to be sufficiently knowledgeable. The first is a sort of blindness, the second a sort of stubbornness, and the third a sort of ignorance. The three infirmities can be interconnected, but they needn’t be: I might, for example, have all the information available and be willing to revise my beliefs, but be unable to see how the information provided constitutes counter-evidence. In that case, I’m failing to see things in the appropriate light or under the appropriate aspect.

Although it doesn’t exclusively reside there, this third dimension of dialectical success and failure is most easily recognized in cases of aesthetic disagreement. Consider a parable from Don Quixote about Sancho Panza’s wine-tasting kinsmen. Panza’s two kinsmen are invited to evaluate a supposedly exquisite wine. One insists the wine tastes of leather and the other disagrees, insisting it tastes of iron. They’re ridiculed until the cask of wine is emptied and a leather thong attached to an iron key is found at the bottom. With the discovery of the leather-wrapped key, both kinsmen are justified.

But they both failed in the sense that the one failed to appreciate the leather and the other failed to appreciate the iron. Even though all the facts are in, and even though both kinsmen are (presumably) rational, there’s still the matter of, say, the leather-taster getting the iron-taster to see the wine in such a light as to make the leather obvious. The iron-taster has changed his mind and now knows the leather is there to be appreciated, but until the leather becomes obvious to him, he’s suffering interpretive failure. The same goes for the leather-taster.

Neither the leather-taster nor the iron-taster should presume any remaining disagreement is due to the other’s being obtuse. Each is seeing something the other isn’t, and, by the same token, each is missing something the other isn’t. What remains is for each to try to take up the other’s perspective, to see things from the other’s point of view, to find what’s illuminated with the other’s light. There’s no one thing it’ll take to accomplish this. But it won’t merely consist in pointing out more facts or reminding each other of the rules of mental hygiene.   

Even though failures of interpretation are more noticeable in aesthetic disagreements, they frustrate all kinds of conversations whose participants are knowledgeable and rational. When in the mid-nineteenth century biologists failed to recognize photographic evidence that the ovum draws the fertilizing sperm into it, they weren’t unknowledgeable or stupid (in Nadler’s sense). In accordance with prevailing sensibilities, they saw females as passive and males as active, so they were blind to evidence of the active role the ovum plays in fertilization. They weren’t discerning the activity in what they saw; they weren’t seeing things in the appropriate light. Whatever was necessary for a revision of belief just wasn’t obvious, even though the facts were laid before them.

In disagreements about complex, heavily politicized issues, there’s a tendency on all sides to think of the other sides as unknowledgeable or irrational. Although we should remember that no side is immune from ignorance and stupidity, we should also recognize that climate change deniers, Islam denigrators, and evolution repudiators are wrong. But we should also realize that ignorance and stupidity don’t exhaust the spectrum of dialectical roadblocks in these and other cases. Differences in what is found obvious, relevant, salient, or significant might underlie those disagreements we at first think are due to intellectual stubbornness. In those cases, in order to reach each other’s minds, we might need to marshal the same patience, imagination, and interpretive charity that we marshal to get someone to notice a certain taste in wine, or to get someone to break out of a stultifying interpretive framework and see something in a new light. Sometimes it’s not that disputants aren’t listening to reason, but that they’re not listening to each other.   

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Eric Walker is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of California, Riverside, writing a dissertation articulating the sense in which a formal symbolism serves as a medium for mathematical investigation. He teaches German idealism, romanticism, existentialism, phenomenology, ethics and the meaning in life, art and aesthetics, formal and informal reasoning, the history of analytic philosophy, and the history and philosophy of science, mathematics, logic, and technology.