• Ryan James Carlson

Society has gotten dumber

Society has become dumber over the past few years. That’s not just a dig. I mean it. I’m sure you’ve noticed. It’s related to Trump, or more broadly the national and global dynamics that made it possible for him to become president, but the connection is indirect.

Irrational thinking has become more prominent and infected more nodes of societal intelligence (people, institutions, probably AI to the extent it learns from human intelligence) than was recently the norm. The reason, I think – and this solves the paradox of modern civilization: that increased access to more information has not noticeably enlightened us – is that although we have more information than ever, the ratio of good information/total information is lower and the ratio of trusted information/total information is lower. We have more information, but a smaller share of the information we have is good enough and/or trusted enough to enable solid conclusions.

This is important because intelligence is the ability to infer things and make useful decisions based on incomplete information. We always lack perfect input – there are always unknown factors in everything we judge and we are constantly generating intelligence out of the preponderance of the information we have and trust. This concept of preponderance is key, because with imperfect knowledge we are always working with the number of pieces of the puzzle that are in place, but not all of them. One conclusion can be the most likely one based on the preponderance of information at this moment, but adding one or more additional pieces can change that – then another conclusion can be the most likely one based on the preponderance of evidence.

We often unthinkingly equate the amount of input that we have with knowledge, but a lot of jumbled pieces can make it harder to recognize the pattern than a smaller number of elements that put you on the right track. More is better only holds true if the information is entirely or mostly correct and trusted as such.

If we have a lot of information but a lot of it is wrong or not trusted, we are worse off than if we have less but it is of higher quality and more trusted. (True information that is not trusted is actually worse than useless – being not trusted, it sends you further away from the correct answer than you would be if you lacked the input altogether.) Proliferating falsehoods and eroding trust destroy intelligence in two ways: Falsehoods pollute the pool of data on which to base conclusions, leading to a cascade of low-quality conclusions that further degrade subsequent processes; and loss of trust neutralizes good information or even turns it misleading insofar as it is believed to be false.

We have become dumber not because dumb ideas were seeded in our minds (though that also happens), but because our own discernment is (invisibly) degraded when the quality of the information is low or uncertain.

This is different from the situation of people simply believing things that are not the case. Believing a falsehood doesn’t make you dumb – it just makes you wrong in that case. But believing lots of falsehoods and/or disbelieving many things that are the case does make you dumber because the preponderance of information you have is more likely to generate false conclusions – at some point it is guaranteed to generate false or fallacious conclusions –, which is also a vicious spiral because those conclusions then lower the quality of later reasoning as well.

Another consequence of this is a growing gap between people who maintain a clean knowledge pool and those who don’t – one part of society gets dumber while other parts of it don’t (and may actually benefit intellectually from the stupidification of the rest because that process reveals some of their own fallacies that may previously have gone unrecognized).

p.s. This has nothing to do with a person’s political persuasion, but with their ability to avoid contamination of their thinking material.

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