Saturday, October 20, 2007


"We live in what may be the most anti-intellectual period in the history of Western civilization"
-R.C. Sproul

Mohammed Said Al-Sahaf
Dr James Watson worked with Dr Francis Crick in discovering and describing DNA, he won the Nobel Prize for his work, shared with Dr Crick and is one of the most respected scientists in history. Until recently.
He says that he is “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really”
This is where it gets interesting. Dr Watson is a strong evolutionist, he believes that species gradually changed into other species and continue to do so. He believes that humanity evolved from lower species and in the process did so over slow millions of years in various areas at the same time. This means the process might be different in Europe than in Asia, and different still in Africa and America. We're still evolving, according to this theory.
He writes that “there is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically. Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heritage of humanity will not be enough to make it so.”
Since this time he's retracted the statement "unreservedly" with an apology worthy of the inquisition:
“I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said. There is no scientific basis for such a belief.”
The problem is twofold here. First, there is Darwinian science for such a statement, it makes sense based on evolutionary theory. For decades, scientists asserted that blacks were less evolved than whites, based on their appearance and lifestyle in Africa. The theory of evolution covers more than simply biological development, it also covers the development of culture and intelligence - the more crude and uncivilized you are, the less evolved you are, according to many in the field.

Evolution for a long time was mostly based on appearance (in a certain sense it still is, but the work has become more sophisticated) - this animal looks like that one, they must be related, look at these horse skeletons and compare them to the Eohippus and such; clearly these are a step by step evolutionary chain. This is the system of thought and Darwinian logic that racial theorists in the Nazi party developed to explain the world and why Aryans were superior.

The second problem is that the testing of blacks does tend to put them lower on the IQ scale, especially those not introduced to western culture, or hindered by deliberate social pressures. There are many notable exceptions, more on that in a moment, but the trend was accurately stated by Dr Watson.

Now, have I turned into David Duke? He'd love this kind of thing, any white supremacist would, its confirmation of their fondest wishes.

There's a catch, though. First, IQ tests don't really describe intelligence. They describe, at best, how well you take IQ tests. Over the years different kinds of intelligence have been recognized, kinds that these tests don't really examine. And the biggest problem with IQ tests is that they require a certain kind of ability to examine data, a skill at critical thought and reason that few people have naturally and most need to have trained. To put it briefly: not doing well at IQ tests doesn't mean you have less intelligence.

There are a couple of examples recently that help make my point. Most people will remember Baghdad Bob, the Iraqi Information Minister whose hapless news reports, goofy propaganda, and inane statements blatantly put to lie by the very things happening behind him were hilarious to the west. We watched and howled with laughter, there were t-shirts and fan clubs, websites and talk show jokes. The guy was great, people just couldn't get enough of him. Surely he couldn't be taken seriously, right?

Here's the problem: he was taken seriously by many. It wasn't until he was demonstrably, obviously wrong that people stopped listening. Why do I say this? Well for several reasons.

First, Saddam Hussein was a monster, but he wasn't an idiot, at least not entirely. His government had an iron fist of control over Iraq, and that's not something you do by silly measures. The control of information is the most important force of a dictatorship after the military: you have to keep the people knowing and believing only what you wish for them to. This was first perfected by Napoleon's tyranny. Baghdad Bob looked like a goofball to the west, but he was saying the things in the way that the Iraqi people would buy.

Here's another example. Israel recently flew a precision strike into Syria, destroying a nuclear base under brand-new Russian air defenses. Syria at first claimed it never happened, taking reporters to a farm and showing off orchards. No such strike, they didn't hit any such place, the Jew lies.

Then, this week, they reversed the statement, Syria's UN Ambassador confirmed the hit. It really happened, yet they bald face simply denied it publicly. Why? Because they could and their people would believe them. Because they were able to do so successfully, at least to their own people.

Here's a last example, in Afghanistan, a coalition strike killed a couple dozen Taliban, yet another successful attack on the bad guys there who are stacking up like cordwood. What was different this time is that claims showed up in the press that the troops burned a copy of the Koran. Kill people; well that's too bad. Burn a book: riots break out. Did it happen? Doesn't matter, all you have to do is say it did for some people to immediately respond the way you want them to.

What do all these stories have in common? Is it that Arabs and Muslims are idiots? History tells us otherwise. However, if you took these folks and put them to an IQ test, you'd see almost all of them do pretty poorly.

No, what the stories have in common is a willingness to believe what you're told no matter how implausible or unlikely it is, no matter if there's no proof or reason to believe it. The common thread is a credulity, a willingness to believe. It's a lack of critical analysis, of an ability to examine data, reason through a problem, and come to a plausible, likely conclusion based on the evidence and one's experience.

For Islamic culture in the Middle East and most other present Muslim-controlled countries there's a problem that leads to this kind of credulity. The children are from very young indoctrinated in the most pure sense of the word into a certain viewpoint. They are told to believe the Koran without question, never ask or doubt, always trust their leaders, always believe what they're told by the clerics, always to rely on the statements of Islamic teachers. Most have huge sections of the Koran memorized, but there aren't "bible studies" for the Koran, nobody but the clerics pull open the book and begins to ponder what it really means and why. They know the words but are trained never to consider them, only to repeat them.

There is no history or culture of study, thought, questioning, analysis, or critical thought for these people. They have been raised for almost a dozen generations to remember the words and do what they're told. To obey and submit, not think and learn. There's few who, without instruction, will tend to defy this, let alone have the mental ability to do so. So the culture becomes consistent: when you're told something by an authority, it's true. When you're told something contradictory after that, it's true - and the two never need to be examined, they are true in that order, and that's all you need to know.

burn the hereticThe Christian church suffered under this for centuries under the Roman Catholic Church in the middle ages. The church had the Bible, for a long time it was forbidden for anyone but the clergy to read the scripture. Even if someone had a copy, which was extremely unlikely, it was in Latin, which nobody but the clergy and academics knew anyway. People were told what to do, to think and how to behave, and knew nothing else. The few who questioned this were heretics, monsters, dangerous - unless they were so highly placed as to be immune to attack.

This changed with the Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance. Analysis and critical thought were praised, study and understanding were encouraged. Free thought, liberty, and intellectual growth were honored. The genesis for much of teaching on these lines came from ancient Greece, where the first real examples of this were seen. Before that, Hebrews were taught to know and understand their scripture, specialists called Levites were commanded to teach all the word of God and explain it, discuss it, and know it. Parents were told to in every circumstance and example teach their children about the scriptures so that they would not merely know, but understand what God had said.

It is this twin influence to western culture that shaped and makes it what it is today. It is the lack of this that damages other cultures, holds them back, and harms their development. Looking around the world, you can find an exact correlation between free thought and reason... and development. Blacks in Africa aren't stupid, at least no more stupid than whites in America, Asians in Japan, and so on. What they lack is this training and culture of critical analysis. The monks studying ancient scriptures and tests in monasteries of places like Ireland kept that alive when all was dark in Europe, there's no such tradition or outpost in much of the world.

Why believe Baghdad Bob's goofy announcements? Because he's the authority and you've been raised since you could understand the language to obey and heed authority, to believe them. Because you've never been taught to disgree, question, analyze, or reason through intellectually.

It's possible that I could be giving the impression that I think that cultures who lack this tradition and teaching are innately inferior or intellectually weak, that they are failures, corrupt, miserable. In some senses, they are: look around the world and you can see the difference between living in a dirt-floored hut and a two story town house, between eating whatever you can manage to catch and chicken cordon bleu with asparagus and rice pilaf. The difference is shown in literacy rates, life expectancy, and subjective systems such as quality of life. The west tends to be superior in comfort, liberty, and material wealth.

Life is more than comfort and material wealth, and while liberty is a great thing, one should be free to a purpose rather than simply free. Liberty is for a cause, to do things rather than an end into its self. While the west has nice cars and satellite TV, it's lost its soul and meaning. Virtue, ethics, right living and concern for one's habitat are all more readily and clearly pronounced in poorer, less developed cultures. A recognition of the importance of children and the elderly is usually a stronger characteristic in nations who are less comfortable.

Lest anyone get the impression I think that western culture is consistently and completely greater than other cultures, I would point out that there's a lot we've lost and lack. That's part of why I write the essays I do, in a feeble hope that perhaps a few people might regain some of the things we have abandoned in our mad rush toward greater material gain.

So far a reader might get the impression that I'm all for enlightenment thought, that reason triumphs over all. There's a problem with this approach to life, however, with the idea that humans can understand everything, that reason can solve all problems, and that the right application of effort, intelligence and study can create an ideal utopia. It always ends in disaster.

Human beings cannot through the force of their own will fix all life's ills. We can't reason our way out of the need for war, or away from violence and crime. The use of intelligence and critical analysis does not make people better it makes people less likely to fall prey to authoritarian command. Make no mistake, I am not teaching salvation by power of reason, that was the foolish mistake of men like Marx, Hitler, and Mao. It's the silly theology taught by Ralph Waldo Emerson and others.

Liberty and free thought walk hand in hand, one cannot long have true liberty without the individuals in that society understanding and being able to analyze and see clearly what they're told and what is around them. If you lose this or never learned it, then you will more readily fall prey to a clever statement or a command from on high. You'll more readily believe the Big Lie told consistently and without shame. You'll start to believe advertising, be swayed by a clever speech, be yanked about by your emotions like a pull toy.

At this point I suspect you see a problem with modern culture, and so do I. Far too often this is exactly what happens. We're not facing our life with critical thought and the ability to reason through our problems - and worse, far too often when those who can do so point out problems and solutions, we ignore them because they say what we do not wish to hear.

Emotions are a valuable part of human existence, they are the fuel that gives us passion to take actions when we need to our ought to. Outrage, fury, affection, jealousy, fear, all these can have a proper place and value. The problem comes when we fail to control and inform those emotions with our intellect. You should never be at a place where you act based merely on emotion, but rather based on reason by which your emotions fuel action. Having fear is no use if it is irrational fear. Feeling infatuation for someone you cannot have (say, your friend's wife) is a sure road to misery and disaster - your mind must control and restrain action.

So how did we get to this point, the place where all too often as a culture emotion trumps reason, where a sophist's argument trumps the truth, and where the appearance of something is more important than the thing its self?

I can see three different influences, all related.

Fit Bodies, Fat MindsThe first is a tendency toward anti-intellectualism. This is different than anti-intelligence; few people are opposed to or reject merely being smart. The opposition is to the trappings of intelligence, the sophistication of education, intellectual pursuit, and the tendency to show arrogance in these areas while tending away from physical activity. The intellectual isn't necessarily a bad person - at least a real intellectual - but they sometimes, too often, are so caught up in their interests and use of reason that they come across as condescending, detached, and unrealistic. Rejection of the intellectual sometimes comes from fear of the unknown, from feeling insecure and feeling inferior to the more learned, and from a memory of horrors that such people have wrought. But it comes from another source as well.

The second is the trend toward relativism. It is odd that a culture built on Greek and Hebrew traditions of rational analysis is moving to such an irrational direction, but it has for the last century. Relativism I've written on more extensively in other essays, but at its heart, the idea of relativism is that there's no absolute truth (except that rule). One can believe anything, even the complete opposite of someone else, and they are both true - to each of you. You can even hold two contradictory ideas (say, President Bush is a chimpish imbicile and the most evil, crafty man on earth) at the same time, and that's fine. Because truth is relative. Both are true in their little compartments, and it doesn't matter if they contradict. Truth isn't based on any objective standard, it is instead based on your "metanarrative" that is, your cultural and historical story, the life you've lived and the society you belong to.

The problem with this (one of the problems, most related to the topic) is that it is at its heart a complete rejection of the idea of critical analysis. If two totally contradictory things can both be true at the same time and in the same context... Baghdad Bob was telling the truth; the Syrian government was telling the truth: their truth. This ideology feeds the view that intellectuals are fools and should be ignored, while at the same time in the very context and halls of study and intellectualism, it rots out from the center the very meaning of intelligence.

This trend results in no basis for understanding reality or truth, and leaves each person blowing about in the winds of ideas and personalities, clinging to what appeals most to them emotionally. I like this, it appeals to me. When you ask someone what they think about a topic, how many times do you find yourself saying "how do you feel about that?" How many times have you read reporters and heard people say something like that? How does it make you feel?

Uhh.. warm? Who cares how it makes me feel, what does it mean? What matters is the truth of the matter, what's wright and wrong, not how it affects me emotionally. If something is true and makes me feel rotten is that worse than something false that makes me feel wonderful? This sort of argument is all over the place now. Appeals to emotion such as holding up children and calling for legislation, or pointing to combat deaths and claiming that's the yardstick for what we should do.

Emotions are fine and valuable in their place, but are not the way we ought to make decisions. They should inform us in our decision making, but no define and control it. Yet that's often where we find ourselves. Worse yet, this is encouraged by the powers that be, and even fed upon by them. How many polls do we see each day, and how many of them are based on truth as opposed to emotion? Who cares what the approval rating of a leader is? All that tells us is how people feel about them when they are asked, not what they think of them. Think about it:

If you just had a huge rip roaring fight with someone and you are asked "do you approve of this person" you'll respond with "no" more than "yes." Does that mean you think they are a rotten person? That they are horrible and shouldn't be trusted, or that they are wrong and poor at their job? What if they just did something you really like, you'll likely approve - but does that mean you think they're great at their job?

Worse yet, politicians ask for and heed these polls, based on emotion, and even set policy based on them:

-Was this the right thing to do, was it the wisest and most reasonable?
-I dunno but lots of people seemed to like it.

Combine this with a tendency to focus more on what makes me most happy and comfortable rather than what I ought to do, and you've got a culture that isn't interested in thinking about issues or ideas. Thought is not only challenging but has no immediate benefit. Sure I could think through the issues, but it's easier to just watch a few ads and then get back to the latest soap opera dressed up as a drama on night time TV. Who cares what the truth is, lets get back to the game. Amuse me, entertain me, give me what I want. In the place of introspection and analysis, we have comfort and hedonistic pursuit. As a nation, the United States is almost entirely a people of consumers, we hardly produce anything, yet we reap the benefits - yet for how long? Again, this is another essay but it relates to our loss of rational analysis.

Train WreckAs a culture, we're slouching away from the very foundation upon which western civilization was built. We're moving away from the intelligence and critical thinking of our past and toward the acceptance of authority and emotional response of less civilized nations. Who is worse, the nation who never had this or the nation that enjoyed it and rejects it, while insisting we get to keep all its benefits? Can a culture long stand on the greatness and achievements of previous generations? I think not: I believe we're on a coasting train that is slowing down, and when you stop on an incline, you then roll backward.

Mere intelligence and reason is not enough, as I noted above. We cannot base our culture merely on what is true, we also must understand what is beautiful and what is good. Ethical considerations must define our choices and our future as well, as I've written about many times in the past. We cannot ignore aesthetics and what feeds our souls as well as our minds. Yet it is our intellectual heritage that we're deliberately rejecting, and through that we are rejecting the other as well. Beauty is merely what gains emotional response. Goodness is what you decide - or at most, what a body of society decides - is right, and that can change whenever it becomes inconvenient. In the end, we lose everything previous generations have gained if we do not abandon this course.

And who can say that Africans are less intelligent than a people who deliberately do that to themselves?

*Hat tip to Free Frank Warner for the inspiration to this essay
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