Is There a Cure for Stupid?
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Is There a Cure for Stupid? • Posted: Mar 18, 2011 10:24:31Comments WelcomeVote CoolPhotoblogsPurchase a PrintShare

Anyone paying the least bit of attention to the news lately couldn't help but notice the huge amount of stumbling, hyperbole, misrepresentation, and just plain ignorance displayed by so many journalists attempting to cover the developing situation in Japan. Such journalistic ineptitude has left the reading, listening, and investing public consumed by horrorstruck pity and irrational fear, pity for the loss of life and property, and fear of worsening financial instability and radioactive contamination. What has been missing from most so called "coverage" has been reliably researched facts and thoroughly thought out perspective on those facts. Instead, journalistic bungling has prompted and promoted a host of wild imaginings in minds of the public, fueled by ignorance, false preconceptions, faulty hearsay, and group panic.

A responsible journalist and citizen might ask: What are the facts? What could happen? What are the probabilities for each possibility? What are reasonable, doable options for action? And finally, of the possibilities for action, what end points seem most desirable? But the fact is, hardly anyone who isn't a nuclear engineer is actually asking those kinds of insight producing questions. Why? Why are we all so handicapped in our ability to recognize, evaluate, think about, and act rationally in accordance with reliable verifiable fact?

There are many ways to define "stupid", but willful failure to acknowledge and account for one's own ignorance is certainly one valid sense of the word. Making mistakes is not stupidity. Failing to check and recheck the validity of one's facts, conclusions, assumptions, and speculations is. And, it's distressing. Why are so many of us, journalists and citizens alike, so obstinately and habitually stupid?

Recent neurological research continues to find the brain is highly plastic in its ability to adapt and repair itself, not from catastrophic damage, but from minor to very serious disruptions in normal function. Given half a chance, the brain spontaneously reorganizes and rewires itself to reestablish function. In other words, one single set of wires is not what the brain is all about. It is a dynamic system capable of a multitude of equally functional wiring schemes. But then, given that bit of knowledge, why is it so hard for most of us to imagine adapting to a new set of life circumstances? I mean, all it would take is a bit of faith in our own innate abilities and some effort to make it happen. The research predicts our brains will follow right along, rewiring themselves as needed, no problem. That isn't what happens, though. Inertia takes hold, sentiments associated with the known are recalled, fear of the unknown erupts. We tighten our grip and dig in our heels. Some of us even reach for our guns.

What seems to be happening is that despite our brains being highly malleable, they tend toward a comfortable familiar homeostatic state. In other words, our brains seem to be telling us: "If there ain't nothin' wrong, don't fix it." And that's just internally. Externally, most of our cultural institutions also seem to reinforce the status quo, reinforce our emotionally familiar notions of self, our notions of what's right and wrong, our ideas of what's a good thing to do and a bad thing to do. The fact is, though, our societal institutions could be reformulated and reconstituted to reinforce a notion of self-worth that is not dependent upon the status quo, but instead reinforces a notion that our worth as individuals lies in our ability to learn and adapt, to create and discover, to lay a reliable foundation for succeeding generations that will do the same, on into infinity.

That observation does not fully explain why so many of us now fear dying of radiation when Japanese releases haven't been and look not likely to be anywhere near those of Chernobyl. But it does go a long way toward explaining why tens of thousands die each year as a direct result of pollution by or exposure to fossil fuels and their by-products while the rest of us hardly take notice. It's business as usual, that's why.

The bottom line is, for the most part, stupidity is a choice we have made for ourselves. We can do much much better.

Sunday, November 8th, 2009