Friday, July 16, 2010

Confronting Stupidity

George Loewenstein, a professor of economics and psychology at Carnegie Mellon, and Peter Ubel, a professor of business and public policy at Duke, have a short but telling piece in the New York Times about the efforts to implement behavioral economics into public policy to address various issues confronting the country.

Econ 101 notes the free market's fatal flaws in addressing society’s needs, from its lack of ethics (put your kidney up as collateral and we’ll reduce your interest rate), externalities (it’s worth it for Dupont to pollute everyone’s river), and what I consider to be its deepest and most fundamental flaw: the assumption of rational behavior.

This assumption has been amply refuted. People don’t behave rationally and are easily manipulated. They succumb to weakness, desire, and short term gratification at great long term expense. They don’t care how much sodium is in their Whopper and fries, or that enslaved children made their shoes, or that pharmaceutical companies influenced the drug they were prescribed for reasons of profit over medicine. They deny what it does to the planet to fill their gas tank.

Behavioral economics seeks to explain why consumers make irrational decisions, why they eat insane amounts of food, buy gas guzzling behemoths, rack up credit cards on unnecessary purchases, and don’t save for retirement. Behavioral economics is an early step in addressing what humanity has been in denial about throughout its history: stupidity. Yes, we know about it, see it everywhere, but it is not addressed seriously. It is not studied with academic rigor as the force on the planet that it is. It should be.

We understand the limited intellect that tries to understand and fails. Far less do we acknowledge let alone grasp the deliberate preference of ignorance, the refusal to learn, the rejection of both intelligence and education, exemplified by George W. Bush and distilled by "common sense" Sarah Palin. In denial, we find this behavior too horrible to face. We deny it, preferring to think that of course sound and informed minds will prevail, failing to recognize the dangers of allowing an evil and malignant few to exploit this sad aspect of reality.

The likes of Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, and the Fox News demons have made it easier than ever to see the blatant manipulation and fleecing of the weak minded, serving the political equivalent of fast food: superficially appealing, fostering irresponsibility, and poisonous.

The imbecile always smiles. Tragically, what's hard to accept is that malignant forces have figured out how to manipulate the imbecile and like minded minions in order to get stupid elected. They got stupid into the White House, inflicting eight years of damage that will take decades to repair.


Blogger Casey DeLorme, APR said...

A tangent to this (though I don't have a political ramification for this): the baffling either-or battle that often takes place between science and religion.

The best articulation of it, I think, shows up in Carl Sagan's "Contact". (Though the 1997 movie with Jodi Foster tries to capture the notion, I highly recommend the novel even if you've seen the movie.)

Synopsis: Astronomers listening to the heavens for signs of extraterrestrial life discover a coded message that turns out to be blueprints for a machine that puts the world in contact with a much higher, but benevolent, intelligence, which informs us that there are millions of intelligences out there... and even the machine they taught us to build is technology that was handed down to them.

Sagan wove into the story the struggled between science and religion. He also keeps the communication abstract enough that readers can interpret it how they desire.

But a key moment in the book (paraphrased) is a character asking: "Why is religion at odds with science, anyway? Every time science sorts out some universal mystery, it only opens the door to a thousand other mysteries. If anything, it seems like that only glorifies God or whomever you believe in. He's so complex that every time we answer 'why?', we find ourselves buried in even more questions."

7/16/2010 1:20 PM  
Blogger Sirocco said...

Here is the difference ... religion only thinks science threatens it, while science really is threatened by religion.

7/16/2010 5:21 PM  
Anonymous Observer said...

I have had the same experience x4mr describes about being in denial and continuing to believe that intelligence and sound minds will prevail. Germany went through it during Hitler's climb to power. The intellectuals and establishment politicians just couldn't believe such a fanatic could take over everything. I remember in 2000 when Gore was running against Bush. I just couldn't believe the country could allow such a bungle head to become president.

It is just astounding to hear Sarah Palin denounce the educated and informed, the intelligent and the astute, and have masses of people cheering.

7/16/2010 6:27 PM  
Blogger The Navigator said...

Sirocco is spot on. Science is no threat to religion at all. The spiritual needs of human beings will persist regardless of what science discovers, just as Casey wrote. Religion, on the other hand, has imprisoned, tortured, and killed scientists.

Frankly, I find Sarah Palin frightening, or more accurately, I find the fact that so many fail to see her for what she is frightening. Terrifying, in fact.

The fact is that many human beings would rather be right and superior in their own worlds than exert effort to understand or risk admitting less than a full grasp of the real one.

7/16/2010 8:24 PM  

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