Dumb and Dumberer?

December 7, 2008

The years passed, mankind became stupider at a frightening rate. Some had high hopes the genetic engineering would correct this trend in evolution, but sadly the greatest minds and resources were focused on conquering hair loss and prolonging erections.  From Idiocracy a 2006 film about a dumbed-down dystopia, set 500 years in the future.


When I hear the word culture – I release the safety-catch of my Browning. Said by a character from the play Schlageter, written by Nazi playwright Hanns Johst


We all know how stupid the average person is. Now realize that, by definition, fifty percent of the population is dumber than that. Ivan Stang 


Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public.  H. L. Mencken


I am obliged to confess I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University. William Buckley Jr.


            My trusty Wikipedia defines “dumbing down” like this: Dumbing down is viewed either as a pejorative term for a perceived over-simplification of, amongst other things, education, news and television, or as a statement of truth about real cultural trends in education and culture. It was coined by Ken E Smith of Colorado, but the idea goes back a long way. For the last 500 years European culture has had an inferiority complex with the Ancients. We cannot avoid looking back to some mythical golden age. There is a feeling that technological progress is inevitably accompanied by a cultural decline.  In The Decline of the West Oswald Spengler argued that while we may still have civilization, “culture” was in irreversible decline. This sense of decline and fall is shared by both left and the right. Recently a book by Susan Jacoby called The Age of American Unreason came out. It is an attack on anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism in the United States. I have to laugh when people say how dumb Americans are. What does that say about the rest of the world? Jacoby’s complaints about the anti-intellectual strain in American society may be partly true but I have a certain healthy scepticism about intellectuals – they didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory in the twentieth century. Thomas Sowell summed up this sceptical attitude towards intellectuals:

By thinking that because they are knowledgeable– or even expert– within some narrow band out of the vast spectrum of human concerns, that makes them wise guides to the masses and to the rulers of the nation.

            I think there is much to contradict the idea that we are going to an educational and cultural hell in a handcart. First I want to talk something known as the Flynn Effect, the rise of average IQ test scores over the generations, which is happening in most parts of the world. More recent studies show that the rate of IQ increase is actually accelerating. I realise there are some limitations to IQ as a test of intelligence but the evidence does not seem to back up the pessimists’ litany.

Secondly we need to look at modern culture. Perhaps it is true that British TV is in decline but American TV is now living a golden age Compare this to the 1970s, which gave us such gems as The Love Boat and Chips. Now series such as The Wire and The Sopranos show that quality that was lacking three decades ago. Satellite TV permits broadcasters to target niche audiences for opera and the Internet will permit an even greater degree of specialisation. I don’t pretend to have any idea about how to play video games but I can see that they require a great deal of skill and can have some quite sophisticated plots.

            I do recognise that we do face an overdose of information. It is quite intimidating to think of all the knowledge the Ancients had and all that we have accumulated since then. We have some brilliant new tools, but they probably outstrip our capacity to use them well. We face a bewildering array of options. I probably read a bit less than I used to. I still love reading but Internet has opened up a whole world of culture and education for me. We also read in a different way on a computer screen; we tend to scan the page for the nugget of information we are looking for. This may encourage a desire for immediacy.

I prefer to think about the breathtaking choice that is available if we are willing to look for it. We can now access global cultural resources on demand. Many incredible things are available for free. You can listen to a class from Yale, hear interviews with opera singers and read all the books on the Guttenberg Project for free. New distribution models have created what Chris Anderson has described as The Long Tail. This means selling a large number of unique items, each in relatively small quantities, as opposed to only selling large volumes of a reduced number of popular items. Probably culture is always going to have that 90%/10% relationship between dreck and quality. But it has never been easier to find that 10%. I don’t want to force my tastes on other people. Culture, education and knowledge are so stimulating that they have to be enjoyed, not rammed down people’s throats. I also understand that after a hard day’s work, you sometimes just want to veg out in front of the TV. I think that trying to improve yourself is much better than feeling of superiority we get from condemning others’ tastes.








Dumb Britain: A selection

December 7, 2008

Private Eye has a funny section called Dumb Britain, where they feature the stupid answers people give on quiz shows. Here are some I found on the Internet:


The Weakest Link:

Anne Robinson: Who initiated the Chinese cultural revolution?

Contestant: Ming.


AR: Name the man who was President of Italy until May 2006.

Contestant: Don Corleone.


AR: The adjective Rubenesque, meaning a plump, voluptuous woman, is derived from the work of which 17th century Flemish artist?

Contestant: Aretha Franklin.


AR: Which island prison closed in 1963?

Contestant: Australia.


AR: In history, at the battle of Waterloo, which general’s horse was called Copenhagen?

Contestant: Lord Nelson.


Lunchtime Show (BRMB):

Presenter: What religion was Guy Fawkes?

Contestant: Jewish.

Presenter: That’s close enough.


Dog Eat Dog (BBC1)

Ulrika Jonsson: Who wrote Lord of the Rings?

Contestant: Enid Blyton


Virgin Radio:

Paul Wappat: How long did the Six Day War between Egypt and Israel last?

Contestant (after long pause): Fourteen days.


Are You Smarter Than A 10 Year Old?, Sky One:

Presenter: Was the Tyrannosaurus Rex a carnivore or a herbivore?

Contestant: No, it was a dinosaur.


Give us a break:

Jim Davidson: From which Greek building were the Elgin Marbles taken?

Contestant: The Apocalypse



Channel 5 presenter:   Which literary hunchback lived in Notre Dame and fell in love with Esmeralda ?

Contestant: Oh, er, it rings a bell.. but no, can’t think of it.


Billy Butler (Radio Merseyside):   What was Hitler’s first name?

Contestant: Heil


Chuck Thomas:   Can you give me an occupation beginning with ‘S’?

Contestant: Psychiatrist


My media week 07/12/08

December 7, 2008

Professor of Economics John Caskey provides a non-technical overview of the cause of the current financial crisis, Why credit markets are frozen, and what the bailout will do.


Tim Harford is back with another series of More or Less, a programme that deals with the mathematics behind the news. The first episode includes a feature on the mathematics of the credit crunch.


NPR’s Fresh Air had a fascinating programme about the inner workings of Google – A Voyage To ‘Planet Google’


Julian Baggini has an article about mistakes.


Last week I featured the list of the 100 greatest films according to French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma. Monday’s Guardian had a critical article about movie lists.

My favourite links #25

December 7, 2008

The UChannel project is an initiative of Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. They have an excellent collection of one-off public affairs lectures that can be downloaded or streamed. Their idea is to be a global academic forum. Go here for the website.