To be explained: It feels to me that in recent years, people have gotten stupider, or that stupid has gotten bigger, or that the parts of people that were always stupid have gotten louder, or something like that.
I’ve come up with a suite of hypotheses to explain this (with a little help from my friends). I thought I’d throw them out here to see which ones the wise crowd here think are most likely. Bonus points if you come up with some new ones. Gold stars if you can rule some out based on existing data or can propose tests by which they might be rendered more or less plausible.
The hypotheses come in two broad families: 1) my feeling that stupid is expanding is an illusion or misperception, and 2) stupid is expanding and here is why:
A: I Am Misperceiving an Expanding Stupidity And Here’s Why
I have become more attuned to stupidity for [reasons], so even though there is no more of it than usual, it stands out more to me.
What used to look like non-stupidity was actually widespread conformity to a common menu of foolishnesses. Today the cultural beacons of respectable idiocy have been overthrown and there is increasing diversity in foolishness. Divergent fools seem more foolish to each other when in fact we’re all just as stupid as we’ve always been.
I’m running in stupider circles than I used to for some reason, while in general things haven’t changed much.
I am the one getting stupider, or was stupid all along, and so I don’t have the cognitive strength to accurately judge the stupidity level around me, and just happen to be thinking it is getting worse because I don’t know any better.
People aren’t getting any stupider, it’s just that the artificial intelligence of the bots I’m mistaking for people on-line isn’t all that good yet.
They’re not getting stupider; I’m just getting more conceited.
People ordinarily use different modes of thinking in different communications contexts. In some, finding the truth is important and so they exhibit rational intelligence. In others, decorative display, ritual, asserting dominance or submission, displaying group allegiances, etc. are more important and so they use modes more appropriate to those things. It’s not that people are getting stupider, but that these forms of communication that do not broadcast intelligence (a) are more amplified than they used to be, (b) more commonly practiced than they used to be, or (c) are more prominent where I happen to be training my attention.
I am acquiring greater wisdom with age as I ought, but the average age of the typical person I encounter stays the same so they cannot keep up. I’m noticing the contrast increasing but misattributing it.
People use intelligence for different things in different eras. Just as language, music, or art changes over time, so does thinking. I’m just not keeping up, and assuming because kids these days can’t dance the mental Charleston that they can’t dance at all.
We were just as stupid back in the day, and I just don’t remember it that way.
There is no truth, only power. What I’ve been interpreting as truth and rationality has been my own attempt to align my thinking with the political clique that was in power when I was being educated. What I’m interpreting as rising stupidity has been the collapse in power and status of that clique and the political obsolescence of the variety of “truth” and “rationality” I internalized as a child. Those pomo philosophers were right all along.
Stupidity doesn’t have staying power, relative to non-stupidity: there’s a sort of survival of the fittest in which vast amounts of expressions are being produced all the time, most of which are stupid and fall away, but the ones that aren’t stupid are more likely to survive in memory and to be maintained in the historical record. This biases things to make it appear that the proportion of stupid expressions was lower in the past than it really was.
Politics and consumer capitalism are motivated to identify and target stupid people so as to take advantage of them, so they have created systems that encourage stupid people to self-identify and make themselves prominent so that they can be picked off; that I’m noticing this is just a side effect.
B: Expanding Stupidity Is Real and This Explains It
People have given up trying to understand things in this messed-up timeline and are just rolling with it; it’s a sort of intellectual learned helplessness that appears as expanding stupidity.
Stupidity has its fashions, and the latest fashions are more in-your-face than they used to be.
Pharmaceuticals that have become popular in recent decades have cognitive side effects that are difficult to measure in the individual but cause noticeable effects in the aggregate.
It’s real, and it’s probably something in our diet, for example…
It’s real, and it’s probably all that extra CO2 in the atmosphere.
It’s real, and it’s probably toxoplasmosis meow.
It’s real, and it’s probably some other sort of change in our material environment (excluding cultural changes).
Back in the day, when a person had a stupid idea, they would be reluctant to put it forward as their own. Rather, they would wait to see if someone else would voice the idea so they could just agree with it. This used to be relatively rare, but now you just have to google “[my stupid idea]” to find that someone or other has said it first, and then you’re off to the races.
If you have a smart idea, you may also be smart enough to realize that it’s not useful right now / has already been better said / is inappropriate in context. If you have a dumb idea, such thoughts may be less likely to occur to you due to the aura of dumbth that surrounds the dumb idea and repels sensible considerations. Back when expressions of stupidity were mostly ephemeral, this didn’t matter much, but now that they acquire instant permanence and global reach, they appear to swamp everything else.
Stupid choices used to reliably have undesirable results; now there is more of a disconnect where people are shielded from the results of their stupid choices, or even rewarded for them (man lights himself on fire in an easily-foreseeable misadventure, becomes YouTube legend). So people may be appearing stupid not as a result of being stupid but as the result of a perverse cost-benefit analysis. People are no dumber than they used to be, but for [reasons] it has become advantageous to display stupidity and so smart people sometimes mimic idiocy so as to reap such advantages. The smarter they are, the quicker they caught on to this and the better mimics they are, so this makes it look as though the smart people are being replaced by morons, when really it’s more a matter of camouflage.
The way we educate children went seriously sideways a while back, and so, yeah, stupid happened.
Newly-popular media and/or its content is somehow directly damaging to mental faculties.
Changes in media/communications technology allow stupid people to be much more prominent than they used to be and/or comparatively muffle smarter people.
Social media dynamics erode reasoning and truth-seeking while amplifying cognitive biases.
The news media were doing a better job than we realized in filtering out crap and contextualizing new information intelligently for us, and as the internet destroyed the business model behind intelligent reporting, we failed to come up with a substitute in time to prevent idiocy from filling the void and it’s too big a job for individuals to do without institutional assistance.
Dunning-Kruger effect perhaps
e.g. lead, maybe? “Half of US adults exposed to harmful lead levels as kids” (AP summary of PNAS paper). The researchers “find that lead is responsible for the loss of 824,097,690 IQ points as of 2015.” (I’ve never seen this millions-of-missing-IQ-points sort of population-wide metric before, but it is an impressively large and precise number.)