Thursday, March 10, 2011

It's P. T. Barnum's world

"This curmudgeon fellow
really annoys me."
As I get older, I've learned to (usually) bite my tongue when this happens, but it's nearly every day I hear someone say (or read it posted online) something that only a sucker would repeat. The list of these offenses is as long as my arm, and getting longer every day, but they all have the same root cause: a complete and utter lack of critical thinking skills. The Public Miseducation System has been nearly a complete success. Virtually nobody can think any more. Nobody even tries to think, because they believe that they are "thinking" when they regurgitate whatever it is they read online, or saw on television, or heard on the radio. This is not a left vs. right issue; it's not Republican vs. Democrat. It's a complete inability of the vast majority of people in this culture to think, to question their own assumptions, to "trust but verify" no matter the source. It's the result of intellectual laziness coupled with a subtle kind of arrogance: laziness, because most people will simply not lift a finger to verify the veracity of a "fact" they've been fed; arrogance, because, despite the knowledge that they haven't done so, most people believe they have actually thought through their beliefs and practices.

I often find myself guilty of the same crime. I will realize that something I have heretofore accepted unquestioningly may or may not be the truth. I've taken to reading a lot of stuff that I completely disagree with, in the interest of actually proving to myself that I know what I believe and have considered the opposing viewpoints. My own pursuit of truth has cost me personally, but one thing my parents instilled in me from the earliest age was that truth is its own reward, and the cost of truth is irrelevant.

Truth has an enemy: the sucker.

"I'm wearing a magnetic bracelet
and I drink my own pee."
I've recently realized that there are two types of suckers in this world: optimistic suckers and pessimistic suckers. The optimistic sucker believes that there is a magic formula for health, wealth, and happiness. He falls for every fad diet or pill or what-have-you that comes along. He tried the Atkins diet; before that, he wore a magnetic bracelet, and at one point, he was probably a vegan. At the moment, he's diving into the paleo diet or trying out the Primal Blueprint. If the sucker is a girl, she's probably worn a slim ring on her toe. They've possibly even tried urine therapy.

Optimistic suckers want to believe that bad things only happen to people that don't fall for their current fad. I watched a woman die of cancer several years ago; her husband was so convinced that magnets would cure her that she wore those stupid things until the day she died. Now, here's the rub: every one of these things will probably work for someone. Say what?! Yep, they work, but only because, first of all, people believe that they will work, so there's a whole psychosomatic dimension involved, and second of all, they work because the sucker will actually put effort into their latest fad. That means, the person that tried Atkins was healthier because he was actually paying attention to his diet, not because the Atkins diet is healthy in and of itself. People who swear by magnetic bracelets refuse to even consider that any benefit they get is most likely psychosomatic.

They're the people who voted for Bush... twice... because he was a "conservative." They probably believed in Hope & Change, and they are now shocked that the recent revolt in Egypt is resulting not in "democracy" but in the slaughter of Christians at the hands of peace-loving Muslims. If only they could be honest with themselves and were able and willing to apply critical thinking to this crap, they'd save themselves a boatload of money, but they can't... so all the snake oil salesmen and politicians (but I repeat myself) love the optimistic sucker.

"We're all gonna DIE!!!!"
The other kind of sucker, the pessimistic sucker, is not the polar opposite of the optimistic sucker. In fact, I know people who fall into both sucker categories. The pessimistic sucker is someone who is convinced that Something Horrible is going to happen Really Soon Now. They've been believing that for forty or fifty years. They believed in the Population Bomb; they read We Are the Earthquake Generation in a single sitting; they believed that the "AIDS Pandemic" was going to wipe out a third of the world's population; they believe in Peak Oil Theory and refuse to even discuss the possibility that mankind will do what we've always done: find a solution; they believe 9/11 was an inside job and that it was a missile that hit the Pentagon. The pessimistic sucker literally believes that the candidate from the Other Party might actually be the Antichrist (I've heard that said about every single president that's been in office as far back as I can remember). They believe in Global Warming, and watched An Inconvenient Truth a dozen times; they've "conveniently" forgotten the "truth" that we were entering a new Ice Age in the 1970s. GMO foods* and "processed" foods are the current bogeymen. In sum, anything bad and scary and OH MY GOD WE'RE ALL GONNA DIE!!! is bound to get them all worked up. These are the people who will forward every "virus warning" they get in their email inbox, without realizing that the email itself is the virus, and that all they had to do was spend two minutes checking the facts.

If you read this far and were hoping for some answers, sorry. There is no solution; there's no fixing it. Scientifically speaking, ignorant people are too ignorant to know that they're ignorant, so these people will keep on watching their favorite "news" station, and they'll keep jumping on every bandwagon that comes along. There's nothing I can do or say to keep them from doing so, because they're programmed to do what they're told to do, and that's been the case their entire lives. They don't know any kind of different life.

So, I do what I can: I constantly question my own beliefs, I try to teach my children critical thinking skills, and I challenge those closest to me when they present me with ideas that are based on faulty logic; one must offer correction carefully, however, unless one wants to have no friends. This is because most suckers are quite insecure, and will get their feelings hurt when you kick their sacred cow... and rather than arguing logically, they'll resort to name-calling and ad hominem attacks. All of this leads me to believe that, deep down inside, they know they're just regurgitating something they were spoon-fed by a talking head, and they never bothered to think it through; but, unfortunately, they lack the intellectual fortitude to admit to this. And so the cycle continues, unbroken.

* For the record, I am currently against transgenic genetic modification, because it is unnatural. Hybridization of foods has been going on for millenia, on the other hand. There probably isn't a "natural" chicken breed left in the world, and even if there is, I probably haven't ever eaten one. It's when you start crossing a pig with a tomato that I cringe inwardly. That said, I have not thought this through, so I refuse to jump on any bandwagons about it. I believe Monsanto is evil, but not because of their GMO seeds... they're evil because they're thoroughly corrupt in their business practices.

Note: if I kicked your sacred cow and you're offended, I apologize, but only for causing offense... that cow still needed a good kicking.

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