‘The big education for me is that civilisation is fragile and can be destroyed in a heartbeat' - Jeremy Brade, former peacekeeper in Sarajevo.

Monday, March 03, 2014

The rise and rise of stupidity

As the world becomes more and more complex, we are presumably obliged to become more intelligent in order to cope. Otherwise, relative to a general increase in social, political and economic complexity, we might expect to see a corresponding rise in stupidity.

Oh dear!

Intelligence is supposedly dictated by genes and upbringing – good old nature and nurture. We can’t yet improve on nature, so how does nurture respond to steadily increasing complexity?

I think the simple answer is that it doesn’t. Intelligence is a social construct and when social complexity increases, the bar is raised. As the bar is raised, we understand less and less about our own society. In relative terms we become less intelligent - less able to devise rational responses to complex situations.

To my mind this is why modern politicians seem so stupid. Increasing complexity has raised the bar beyond their capabilities. Their best bet is to look after number one as the complexity of political and economic problems takes viable solutions beyond their intellectual reach.

To some extent this is offset by more accessible sources of information, but checking sources and comparing narratives still takes time and many can't because there is already an official narrative. Political leaders and senior bureaucrats for example.

They must rely on official sources and official narratives plus the opinions of their pals and paymasters. They don’t have the time to check any of it, so the bar rises and leaves them floundering. Misinformation, irrelevance and outright lies are their inevitable coping strategies. 

Reducing complexity is a much better coping strategy, but complexity creates powerful vested interests leading to even more complexity as its beneficiaries line their nests. So what can we do about a rising tide of complexity?

Not much. It is possible to glean insights from those people who find ways to describe aspects of complex situations without pretending to have all the answers. Insights can be found anywhere, from the Simpsons to a philosophical analysis and they do give some relief from endless streams of futile narrative.

Apart from a few genuine insights, it is still possible to locate good sources of information. Another way to cope with that rising bar is a sceptical and even cynical personal philosophy. Yet how many of us have one of those?

And tomorrow the bar rises again.


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Sackerson said...

My refrain these days is, "It's all too complicated!"

A K Haart said...

Sackers - it is and I'm sure we'll regret it. Or some will - others will have run off with the loot.

Paddington said...

I fear that it's all too complicated, even for those who tell the leaders what to do.

A K Haart said...

Paddington - I think we need explicit policy commitments to simplify government. We could start with taxes.

Paddington said...

A decent start would be to have someone competent with numbers writing the instructions for our forms. Many have 5 steps where one simpler one would do.