It's the Laziness That Gets Me

There's a lot that can be said about the inanity of hit pieces one finds in the media nowadays. One can moralize about the rise in partisanship and whatnot, but what gets me isn't the close-mindedness. It's the stupidity. What I've come to realize is as people become less willing to consider views which differ from theirs, they become less capable of spotting errors.

I think that's why hit pieces are rarely intelligent. I'm not opposed to hit pieces in principle. I am just bothered at how bad a job people do of and with them. For instance, this new article by Michael Mann and Bob Ward in the Guardian is incredibly terrible.

I don't say this because I disagree with any points the article makes. Whether I agree or disagree with the piece's ideas is irrelevant. The piece is terrible as a matter of form. The best demonstration of this is these two paragraphs:

The website for the Coalition makes many inaccurate and misleading assertions, such as: “Readily available data from both governmental and non-governmental sources confirms that extreme weather events in recent years have not happened more often or with greater intensity.”

In fact, the Fifth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, published in 2013, concluded: “Changes in many extreme weather and climate events have been observed since about 1950.”

I find it mind-boggling any editor would allow this to go to print. It makes no sense. The first paragraph cites a claim that extreme weather events have not increased in frequency or intensity. The second paragraph cites a report saying such weather events have changed.

That's not a contradiction. As far as that quote is concerned, the changes in extreme weather events might have been they became less frequent or less severe. Or their intensity and frequency may have remained constant, with the change being in something like their location.

I am sure Mann and Ward could have found plenty of quotations which actually made the point they wanted to make. They didn't though. Neither did any editor involved in approving the article. I think that says a lot. Most importantly, I think it says there is no incentive for being intelligent in hit pieces as intelligent arguments are no more effective than any others.

This gives rise to a hypothesis I've been considering. What if the reason for the rise in bias/partisanship we've seen in the last decade or two (at least in the United States) isn't due to differences in social values or things like that? What if it is much simpler? What if, on some level, people realize being more partisan means they don't need to be as intelligent?

My hypothesis is this: People are becoming more partisan because doing so normalizes stupidity. As long as you are within your safe, little group, it doesn't matter how smart or dumb you are. You'll be right regardless. And if anything ever makes you feel insecure about yourself, that's okay, you're still smarter than "those stupid Xs."


  1. Sounds plausible given that we reward emotional-thinking over rational-thinking. "How do you feel about that" not think about that. And there is safety in herds when they stay together.

    Here's another hypothesis for you: could the apparent increase in the number of young people wanting to "save the world" be primed and reinforced by exposure to massive amounts of science fiction and fantasy in recent decades where superheroes are called for (and who often are average people thrown into the roles, e.g. Peter Parker as Spiderman)? Isn't escapist material/entertainment designed to insert the consumer into the hero role vicariously? Is the unconscious absorbing the suggestion and translating it to ordinary behavior? Who doesn't from time-to-time want to see themselves as heroic (although you will often see true heroes downplay their actions)? But when skipping school is elevated to the level of heroic act, something has gone wrong in the brain. Maybe it's always characteristic of foolish youth, but brains are most strongly wired in the early years.

  2. Happened when I tried to edit Richard Lindzen's Wikipedia page. Something like Lindzen argued against a report because it was not written by scientists alone. NSF said he was wrong because the report was written by scientists and policymakers.
    My edits kept getting reverted. Editors did not think there was a problem here.

  3. Gary, I can't say I've seen any rise in young people wanting to "save the worth." They seem as largely disinterested as ever, with a small segment embracing one "good" cause or another while the rest just take advantage of convenient gestures having side effects which benefit them. You refer to kids skipping school, but the reason they did that wasn't to protest about climate change, it was to get to skip school. And while some youths will march in rallies for a cause or whatnot, it's no different than in the past. Some of them do it because they care, some of them do it to fit in, some of them do it because they think it's fun, so forth and so on.

    Escapist fiction could even have the opposite effect you posit. While some people may be inspired by superheroes to change their life in a way that helps people, the opposite could be true as well. People who are feeling things like guilt often look for ways to feel better about themselves. Reading escapist literature can give them "warm fuzzies" that they might otherwise have to get by doing something themselves.

    I doubt there's any effect though. I've met tons of people who are heavily invested in various fictions. Aside from their personal interests/hobbies, they've never seemed any different from ones who aren't. I could be wrong about all this though. I am pretty cynical.

  4. MikeN, editing Wikipedia pages seems like a miserable experience to me. Having the "truth" of issues determined by what are basically small cliques fraught with problems, but the one that baffles me the most is how terrible the inter-editor discussion experience is. Even when the discussion is between people who get along, Wikipedia Talk pages are a nightmare of poor design and terrible formatting. I am hard pressed to imagine a worse format for discussion, especially since discussion almost always coincides with back and forth edits one has to dig into logs to track.

    What you describe wouldn't surprise me at all. Arguments over Wikipedia contents have always struck me as a contest in who can be the biggest weasel/glutton for punishment. If you have the stomach for it, you're got more guts than I do.

  5. Both the Richard Lindzen page and another one I commented on, The Gore Effect, are much improved. The latter was filled with attacks, and I pointed out that the page on alien abductions was more credulous.

  6. We'll see what happens with my edit that UK is no longer in the EU, under law passed by Parliament.

  7. When we have people believing that our choking feature (crossing the eating and breathing tube) resulting in death by choking by babies, as a gift of love and the creation of a perfect being; plus math illiterates pretending to be mathematicians, creating confusion in understanding math, we know the world has gone mad. (Teaching the false proposition 1=0.9... [9’s repeating]; x=0.9...; y=1; y=1.0...; x=y when x-y=0; 0.9...-1.0...=-1.9...; the difference is not 0).

    The issue is that people prefer to have their believe acknowledged instead of confirmed. The reason for so many religions. Also, most people in power are to arrogant to admit when they are wrong.

  8. I'm not sure about the first comment. I might have mistook it for spam due to the string of symbols and flagged it as such while clearing out some other comments. If it appeared then disappeared, that's the most likely explanation since automated filters don't apply to comments after they're posted. The second comment landed in spam due to some rule of a spam filter. I'm not sure which.

    I've freed both comments. Sorry about the trouble!

  9. Brandon Shollenberger,

    No trouble, I posted on old site under name already used on this one. Going to start using this name instead cause I have a domain now: , web site in design mode, not even development.

  10. I don't think I fully agree with your explanation that "people are becoming more partisan because doing so normalizes stupidity." At least in America, I don't think that people worry too much about how smart they are relative to their peers.

    Maybe the problem is that many people's lives have become too comfortable, and there aren't strong enough social mechanisms to discourage intellectual laziness.

    (Not really related to the Guardian article, but probably still relevant:

    People living in less than ideal situations, on the other hand, are trapped by either real or perceived lack of opportunity, and as long as they maintain a certain level of comfort, large numbers of people will be happy (enough) buying into stories of victimization and waiting for someone else to enact change instead of taking situations into their own hands.

  11. Caleb:

    I don't think I fully agree with your explanation that "people are becoming more partisan because doing so normalizes stupidity." At least in America, I don't think that people worry too much about how smart they are relative to their peers.

    That would depend on what you consider to be their "peers." If you mean people in general, maybe not. Most people don't feel any special need to be a "genius." However, many people certainly feel a need to find confirmation for their beliefs. That's a problem when confronted with disagreement. People often dislike it when someone they view as intelligent disagrees with them as that makes them question whether or not they're actually right.

    The simplest way to avoid that problem is to conclude anyone who disagrees with you is stupid. This is easy to see in action as most partisan discussions exclude the possibility the other "side" could have a reasonable view. Instead, the other "side" is just too stupid to understand why they're wrong.

    Once you've committed to this approach, the difference between a good and a bad argument ceases to matter. Any random blather that supports one's preconceived notions will suffice. This is how stupidity is normalized. It's not that people are thinking, "I'm jealous that guy is smarter than me." People are thinking, "How can that guy be smart if he disagrees with me?!"

    Maybe the problem is that many people's lives have become too comfortable, and there aren't strong enough social mechanisms to discourage intellectual laziness.

    I don't think it has anything to do with lives in general being too comfortable, but there is definitely little incentive for intellectual rigor. Polarization will do that.

  12. Seriously, I just had a mathematician tell me via email that the answers to the question of 1 being equal to 0.9...; is dependent on a persons feelings. So the issue isn’t laziness, it’s incompetence, and we have idiots like this teaching our children math by pretending to be mathematicians.

  13. Evaluationist, I hate to break it to you, but that mathematician was right. I've talked about that very issue on this blog before, and I've been debating on revisiting it with a new post. For a condensed version, mathematics is not a single system. Mathematics is a field of applied logic, with different systems being created via the use of different first principles/postulates/axioms, statements assumed to be true without proof so as to build a logical framework.

    Because mathematics is pure logic, with no physical basis, there is no objective truth. This is why there are various number systems. For instance, there is the natural number system which only allows for positive integers. There is also the real number system, which allows for positive, negative and even imaginary numbers. There are several systems in-between those two as well. Each of these systems is built upon a different set of assumptions. No system is "right" and no system is "wrong." We simply create different numerical systems to address different needs, settling on the ones we find practically useful.

    The issue of whether or not .9 repeating equals 1 ultimately boils down to the question of, "Can infinitely small numbers exist?" In the real number system, the answer is no. In other systems, the answer is yes. This means whether or not the two numbers are equal depends on the number system one uses. The choice of number system is arbitrary, with no one system being objectively "true" so whether or not those two numbers are equal is up to the user.

    This is no different than how people get taught you can't take the square root of a negative number, only to later find out about imaginary numbers. It's also no different from how when I was young I was taught you can subtract a larger number from a smaller number even though negative numbers are a thing. (Which I always thought was weird because we were taught that even though that same year temperatures outside went below zero and children had no trouble understanding that.)

  14. Explaining elementary math.

    Math is indeed a language of logic so let’s evaluate the logic. Decimal values are defined by both the decimal value and position of the digits creating the number. This fact proves that only one decimal number has a value of one: 1.

    ⅓ is equal to 3 divided into 1, or the question is what number times three equals 1. 3 can’t fit into 1 but can fit into 10/10. The result and proof is in long division: 3 times 3/10= 9/10, not 10/10; and no matter how many times you divide 3 into 10, there will always be a remainder, so based on logic, 0.3… ; has less value than ⅓ therefore the self evident fact is three times a value less than ⅓ is a value less than 1.

    The decimal point separates the unit or whole number from the fractional part of a whole number. This means we are comparing a unit, 1, with part of a unit, 0.9… ; so now part of a whole number has the same value as a whole unit ?

    Reading a number like 10 is one whole number and no value of ones, that means no value of 1 (look up decimal place values) and 0.5… has no value for 1 because the 0 left of the decimal point means there is no value of one , that is what 0 means: none, no value for 1, zero ! This same rule applies to 0.9… ; this repeating decimal number also has no value of one for the same reason.

    0.9… ; is a rational number meaning a ratio between two numbers. The value 9, 99, 999, etc.. is an odd number and the value 10, 100, 1000, etc.. is even. So do you believe odd and even is a ratio and value of 1 ?

    Let’s focus on the actual point, we are comparing two numbers and natural numbers are infinite. 0.9… = (10^n - 1)/10^n; n being the number of 9’s, a natural, counting number. x=10^n; the simplest term of this repeating decimal number is x-1/x, again not a value of 1.

    You understood that the statement 10 times 0.9… = 9.9… ; is fallacious because if you could multiply these two numbers, the multiplication process includes 10 times 9 resulting in 90, therefore now a 0 would exist in the result, no more repeating 9’s. This requires you to understand that the equation is based on moving the decimal point to the right, only possible if the digit to the left is 10 times greater in value. The maximum value of each digit is 9; and the value to the left is 10 times greater therefore the 9 can’t have a value of 10, meaning 1 is greater in value.

    The decimal numbers are codes for values, each code represents a unique value. To avoid confusion there is only one decimal number for each different value.

    Are you being confused again ?
    Have you been fooled again into believing the impossible ?

  15. A rationally indisputable proof: Take two numbers and expand them to a function: ⅓ to 3/9, 33/99, 333/999, etc. ; and expand the 0.3... to 3/10, 33/100, 333/1000, etc. A rational person recognizes the difference between these numbers, because an odd to even ratio isn’t equal 1. Do the same for 1 and 0.9... : 10/10, 100/100, 1000/1000, etc.; compared to 9/10, 99/100, 999/1000, etc. ; still don’t get the difference?

    If you honestly still don’t comprehend the difference, I won’t laugh at you. If you realize that you’ve been fooled, I apologize for first laughing. If you still won’t admit that you are wrong, I’ll continue to laugh. Now let’s hear a response from the irrational people.

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