I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the odd Buzzfeed article once in a while or didn’t admit that I get annoyed at Google when it doesn’t answer my question immediately. But in this weird and wonderful digital age, our growing addiction to immediacy has a dark underside that no multitude of instant, adorable cats can remedy.
That dark underside is anti-intellectualism and, if left unchallenged, it could be devastating for society.
Anti-intellectualism is defined as “hostility toward and mistrust of intellect, intellectuals, and intellectual pursuits, usually expressed as the derision of education, philosophy, literature, art, and science, as impractical and contemptible.”
Though the growing trend has come into sharp focus politically with recent global controversies like the Trump campaign and Brexit (and fears about the power of the political elite), the far less visible side of anti-intellectualism is creeping into our everyday lives through the media we consume.
As we gain access to increasing amounts of content that we’re expected to keep up with, our lives become increasingly impossible information-juggling acts. How we’re all supposed to stay on top of the latest news, the best new restaurants, Netflix shows, memes, and iPhone versions, I don’t know. But I feel society compelling me to do so—and that’s the part that worries me. Gone are the times when being a Renaissance man (because there were no Renaissance women) just involved reading the handful of books that comprised current human knowledge from science to world affairs and there was effectively just newspaper to stay on top of things.
Now, in a digital age of bite-sized listicles and Tweets, it seems tempting to hold on to the illusion that we can juggle it all if only we can conduct ourselves in shorter, faster bursts.
This is a problem, particularly for science. Why? I would argue that science (or, put another way, evidence-based reasoning) is the pillar on which we stand for everything from mathematics and medicine to meaningful discussions about anything—and it doesn’t happen in 140 characters.
The problem is that the way anti-intellectualism is defined would suggest that the hostility towards intellectualism is deliberate and intentional. In some cases, it is. But in many cases, it’s unconscious. Because we come to expect answers immediately, we get frustrated when we don’t get them, or when we can’t quickly scan an article and understand it. We are compelled to find shortcuts in our content creation because of budget constraints and competition. Because our readers are bombarded with content continuously, to grab their attention we need to start pushing the boundaries on our claims into sensational territory—just to get a bite.
Articles on major news websites often go up before the facts have been checked so that other publications don’t scoop them on the story. It’s understandable when your funding rests on advertising that requires eyes—eyes that have a million other content options to choose from.
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As a freelance writer, I encounter the anti-intellectual undercurrent constantly. It appears on job boards where the value of professional content creators is being undermined with ever-lower salaries and a rise in “volunteer” and “internship” positions; roles that are intended to create clickbait-y drivel in an attempt to game the system for more eyes and dollars. What you create doesn’t have to be right anymore, it just has to be fast.
It’s reflected in the rise of sites like Buzzfeed where the only thing you need to be good at is guessing which meme might go viral next, and the decline of major national newspapers where trained journalists are losing jobs. There is a growing glut of celebrity gossip and a lack of investigative journalism because it takes more than a few seconds to say something worth saying about a topic than to find out who’s dating whom in the world of the rich and the famous.
A recent study found that when experts were brought on to popular US television talk shows, they typically appeared late in the program, weren’t allotted much time, were placed among nonexperts, frequently interrupted, and sometimes disagreed with or challenged. The study also found that intellectual experts were treated worse than nonintellectual experts. The researchers concluded by saying: “television talk shows contribute to social‐order maintenance by weakening the status of intelligence through their treatment of experts.”
Amanda Gardner argued that the rise of anti-intellectualism stems from the shift in emphasis from theoretical knowledge to practical knowledge that came with the Industrial Revolution (accelerated now, perhaps, in the Information Age), and is making us lose the capacity to think creatively. I would add to that, the capacity to think critically.
As writers, editors, content creators, journalists, etc., we are responsible for shaping the communication of knowledge. We have the chance and the responsibility to spread truth, ideas and wisdom both in the content we create and in the way we deliver it.
As a society, we have a responsibility to maintain the integrity of scientific research, the rigor of journalistic ethics, and support the creation of intellectual content to ensure we are maximizing our distinctive capacity as humans to be creative, critical, and have a positive impact on our world and all the people in it.
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