Why is there Anti-Intellectualism?

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay
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As an observer and student of pseudoscience for thirty years, I have longbeen puzzled as to why exactly this phenomenon exists at all. Why isanti-intellectualism so pervasive? What possible benefit do people get fromclinging to demonstrably false ideas? Why did the same society that flocked to StarWars decide only a few years earlier that the real adventure of going to theMoon was too expensive to sustain? Given the wealth that innovation and inquiryhave brought to our society, why are education and inquiry so grudginglysupported, and so often regarded with suspicion?

The Standard Model

In "Travelers' Tales," an episode of his famous Cosmosvideo series, the late Carl Sagan made the following claim:

The passion to explore is at the heart of being human. This impulse- togo, to see, to know - has found expression in every culture.

Thebelief that curiosity is an innate human characteristic is widespread. The quoteabove is one ofthe best-known examples. In support of his thesis, Sagan cited the examples ofthe early Phoenicians,  the sailors of polynesia, the astonishing fleetsof the Ming Dynasty Chinese, and the Age of Discovery of Renaissance Europe. 

Icall this belief the Standard Model. According to the Standard Model, humans areintrinsically curious, with an inborn love of learning. Children are insatiablycurious about their world, but by the time they are adults, a stiflingeducational system has beaten it out of them. All our institutions are directedtoward making us conform and stifling inquisitiveness and creativity. This hasto be true, goes the argument, because how else can we explain the fact that bright inquisitivechildren become shallow and jaded adults?

But the view that we all start out curious and creative, and have those qualities systematically stifled, fails to address some core questions. Why should it be possible to stifle these qualities at all? If there are people who see benefit from stifling curiosity and creativity, why should those benefits outweigh the benefits of encouraging curiosity and creativity? And assuming that there are people with a vested interest in stifling curiosity and creativity, why should they be able to prevail over those members of society who value curiosity and creativity? If curiosity and creativity are general traits of human beings, anti-intellectualism should be a rare and aberrant phenomenon. It should be regarded as a variety of mental retardation, or a condition as undesirable as impotence. The only possible conclusion is that there is something fundamentally wrong with this model of human nature.

I recently got an issue of an education association magazine that had an article on whether reward systems work in education. The subtitle of the article was "Should Learning Be Its Own Reward?" I thought the article missed the central point: why isn't learning a sufficient reward? You don't have to offer people incentives to have sex, or eat strawberry shortcake, or go to Disneyland. For most people those activities are their own reward. Why isn't learning in the same class?

The Standard Model is Wrong

The only problem with the Standard Model is that it is contradicted by ahost of evidence. In support of his claim that a desire to explore lies at thecore of being human, Sagan cited precisely four examples. Afew others come to mind: theVikings, perhaps the Mongols, and Arab traders and travelers. Againstthese few there are some striking counter-examples:

Ofthe thousands of cultures that have ever existed, only a relative handful haveembarked on long-distance explorations. The evidence hardly supports the ideathat a passion to know marks the human species. It is probably true, as Saganclaims, that the passion to explore has found expression in every culture.Whether it has found acceptance, let alone support, is quiteanother matter.

Are Humans Innately Creative?

Arecuriosity and creativity general hallmarks of humans? The fact that we remainedanatomically modern but never advanced technologically beyond thehunter-gatherer level for thousands of years doesn't inspire much optimism. Thebest treatment of how humans developed technology is Jared Diamond'soutstanding synthesis of history and environmental science, Guns, Germs, andSteel. Diamond tries at every juncture to show that differences betweencultures and their technology are driven by environmental and geographicfactors, and not by differences in the people themselves. He strives to gobeyond immediate circumstances ("proximate causes") to what he terms"ultimate causes," which he regards as rooted in the environment. Forexample, the proximate cause of the Spanish Conquest was Spanish superiority inweapons and armor, but the ultimate cause was that Eurasia was blessed with avariety of environmental factors that enabled technology to get a long headstart in Eurasia. However, close scrutiny shows that many of his causes aren'tas ultimate as they seem.

Take Diamond's account of writing. The earliest writingis crude shorthand for keeping accounts, limited to numbers and concreteconcepts. Obviously, writing must have developed after settled agriculture madeit necessary to start keeping track of accounts. It took centuries for writingto evolve to the point of being able to express complex ideas. So, in Diamond'sview, one ultimate cause of Eurasian technological power is a variety ofenvironmental and biological factors that made Eurasia particularly favorablefor agriculture, hence the rise of writing and complex societies.

Why? If humans are inveterate tinkerers (as they are)and if hunter-gatherers have an encyclopedic knowledge of their environment (asthey do), why did writing have to wait for settled agriculture? Surely manygroups must have experienced the loss of a key member who died, taking importantknowledge with him. Surely many groups must have faced the problem ofcommunicating among scattered members, where it might have been nice to tell ahunting party "we were attacked and had to move - here's the newcampsite." There was no lack of reasons to develop writing beforeagriculture. The lack of a permanent site should not have been an obstacle. Veryfew groups were so completely nomadic that they never returned to the sameplace, so almost every group should have known of protected sites within theirnormal range where they could have stored written records. Maybe some of thethousands of petroglyphs around the world did in fact serve for communication.But the question is nagging - if humans are really as creative and curious as welike to believe, why didn't they develop an ability to record abstract ideassimply for its own sake, instead of starting off with a very narrow andutilitarian approach to writing?

Even more nagging, Diamond refers in many places to theidea that some societies are more receptive to innovation that others, and thosesocieties tend to surpass their neighbors and thrive. But he misses the ultimate"ultimate cause." If humans really are innately curious and creative, whyshould there be any individuals - much less entire societies - who resistinnovation?

A Cross-Cultural Test?

How can we measurecreativity across cultures? Is there a cross-cultural test? I think there is.Geometric art is almost universal, an activity that appeals toalmost every culture, is expressed in almost every culture, has been exploredfor centuries, and requires no technology or mathematics beyond the ability todraw lines in the sand. Yet despite all the myriad motifs found in geometricart, all two-dimensional repeating patterns can be placed inone of seventeen fundamental categories, called the plane space groups.Here they are:

In the diagrams above, the red symbols denote symmetryaxes, where objects are rotated and repeated around a point. The blue linesare mirror planes, where an object on one side is paired with its mirrorimage on the other side. The purple lines are glides, where an object isboth reflected across the line and translated along it. All repeating patternscan be pictured as taking a design or motif in a box and repeating it. The boxis called a unit cell, and its edges are shown in gray.

The above is a bit abstract. Below are actual patterns.The motif in every case is simply the letter P, rotated, translated or reflectedas necessary. We could replace the letter P with a flower, a bird, or any othermotif. Below are the nine simple patterns whose unit cells areparallelograms or rectangles. Pattern Cmm2 has the symmetry of the familiarpattern of bricks in a wall.

Patterns involving three-fold symmetry (below) are basedon triangles. The unit cell is a 60-120 parallelogram consisting of twoequilateral triangles, which can be defined in any of three equivalent ways.

Fourfold patterns (below) have square unit cells. P4m isthe symmetry of square-ruled graph paper. 

Finally, patterns with six-fold symmetry again can bedefined in terms of 60-120 unit cells. P6m is the symmetry of a honeycomb.

Every repeating two-dimensional geometric pattern, nomatter how complex, can be classified into one of the 17 groups above. Itdoesn't matter whether the pattern is atoms in a crystal, cord marks on pottery,woven into a blanket, made with chalk on a sidewalk for a festival, or drawn inthe sand.

(No, patterns with five-fold symmetry are not possible,nor anything larger than 6. The familiar tiling of octagons and squares haseight-sided figures but only P4m symmetry. The stars on anAmerican flag have five-fold symmetry, but the whole array of stars hassymmetry Cm. The pattern has vertical mirror and glide planes, rather than the horizontalarrangement shown above. You might want to verify these points to see thatyou're really following this discussion.)

Now, howmany cultures have discovered and used all 17 plane space groups? I know ofthree: Western Europe, the Islamic world, and China - and only Western Europesucceeded in showing rigorously that those 17 are the only ones possible. Ifonly a few cultures out of thousands have systematically explored an art formthat is all but universal, how can we say that humans in general are naturallycreative or curious?

When Ipresented this point at a meeting, one challenger pointed out that othercultures may define creativity in different ways. First of all, we see awidespread failure by many cultures to explore fully an art medium that theirown actions and tastes show is of interest to them. Second, and more critically,other cultures may choose to spend their intellectual energies in other ways,but creativity is defined as generating fundamentally new ideas. Elaborating endlessvariations on existing themes is creativity in a sense, but not of the sameorder as coming up with wholly new classes of ideas. This is not a valuejudgment, it is simply being true to the accurate usage of words. If a behaviordoes not fit the definition of creativity, it is not creative, whatever othermerits it may have.

Tinkering Versus Creativity

Many ofthe people who would bristle at these comments would not hesitate to pour scornon Thomas Kinkade's paintings, which are all variations on a few basic themes.Although these paintings are "creative" in the sense of all beingdifferent in detail and incorporating new elements from time to time, thecreativity is of a very low order.

Similarly, Jared Diamond admires the hunter-gatherers he knows from NewGuinea, noting that whenever they travel to a new area, they note new plants andsometimes dig them up to transplant at home. But what they are doing is simply avariation on a theme they already know well. He doesn't cite any cases of anyonewondering why certain plants grow in some places but not others, or wonderinghow a seed develops into a plant.

In his chapter "Necessity's Mother," Diamond argues that mostinventions arose from initially useless discoveries produced by constanttinkering. (This chapter is the weakest in his whole book. It's full of naggingminor errors, omissions, and misconceptions that made me wonder how many similarfaults are lurking elsewhere that I didn't catch because the chapters areoutside my expertise. For example, he cites early internal combustion engines asbeing unsuitable for automobiles, apparently unaware that the first internalcombustion engines were intended as stationary power sources running off pipedgas.)

It is useful, however, to distinguish between tinkering and creativity.Tinkering consists of exploring relatively minor variations on known themes, orsubjecting new stimuli to an array of already known techniques. Thomas Kinkaderarely creates and mostly tinkers. Babies tinker constantly. They put every newobject in their mouth. Eventually they figure out that most things are not goodto eat. When they develop motor control, they throw things. Serious curiosityconsists of actively seeking new kinds of stimuli. Creativity consists ofjuxtaposing objects and ideas in new ways, and having a sound intuition forseparating the significant result from the trivial.

Even the most creative people spend most of their time tinkering. That'sprobably a hallmark of real creativity - a restless curiosity. Noncurious peopletinker only occasionally and with only short-range goals in mind. (They pay forit. I once visited a man who spent the entire time lamenting how miserable hislife had been and how lonely he was. I looked around the house and saw not asingle book or any sign of a hobby. No wonder he was miserable, and lonely too.Who would want to spend time with such a person?) The creative person's constanttinkering first of all yields lots of unexpected insights, and second sharpensthe ability to recognize potentially significant new results.

Now we can address the contention that children are innately curious. Theyare not in the sense used here - they are tinkerers. The commonplace observationthat children have short attention spans is direct refutation of the notion thatthey are creative and curious in any deep sense. The tragedy of our society isnot that so many people outgrow their childlike curiosity, but that so few do.The adult equivalent of childlike curiosity is channel surfing and theten-secondsound bite.

Mozart was one of the most creative individuals who ever lived. Ihave a record of his greatest hits and the striking thing is that all the piecesare completely different. Mozart composed music at age three, but none ofhis juvenile pieces are played today except as musical curiosities. His juvenilepieces are variations on existing patterns. As a child, he was a tinkerer. Avery bright one, to be sure - he was Mozart after all - but still only atinkerer. His adult creativity vastly exceeded his creativity as a child, andeven as an adult, his last few years vastly outshone his earlier period. We also should note that his childhood achievements were hyped, and in some cases assisted, by his father.

Mostof what passes for "creativity" in children is actually ultra-linearthinking. It seems creative only because it's incongruous, and it's incongruousbecause it's so literal that not even the dullest adult would reason thatway. The old joke about a child who asks his pregnant mother why, if sheloves the new baby, she ate it is a perfect illustration.

Curiosity Killed the Cat: The Case Against Inquiry

The stories of Pandora's Box in Greek mythology and the Garden of Eden inthe Bible both contain the message that all the problems of the world werebrought about by curiosity. Indeed, as Jared Diamond makes clear, the transitionfrom hunter-gatherer to settled farmer carried with it a host of trade-offs, notall of them beneficial from everyone's viewpoint. I have long suspected thatthese myths may reflect a tradition of that transition, with a longing for thecarefree days before complex civilization. People on the fringes ofcivilization, in particular, might well have seen the transition in a singlelifetime as they were displaced, absorbed or conquered by their more advanced neighbors,and may have preserved the memory in myth.

Curiosity and creativity collide headlong with another trait deeply rootedin biology, the desire to minimize effort and expenditure of energy. Curiosityand creativity probably evolved as offshoots of play, an almost wholly mammaliantrait that serves to train young mammals in essential complex survival skills.Curiosity serves a natural function by leading young animals to becomeacquainted with the full diversity of their environment. But even in specieswhose young are noted for playfulness and inquisitiveness, adults do not exhibitthe same level or kind of play. They don't need to - they have already learnedtheir environment, and play both takes energy and may distract them fromnecessary vigilance. So we should probably expect curiosity to decline as humansget older, just in the natural order of things. It's ridiculous to expect adultsto grow physically at the same rate as babies, and probably as silly to expectthem to grow intellectually at the same rate. 

Adult animals show curiosity in the face of new stimuli, because any newstimulus is a potential threat or food source. (Motto of all dogs: when indoubt, eat it. If it's not food, you can always throw it up later.) This levelof curiosity has an obvious human analogue, but is more akin to tinkering ratherthan curiosity in the disciplined sense. And an adult who still sticks every newobject in his mouth will probably not favorably impress even the most militantadvocate of the innate curiosity of children.

Curiosity and creativity in the fully adult sense are hard work and areacquired tastes, just like running is an acquired taste. Some people naturallyenjoy running, and some people naturally enjoy creating, but it is probablyequally futile to expect either to become widely popular among the generalpopulation. Couch potatoes may enjoy an occasional bout of physical activity andnormally incurious people may enjoy an occasional challenge, but neither can becited as evidence that humans in general have in innate love of physical ormental activity.

Unsatisfied curiosity is nagging, and there is a sense of comfort and reliefwhen it's satisfied. Carl Sagan related how dissatisfied people were when heanswered that he did not know whether there were extraterrestrial civilizations.People kept pressing him "But what do you think?" The abilityto accept uncertainty requires extraordinary intellectual discipline. Medievalmaps were full of spurious details simply because their makers couldn't tolerateblank spaces. There is abundant evidence that most people prefer the appearanceof immediate certainty to the existence of uncertainty, even if uncertaintycarries with it the certainty of getting closer to the truth later. Many peopleprefer religions that promise theological certainty, even if based ondemonstrably spurious reasoning, rather than a religion that reasons soundly butaccepts uncertainty or ambiguity. Having acquired a feeling of certainty, peoplenaturally resist any attempt to re-open inquiry, because it will require effortand because it will subject them anew to that nagging feeling of uncertainty.

One last point. In a world where the best you can hope for is survival andmaybe a little comfort, any change is almost certainly bound to be for theworse. Anyone growing up in such a world will develop a strong belief in"if it ain't broke, don't fix it." The notion that change is desirableand beneficial is a very recent one born of our technological mastery of nature.


Some readers might object that judging children or primitive cultures bymodern, adult standards is fundamentally unfair. But if we are going to comparechildren to adults, or ancient societies to modern ones, the only comparisonsthat make any sense are on a common scale. Golfers can somewhat compensate fordifferences in ability by applying handicaps and allowing weaker hitters to tee offcloser to the pin, but a match between Tiger Woods and a rank beginner would bea total blowout, and a handicap system that equalized the two players wouldyield a meaningless result. Similarly, letting a child have a 25-mile head startin a marathon might yield a close result, but what meaning would it have?

I've heard people claim they have never seen a child who wasn't curious andcouldn't be motivated to learn. They're probably telling the truth, but for oneof the following reasons:

  1. They fail to distinguish between tinkering and real curiosity and creativity. All children are tinkerers; it does not follow that all can or will develop curiosity and creativity in any profound sense.
  2. They've never seen a child who failed to respond to the right motivation. Maybe. Some people have had their curiosity kindled by the most random and unpredictable stimuli. But then we have the question, at what point does it become unjust to society to pour resources onto a few people? If our efforts to stimulate one child consume resources that would enable five others to fulfill their creativity, is that just or wise? Is it even productive, or does the constant attempt to find the right stimulus merely foster the expectation that education should be entertainment and actually discourage the growth of curiosity? Doesn't the student have a real obligation to attempt to develop an interest in new subjects?
  3. They may have worked in restricted or self-selected settings. 
  4. Some people are so ideologically locked to their beliefs that they simply cannot (more likely will not) see contradictory evidence. They simply deny or explain away any anomalies. 


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Created 18 December 2001, Last Update 24 May 2020

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