Why do smart people say such stupid things about politics?

Hey to all my friends who are smart people. (And if you wonder whether this “who” is restrictive or nonrestrictive, you may be one of my smart friends.)

When Thoreau said, “Simplify,” he was not talking about your political positions. The truth is complex. You know this. You are capable of doing professional work (programming, philosophizing, writing, business, whatever) at the highest level. So why is it that we seem to turn off our brains and speak in simplistic, black-and-white, unnuanced and frequently obviously false terms when we talk about politics?

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About the author

Larry Sanger had written 160 articles for Larry Sanger Blog

I call myself an "Internet Knowledge Organizer." I started Wikipedia.org, Citizendium.org, WatchKnowLearn.org, ReadingBear.org, and Infobitt. I write about education and the Internet from a broadly philosophical point of view.

4 Responses to "Why do smart people say such stupid things about politics?"
  1. Reply Bruce Smith September 3, 2016 12:12 pm

    A speculation, perhaps based on introspection:

    It may have something to do with feeling that there is no choice but to channel nuanced insights down into coarser and broader terms, in this subject. The US presidential election may be seen as more important than it really is (as a fraction of all political influence we the public can have), but it has certainly captured the imagination (of a large segment of the public and media) as “the big deal, in politics”. But the total bandwidth of that flow of information from public to government is roughly 1 bit every 4 years — and each of us only has a tiny share in determining that bit. So we feel frustrated, but also feel that any effect we do have on that bit might as well be very coarse, if it’s going to matter at all.

    (There’s also a large segment of people who mostly ignore that election and perhaps all politics, but they are silent on the subject, so they don’t affect the national conversation we perceive about it.)

    If we had a good way of publishing more nuanced information and having it be influential in a more nuanced way, but also a way with more visibility and more bandwidth (e.g. sometimes visibly affecting other peoples’ opinions), I hope and suspect most of us would use that in a more nuanced way (not just your “smart friends”). There are many existing approximations to this — individual conversations, blogs and their comments, jury deliberations.

  2. Reply Ryucoo January 27, 2017 08:04 am

    The argument may be long dead here but it tickled me enough to want to chime in.

    We all have our specialisms or topics of expertise. We mostly talk about these topics in ‘shop speak’ with fellow experts – I yack away about graphic design in an informed lexicon with other graphic designers at work for example; yet I don’t then go home to my missus and converse in the same way. We are used to engaging in high-brow discussion within the realms of our expertise and in the company of our equals in such matters.

    Politics is different. For most of us, politics isn’t our expertise. We might be able to discuss it in a complex manner but our default will always be joining in a discussion the world is having, and the world is a varied palette.

    This isn’t to say it’s all about ‘dumbing down’ by contraction, like it’s some kind of virus. It’s also about the fact that, unlike in say graphic design, everyone’s opinion MATTERS – not just the experts. Politicians and political parties fire layman populous soundbites into the public knowing that an easy to understand factoid will be gobbled up by Joe P faster than any reasoned argument which gives the subject matter’s complexity the respect it deserves. And in the end, so do we – so a bar conversation however nuanced it starts will always regress to simplicity and by definition, the extremes.

    Look at Trump. Or perhaps more relevantly, Brexit.

    Argument #A: The free movement of people is a net benefit to the UK, while of course like any segment of society immigration brings a small percentage of undesirables who may bunk the system but when you balance the supposed strain on say, the NHS with the facts that EU immigrants are generally healthier, use the service the least, and actually provide the service with the majority of its workforce, the result finds in favour of free movement. Likewise, the supposed strain on the welfare state that unemployed immigrants cause is nullified by the fact that as a subset of people, they actually pay into the state far more than they take out, seeing as they are less likely to apply for benefit and more likely to pay taxes than the average indigenous citizen…

    Argument #B: THERE ISN’T ENOUGH ROOM AND WE WERE HERE FIRST!

    Even I was zoning out during argument #A. It just follows that, in the absence of genuine interest or attention, people will lap up bite-sized BS over time consuming reality every single time. Politics is the language of the world, your areas of expertise be it history, philosophy, economics or graphic design, are not. All this #Post-truth stuff might be annoying social media speak but to be honest I think we are all finally waking up to the fact that facts don’t matter; people believe what they understand, not what is true. The knowledgeable don’t force themselves to dumb down, it’s the default – and it’s not just about joining in, it’s the desire to have an effective voice. If our voices aren’t being heard, what is the point of speaking at all?

    You zoned out, right? Ok forget all that, what I meant to say was WE CAN’T HEAR YOU OVER ALL THE F*CKING SHOUTING, PROFESSOR.

  3. Reply Janet Evans March 14, 2017 15:03 pm

    I have been trying to get in touch with Wikipedia for a character assignation
    On my name. I understand you are a part of the website which gives no access to the public. Except through an editor who could be what he thinks is the big man himself. Your stories on Wikipedia are largely untrue, or have been taken from true documents which does not make you special. I would go to the Library of Congress for my info. I would suggest you have someone contact me.

    • Reply Larry Sanger March 21, 2017 13:18 pm

      Janet, I’m afraid you might have me confused with Jimmy Wales. Although I got it started, I separated myself from the organization permanently in early 2003. There is nothing I can say to them that will help your case, I’m afraid. In fact it might hinder it. Good luck…

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