The Critical Mass

Low-effort thinking in the 21st century

Woman Picking Out Fruit in Supermarket has made her much-sought endorsement.

Woman Picking Out Fruit in Supermarket has made her much-sought endorsement.

Al Franken’s re-election campaign has just introduced high-level satire of the first order.

Franken, the former comedian, now serious senator, retains a sense of satire as dangerously sharp as David Sedaris swinging a scythe at a church picnic. “Hello, I’m Woman Picking Out Fruit In Supermarket,” read an e-mail sent to Franken supporters, which included this image of a woman picking out fruit in the supermarket. “And I’m writing to you today on behalf of Al Franken – a Senator who stands up for real people (including those of us who make a living posing for stock photos).”

You get these mailings all of the time. Not only from politicians, but from your doctor, from colleges, from community theater groups. Mailings illustrated with photos of smiling, confident people, generally asking for money. These are stock photos, available for purchase by anyone who needs to surround their cause with smiling, confident people. Woman Picking Out Fruit In Supermarket proudly points out that Tattooed Guitar Player, Guy Wearing Hard Hat and Elderly Couple Sitting At Kitchen Table are also actual people “worried about the right-wing attacks on my access to health care.” So you should vote for Al Franken, who’s up for re-election. “Al’s a Senator I can count on to stand up for all women,” says Woman Picking Out Fruit In Supermarket, “whether they’re walking a golden retriever in the park, pointing at a chart in an important meeting, or simply staring into the camera.”

Good luck, Al. Great, subtle comedy is a lost art.

Franken’s fundraising joke illustrates a serious problem. We are too comfortable with people misleading us. Often, we don’t even see it.

Can you believe that Republicans, including Missouri Rep. Vicky Hartzler, were still claiming last week that Barack Obama’s birth certificate might be a fake? Or how about Florida Congressman Allen West insisting, “I believe there’s about 78 to 81 members of the Democrat Party who are members of the Communist Party.” Or, before dropping out of the race for Republican nomination for president, Rick Santorum claiming “the California universities — I think it’s seven or eight of the California system of universities — don’t even teach an American history course. It’s not even available to be taught.”

Not only are those three claims wrong, but it’s very easy to verify that they are wrong. And each week, we’re forced to wade through dozens of such nonsensical pronouncements from ill-informed leaders. Actually, it’s less about them being ill informed than it is about them figuring we’re too stupid to know the difference.

The intellectual center of stupidity in this country on any one day might be Arizona, which has just passed a law that declares a fetus to be a human two weeks before conception. That’s right: Two weeks before conception. The next day, the intellectual center of stupidity might be Tennessee, which has just passed a law that allows teachers to label as controversial such indisputable scientific facts such as evolution and climate change, thus allowing articles of faith to enter the classroom. Articles of faith are arguments that have no visible means of support beyond a belief that something must be true, simply because you believe it to be so. That includes religious arguments (intelligent design) and political arguments (industry and automobiles have not been proven to be responsible for global warming). No wonder American students are falling behind other countries in science studies; we can’t expect them to be smarter than their school boards.

Defenders of the new Tennessee law insist that allowing a student to argue in class that God created man because the Bible tells him so adds to a more-robust discussion.

OK then. I have contrarian ideas that I’d like to see discussed in Tennessee classrooms.

A study in the journal Psychological Science concludes that children who score low on intelligence tests tend to grow up into socially conservative adults. The study speculates that orderly conservative ideologies make our complex world easier to understand. Somewhat similarly, the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin has found a link between conservative beliefs and what the report calls “low-effort thinking.” Now, “low-effort thinking” doesn’t simply mean you’re stupid. University of Arkansas psychologist Dr. Scott Eidelman, who headed the study, writes that “People endorse conservative ideology more when they have to give a first or fast response.”

Distracting someone while they’re trying to think, the authors of the study conclude, generally leads to that person accepting conservative viewpoints. So when Ted Nugent was at an NRA convention last week, yelling about cutting off people’s heads, such distracting behavior explains why so many gun nuts struggle with forming rational thoughts about gun control.

“Keeping people from thinking too much… or just asking them to deliberate or consider information in a cursory manner can impact people’s political attitudes, and in a way that consistently promotes political conservatism,” Dr. Eidelman wrote.

Class dismissed. But first, does anyone know where I can find a stock photo of Low-Effort Thinking Tennessee Lawmaker Pointing to Drawing of Dinosaur in Bible?

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