Is America Really ‘Dumbing Down’?

It has become a common refrain among pundits on both the ‘left’ and the ‘right’ to lament that America is in a state of ‘dumbing down’, with examples of pop culture (Keeping up With the Kardashians, MTV, etc) and education (political correctness in curriculum, SJWs on campus, etc) as evidence of America’s alleged intellectual decline. This belief may be more motivated by partisanship than data, and a confirmation bias may exist in that both sides are looking for evidence, however tenuous, of how the other side is making America ‘dumb’. Liberals blame pols like Trump or too much religion; for conservatives, it’s pop culture, the rise of agnosticism and atheism, and the breakdown of the family structure/unit. But that doesn’t really answer the question if America is ‘dumbing down’, as ‘social decay’ and ‘dumbing down’ need not be mutually inclusive. The problem is there is conflicting evidence, making it hard to conclude either way but, but I generally believe that reports of America’s ‘dumbing down’ are largely overblown. For every example of how America is becoming dumber, I can find counterexamples.

Many on the ‘right’ argue that college is ‘dumbed-down’, but one one hand, Charles Murray argues that college is only worthwhile for individuals with an IQ above a certain threshold, 120 or so, in contradiction of the former. It can’t be both. The evidence suggests Murray may still be right, despite creeping liberalism on campus, as I argue here:

That’s a pretty high threshold according to Murray, but others say college is ‘dumbed-down’, so it can’t be both. I suppose the threshold would apply to STEM an not other majors? Maybe Murray was referring to college back in his days, which had more rigorous standards, whereas today college may be easier. Nonetheless, the college dropout rate today is still very high (approx 60-50%), suggesting that even ‘dumbed-down’ courses may prove too challenging for many, in agreement with Murray’s findings, although people leave for reasons besides the coursework being too hard.

The college drop-out rate rate has remained persistently high. If college were as ‘dumbed-down’ as some insist it is, wouldn’t the drop-out rate be lower?

The conflicting picture is present in evaluating the supposed ‘dumbing down’ of primary and secondary education. An article from Education Week, Why Have American Education Standards Collapsed?, as well as an earlier article, Are We Just Fooling Ourselves? Is American Education a Colossal Failure?, argues that America’s educational standards have collapsed:

In my last blog, I described how high school textbooks that used to be written at the 12th-grade level for 12th graders are now written at the 7th- or 8th-grade level. I cited a report that said that many community college teachers do not assign much writing at all to their first-year students because they cannot write. I revealed that the community college course called College Math is not college math at all, but is in reality just a course in Algebra I—a course that is supposed to be passed in middle school in most states—with a few other topics thrown in, and many community college students cannot do the work.

But on the other hand, as I explain in more detail in earlier article America’s Intellectual Renaissance, an article from The Atlantic paints the opposite picture of how students have more homework than ever, with difficult assignments that take hours to complete. And there’s more standardized testing than ever.

From Intellectual Renaissance I also show the global IQ map, of how America ranks higher than many countries despite America’ large Hispanic and black population. And from Why Smart People Deserve More, America leads the world on a per-capita basis in published research, patent applications, research & development grants, and Nobel Prize laureates. Hardly ‘dumbing down’.

According to GDP per capita, a good proxy for national IQ, only Japan and Singapore rank higher:

In all of these maps, America consistently ranks among the top, and 10-15 points higher than low-IQ countries like Brazil and Turkey which struggle with recession, corruption, commodity export dependence, high inflation, failing currencies, and high crime.

As further evidence against ‘dumbing down’, a Wait But Why article about the Fermi Paradox, a topic that is fairly complicated, with a nod to Robin Hanson, too, went massively viral, getting thousands of ‘re-tweets’ and Facebook ‘shares’ and ‘likes’. It says it got almost 300 thousand Facebook likes and shares, a staggering number. That’s the most I have ever seen for an article anywhere; normally, an article gets a couple hundred, sometimes a thousand or two. The article discusses Hanson’s ‘Great Filter’, as well as the The Kardashev Scale, typically subjects that are of the the domain of physicists and astronomers, not average people. Hanson is now an ‘esoteric celebrity‘, having attained digital fame and immortality with his ‘Filter’ concept, as well as his groundbreaking research on ‘Futarchy’, quantum mechanics, and prediction markets. Thanks to the viral article, thousands of more people now know who he is. But the fact that the article, which is about a complicated subject, went so viral is evidence against ‘dumbing down’, and that there is a huge, unmet demand for complicated stuff. The left wants to believe that people only want to read ‘social justice’ stories, that ‘black lives matter’ and so on. No, scientists, quants, nerds – people who produce economic value and enrich the world with their knowledge and discoveries – matter more.

I was on arXiv a couple days ago, and in just 2015 & 2016 alone, hundreds of pre-prints in the ‘finance’ section were published – one section out of hundreds, and just a single year, and just a single repository. Over many years, many topics, and many repositories, we’re talking thousands of articles of research about complicated stuff – physics, finance, math, etc. Not all of this research is from Americans, but a lot of it is.

So I think the verdict is still out as to whether or not America is ‘dumbing down’. There is evidence either way, but possibly more evidence to suggest it’s not.

The silver lining is that there are enough smart, productive people to compensate for potential moral and societal decay. Also, a generation of smarter, better-informed population of ‘rationalists’ (millennials) on sites like Reddit and 4chan may be helpful in loosening the grip of emotive SJ-liberalism that has taken hold since the 60’s. We, the ‘rationalist right’, need people who are smart enough to see through the left’s lies and then spread the word, because dull people sure won’t.