Why is there Anti-Intellectualism?

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
First-time Visitors: Please visit Site Map and Disclaimer. Use "Back" to return here.

As an observer and student of pseudoscience for thirty years, I have long been puzzled as to why exactly this phenomenon exists at all. Why is anti-intellectualism so pervasive? What possible benefit do people get from clinging to demonstrably false ideas? Why did the same society that flocked to Star Wars decide only a few years earlier that the real adventure of going to the Moon was too expensive to sustain? Given the wealth that innovation and inquiry have brought to our society, why are education and inquiry so grudgingly supported, and so often regarded with suspicion?

The Standard Model

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

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

The belief that curiosity is an innate human characteristic is widespread. The quote above is one of the best-known examples. In support of his thesis, Sagan cited the examples of the early Phoenicians,  the sailors of Polynesia, the astonishing fleets of the Ming Dynasty Chinese, and the Age of Discovery of Renaissance Europe. 

I call this belief the Standard Model. According to the Standard Model, humans are intrinsically curious, with an inborn love of learning. Children are insatiably curious about their world, but by the time they are adults, a stifling educational system has beaten it out of them. All our institutions are directed toward making us conform and stifling inquisitiveness and creativity. This has to be true, goes the argument, because how else can we explain the fact that bright inquisitive children 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 a host of evidence. In support of his claim that a desire to explore lies at the core of being human, Sagan cited precisely four examples. A few others come to mind: the Vikings, perhaps the Mongols, and Arab traders and travelers. Against these few there are some striking counter-examples:

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

Are Humans Innately Creative?

Are curiosity and creativity general hallmarks of humans? The fact that we remained anatomically modern but never advanced technologically beyond the hunter-gatherer level for thousands of years doesn't inspire much optimism. The best treatment of how humans developed technology is Jared Diamond's outstanding synthesis of history and environmental science, Guns, Germs, and Steel. Diamond tries at every juncture to show that differences between cultures and their technology are driven by environmental and geographic factors, and not by differences in the people themselves. He strives to go beyond immediate circumstances ("proximate causes") to what he terms "ultimate causes," which he regards as rooted in the environment. For example, the proximate cause of the Spanish Conquest was Spanish superiority in weapons and armor, but the ultimate cause was that Eurasia was blessed with a variety of environmental factors that enabled technology to get a long head start in Eurasia. However, close scrutiny shows that many of his causes aren't as ultimate as they seem.

Take Diamond's account of writing. The earliest writing is crude shorthand for keeping accounts, limited to numbers and concrete concepts. Obviously, writing must have developed after settled agriculture made it necessary to start keeping track of accounts. It took centuries for writing to evolve to the point of being able to express complex ideas. So, in Diamond's view, one ultimate cause of Eurasian technological power is a variety of environmental and biological factors that made Eurasia particularly favorable for 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 (as they do), why did writing have to wait for settled agriculture? Surely many groups must have experienced the loss of a key member who died, taking important knowledge with him. Surely many groups must have faced the problem of communicating among scattered members, where it might have been nice to tell a hunting party "we were attacked and had to move - here's the new campsite." There was no lack of reasons to develop writing before agriculture. The lack of a permanent site should not have been an obstacle. Very few groups were so completely nomadic that they never returned to the same place, so almost every group should have known of protected sites within their normal range where they could have stored written records. Maybe some of the thousands 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 we like to believe, why didn't they develop an ability to record abstract ideas simply for its own sake, instead of starting off with a very narrow and utilitarian approach to writing?

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

A Cross-Cultural Test?

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

In the diagrams above, the red symbols denote symmetry axes, where objects are rotated and repeated around a point. The blue lines are mirror planes, where an object on one side is paired with its mirror image on the other side. The purple lines are glides, where an object is both reflected across the line and translated along it. All repeating patterns can be pictured as taking a design or motif in a box and repeating it. The box is 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 reflected as necessary. We could replace the letter P with a flower, a bird, or any other motif. Below are the nine simple patterns whose unit cells are parallelograms or rectangles. Pattern Cmm2 has the symmetry of the familiar pattern of bricks in a wall.

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

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

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

Every repeating two-dimensional geometric pattern, no matter how complex, can be classified into one of the 17 groups above. It doesn'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 in the sand.

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

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

When I presented this point at a meeting, one challenger pointed out that other cultures may define creativity in different ways. First of all, we see a widespread failure by many cultures to explore fully an art medium that their own 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 endless variations on existing themes is creativity in a sense, but not of the same order as coming up with wholly new classes of ideas. This is not a value judgment, it is simply being true to the accurate usage of words. If a behavior does not fit the definition of creativity, it is not creative, whatever other merits it may have.

Tinkering Versus Creativity

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

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

In his chapter "Necessity's Mother," Diamond argues that most inventions arose from initially useless discoveries produced by constant tinkering. (This chapter is the weakest in his whole book. It's full of nagging minor errors, omissions, and misconceptions that made me wonder how many similar faults are lurking elsewhere that I didn't catch because the chapters are outside my expertise. For example, he cites early internal combustion engines as being unsuitable for automobiles, apparently unaware that the first internal combustion engines were intended as stationary power sources running off piped gas.)

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

Even the most creative people spend most of their time tinkering. That's probably a hallmark of real creativity - a restless curiosity. Noncurious people tinker only occasionally and with only short-range goals in mind. (They pay for it. I once visited a man who spent the entire time lamenting how miserable his life had been and how lonely he was. I looked around the house and saw not a single 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 constant tinkering first of all yields lots of unexpected insights, and second sharpens the ability to recognize potentially significant new results.

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

Mozart was one of the most creative individuals who ever lived. I have a record of his greatest hits and the striking thing is that all the pieces are completely different. Mozart composed music at age three, but none of his juvenile pieces are played today except as musical curiosities. His juvenile pieces are variations on existing patterns. As a child, he was a tinkerer. A very bright one, to be sure - he was Mozart after all - but still only a tinkerer. His adult creativity vastly exceeded his creativity as a child, and even 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.

Most of what passes for "creativity" in children is actually ultra-linear thinking. It seems creative only because it's incongruous, and it's incongruous because it's so literal that not even the dullest adult would reason that way. The old joke about a child who asks his pregnant mother why, if she loves 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 in the Bible both contain the message that all the problems of the world were brought about by curiosity. Indeed, as Jared Diamond makes clear, the transition from hunter-gatherer to settled farmer carried with it a host of trade-offs, not all of them beneficial from everyone's viewpoint. I have long suspected that these myths may reflect a tradition of that transition, with a longing for the carefree days before complex civilization. People on the fringes of civilization, in particular, might well have seen the transition in a single lifetime 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 rooted in biology, the desire to minimize effort and expenditure of energy. Curiosity and creativity probably evolved as offshoots of play, an almost wholly mammalian trait that serves to train young mammals in essential complex survival skills. Curiosity serves a natural function by leading young animals to become acquainted with the full diversity of their environment. But even in species whose young are noted for playfulness and inquisitiveness, adults do not exhibit the same level or kind of play. They don't need to - they have already learned their environment, and play both takes energy and may distract them from necessary vigilance. So we should probably expect curiosity to decline as humans get older, just in the natural order of things. It's ridiculous to expect adults to grow physically at the same rate as babies, and probably as silly to expect them to grow intellectually at the same rate. 

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

Curiosity and creativity in the fully adult sense are hard work and are acquired tastes, just like running is an acquired taste. Some people naturally enjoy running, and some people naturally enjoy creating, but it is probably equally futile to expect either to become widely popular among the general population. Couch potatoes may enjoy an occasional bout of physical activity and normally incurious people may enjoy an occasional challenge, but neither can be cited as evidence that humans in general have in innate love of physical or mental activity.

Unsatisfied curiosity is nagging, and there is a sense of comfort and relief when it's satisfied. Carl Sagan related how dissatisfied people were when he answered that he did not know whether there were extraterrestrial civilizations. People kept pressing him "But what do you think?" The ability to accept uncertainty requires extraordinary intellectual discipline. Medieval maps were full of spurious details simply because their makers couldn't tolerate blank spaces. There is abundant evidence that most people prefer the appearance of immediate certainty to the existence of uncertainty, even if uncertainty carries with it the certainty of getting closer to the truth later. Many people prefer religions that promise theological certainty, even if based on demonstrably spurious reasoning, rather than a religion that reasons soundly but accepts uncertainty or ambiguity. Having acquired a feeling of certainty, people naturally resist any attempt to re-open inquiry, because it will require effort and 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 and maybe a little comfort, any change is almost certainly bound to be for the worse. 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 desirable and beneficial is a very recent one born of our technological mastery of nature.


Some readers might object that judging children or primitive cultures by modern, adult standards is fundamentally unfair. But if we are going to compare children to adults, or ancient societies to modern ones, the only comparisons that make any sense are on a common scale. Golfers can somewhat compensate for differences in ability by applying handicaps and allowing weaker hitters to tee off closer to the pin, but a match between Tiger Woods and a rank beginner would be a total blowout, and a handicap system that equalized the two players would yield a meaningless result. Similarly, letting a child have a 25-mile head start in 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 and couldn't be motivated to learn. They're probably telling the truth, but for one of 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. 


Return to Pseudoscience Index
Return to Professor Dutch's Home Page

Created 18 December 2001, Last Update 30 August 2011

Not an official UW Green Bay site