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Pyle: Filling our brains with junk

Published August 30, 2013 4:23 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

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A few dots that are just sitting up and begging to be connected:

• A front-page article in Thursday's Salt Lake Tribune notes that American scientists and the Republican Party have increasingly less use for one another. Only 6 percent of scientists in a recent survey describe themselves as members of the Grand Old Party.

The reason seems to be that Republicans' deep need to defend the kind of "freedoms" that include polluting the air, wrecking the climate and flooding the nation with firearms requires not just an ignorance of scientific knowledge, but an active rejection of it.

• A scientific survey written about in an article that appeared in The Tribune's Aug. 24 Faith section concluded that, statistically, smart people are less likely to be religious than, well, less-smart people.

The study's authors steered away from the interpretation that being religious makes you dumb, or being dumb makes you religious. They preferred the conclusion that smart people are less likely to reach for the supernatural to make order out of a frightening universe because they have other things to make them feel better, things such as professional success, comfortable incomes and stable families.

• A fascinating write-up in the online version of The Atlantic explains a new study that links poverty with low intelligence. But not in the way you might think.

Instead of deciding that dumb people do things that make them, and keep them, poor, they tease from the findings the conclusion that being poor is such a weight on your mind, a 24/7 distraction from being able to think things through, that it saps otherwise bright people of a significant part of their computing and reasoning powers.

So anyone who is unlucky enough to be born poor, or find themselves that way due to misfortune or a couple of bad decisions, is likely to stay poor, and raise poor children, who also spend so much of their mental energy just staying alive that they can't puzzle their way out of the trap they are in.

Improve their financial situation, one of the study's authors concluded, and you might be surprised just how clever these formerly dull-witted people become. Scientific proof, one might conclude, that, say, expanding Medicaid in Utah would be good for everyone.

And an empirical basis for the bumper sticker, "I'm so broke I can't even pay attention."

This last was the most interesting, and useful, of the studies because it emphasizes a point that we don't think about enough. Even as it explains why we don't think about it, or a lot of other things, enough.

Our brains can only hold so much, can only process so much, can only do so much. Being smart, or acting smart, is a function of being able to focus on what needs doing. Being distracted — which happens to rich people trying to get richer by polluting the air or selling weapons, to politicians trying to suck up to rich people and to poor people just trying to keep their heads above water — turns us dumb.

It's like trying to talk on a cell phone and steer the country at the same time.

Of course, some people may be so clever that adversity or confusion won't harm their mental faculties so much. That's what Rudyard Kipling was on about when he wrote, "If you can keep your head when all about you Are losing theirs and blaming it on you ..."

So the fossil-fuel industry hopes Congress and the American people will lose their heads, and blame it not on the industry or its kept politicians, but on the very scientists who are clear-headed enough to figure out that we are wrecking the climate and poisoning the air.

And Republicans are hoping we don't notice that the lack of affordable health care is both wrecking the economy and ending people's lives.

Their job is to confuse us, with junk science and junk news, so we won't have enough room left in our brains to protect ourselves.

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, had something really witty to say right here, but he forgot it. gpyle@sltrib.com




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