Dumbocracy: The poison in the water that is killing us all. OR “Why you might want to keep your ‘opinion’ to yourself.”
The following thoughts might offend you just as they might encourage you. Unfortunately, Medium, the lovely source of this writing, has fallen prey to the toxin just as most of the world.
Importantly, I don’t care if my thoughts offend you or Medium. Not because I don’t care about you all, because I do. I care enough to hopefully help you see that I can respect you as a person — every person should be — but this doesn’t mean I, or others, need to be subjected to your ‘opinions’ just because you have them.
I’ll hopefully help enlighten us all a bit by showing that the most vociferous of us are usually the exact ones who need to close their mouths and open their ears more than the rest.
And, yes, I’ll address the lame and rather sophomoric rebuttal that no one should listen to these thoughts, i.e., ‘my opinions,’ because they’re simply mine: Shouldn’t I keep them to myself, too? Nope and for the exact reason why I should speak up.
Read on and let’s explore this together.
Could start anywhere so why not with a few definitions and context
First, let’s hit a definition that most may think they know, but might not:
Democracy: from the Greek δημοκρατία meaning “rule by the people.”
The definition seems straightforward enough. Letting the collective people of a society dictate how the society should run. Each person has an ‘equal voice’ in the process.
This is contrasted to alternative ruling approaches like aristocracies (where the highest class in certain societies, typically comprising people of noble birth holding hereditary titles and office, are in control), oligarchies (where the ruling class number becomes ‘few’ (oligo- means ‘a few’) in number), monarchies (where the class is restricted to a ruling family), and dictatorships (where the class is a single person, without question, and if you do question their authority you’re usually jailed or killed).
Yes, there are other approaches but one aspect to focus on has to do with the simple division of ‘voting power.’ In a democracy, supposedly everyone’s vote counts equally; in all the others, only the votes of the relevant class count.
Some of the means of determining whose vote counts in non-democratic approaches involve qualitative metrics, like a plutocracy which is a type of oligarchy based on wealth because the wealthy obviously know how to run businesses/governments while the poor don’t (or they wouldn’t be poor). Another approach is called a meritocracy where the government or the holding of power over the society is selected according to some form of merit or knowledge.
Such divisions are not overtly called out in supposedly ‘pure’ democratic governments but they still may exist. Importantly, the United States and other countries that are thought of bastions of democracy have never really operated as true democracies. The founding ‘fathers’ (a patriarchal and sexist term, by the way) of the US as well as the other countries didn’t want them that way. Why?
Because they and others have known for millennia, that simple numbers are not necessarily the best way for a society to be governed. Anyone who has thought on the subject long enough, with an open mindset, realizes equal voting for everyone is not a smart thing to do…
This blog isn’t meant to discuss the complete nuances of each approach but meant to illustrate that there are differences in philosophies when it comes to what determines whose vote should count. A true democracy is a rarity when it comes to how societies govern themselves in that most alternative forms acknowledge that qualitative differences do exist, and should exist.
The explosion of the modern digital age, a la the internet, has ushered in new and paradoxical world orders. The average person can now access more information within milliseconds than even even the most highly educated over the course of history. This is, on many levels, a positive notch in the collective human belt in that the ability to educate people has been long believed to be the primary determinant of the world’s health and future potential. Put in a more militaristic, and perhaps appropriate, way:
Thus, the internet and our collective access to almost every facet of life, represents an unimaginable opportunity for the global collective to heal our past traumas and to dialogue with one another on how to best ensure our future.
Sheer access to information, however, is absolutely no guarantee that the information will be put to good use. Information is a necessary component, but is, itself, insufficient. Information, after all, is critically dependent on solid and unbiased data, and is a long way from insight and wisdom. The following graphic begins to capture the relationships:
While I like this illustration, it is a bit misleading. I’d much rather see a version that more clearly shows that bad data leads to NEGATIVE impacts, while good data tends to lead to positive ones.
This last point deserves repeating: there is a HUGE limitation that just because one begins with good data there isn’t any guarantee positive impacts will be seen…because insight and wisdom are often subjective, if they’re even noted at all. One group may see the world based on their collective learning one way but a different group may see it differently, but both might be blinded to reality. (Blindness, especially by supposed ‘leaders’ is something I’ve already written about — head to my LinkedIn article here if you’re interested in reading more.)
Thankfully this is where objectivity, scientific processes and collective wisdom can save the day. When these are allowed to work their magic, all the bad data and, thus, bad information are immediately challenged and killed before any misleading interpretations can birth ‘alternative fact’-based knowledge and actions. When they are not allowed to work their magic, however, all hell breaks loose.
When this happens to the average person, they simply live a limited life.
When this happens as the basis of a society’s governmental structure, every part suffers.
What, then, is a dumbocracy?
Very simple: DUMB + -ocracy = dumbocracy. I personally like the Urban Dictionary’s second definition: “Government of the dumb, for the dumb, by the dumb.”
For a true democracy to work, every vote is cast from informed, objective, conscientious and emotionally unattached individuals. Because everyone is objective and conscientious, none of the votes or voters are negatively impacted by others in the system.
Anything less is… well, dumb.
So this is where theory clashes head on with reality because we know that not everyone is informed, objective, conscientious and emotionally unattached; for sure, the vast majority of any society is the antithesis of these standards. Democracy is itself, therefore, an illusionary concept in that having all individuals with ‘equal voice’ is not the best way of running a society; democracy, therefore, is practical only on the theoretical level.
What often ensues is that power-hungry, scared and scarred individuals vie for power to ensure their own interests are tended to. These scared and scarred people end up running the society that is, likewise, scared and scarred — each of which are being driven by survivalistic, fight-or-flight mental routines that prevent objective, conscientious emotionally unattached thinking.
The dumb ruling the dumb; each member believing they are ‘just as thoughtful’ as the others.
The ‘founding fathers’ of the practical approach to societal structuring via a democracy didn’t actually back democracy in its purest form because even 2500 years ago the minority of more conscientious people recognized they’d always be fighting against the majority of less conscientious ones.
Thus, Dumbocracy in the Modern Age is not a modern thought. Socrates (and other ancients) were right all along?
This last thought might come to a surprise (and shock) to many people who thought they were living in a true democratic society . In fact, the 96 out of 167 countries who supposedly espouse the approach don’t and are more a meritocracy than anything. And for good reason.
Because anyone who has spent any time studying the human brain and human behavior knows we are far, far from rational, intelligent, altruistic and open-minded creatures. [Ironically, those who haven’t will feel their opinion on the matter should count as much on the topic — oh, and they are absolutely rational, intelligent, etc. more than others; for obvious reasons, the opinions of these ignorant and less experienced people shouldn’t count, and for good reason.]
There are other writings that summarize why Socrates, his peers, and multiple deep thinkers along the way, were against the attempt at a true democracy — for example, see the Book of Life at https://www.theschooloflife.com/thebookoflife/why-socrates-hated-democracy/. They had fears of such a thing happening, fears that continue to be realized with real-world consequences — for example, see the piece by Yusuf Bektaş:
Democracy in the Modern Age: Was Socrates Right All Along?
A definition of technology in Webster is “the practical application of knowledge, especially in a particular area.” So…
Perhaps my favorite current deep dives into this topic has to be what Robert Greene has captured in his recent book “The Laws of Human Nature” and what Robert Sapolsky captured in “Behave.”
Neither of these great modern writers have focused specifically on the topic of a dumbocracy but one cannot NOT link the topics when reading them.
The ultimate irony: The demise of Pericles
Green begins his book with a great and tragic tale, and a lesson in Dumbocracy.
Athens, Greece, is one of the oldest inhabited cities of human history. Aptly named after Athena, the ancient Greek Goddess of wisdom, it is also known as the “birthplace of democracy” as some of the greatest individuals lived there and established the most progressive institutions that advanced the human race in ways not previously seen anywhere else.
Most people are familiar with Socrates and Plato, and how they played key roles in Ancient Greek life and the advancement of the fledgling democratic movement, but a key proponent of a more just and peaceful society through the focus on educational and cultural means that preceded them was the statesman, orator and general, Pericles.
Pericles almost single-handedly created and advanced rational, nonemotional leadership. Critically, this happened in a time rife with irrational beliefs and traditions, each of which led to his and Athen’s ultimate demise.
Athens was continually under siege from Sparta, Athen’s archenemy and a confederation of oligarchies known as the Peloponnesians. Pericles, an elderly statesman and beloved politician, tried numerous times to keep the Athenian Assembly (which was their version of a democracy although each of the members were exclusively male and freemen — no women or slaves allowed) from attempting to attack the Spartans on land and head-on, which would have played directly into the Spartans superior army.
For over 30 years Pericles used his consolidating, consoling and humanistic approach to change the politics of the wider region, focusing his discussion on restrained and dignified discussions without launching into emotional or ‘usual flights of rhetoric’ that led to name calling, threats and violence amongst the Assembly members.
At one point he poignantly captured that his greatest fear of dealing with the Spartan attacks was not “…the enemy’s strategy but our own mistakes.” He recognized that the Athenian ego, fear and desire to not just beat the Spartans but to increase their own ruling domain, would be the ingredients that would lead to Athens’ downfall.
And this is exactly what happened.
Eventually, after years of struggling and losing most of their military, Athens suffered defeat after defeat and had to agree with harsh terms of ‘peace’ imposed by Sparta.
Thankfully for Pericles, he had been dead for nearly 25 yeas when the ultimatum was completed. As Green summarizes:
The man who had curbed (the Athenian’s) most dangerous emotions — aggression, greed, hubris, selfishness — had been gone from the scene for too long, his wisdom long forgotten.
The masses, without their rational, passionate but dispassionately motivated, calm leader continually devolved into their most basic and animalistic of human natures: illusionary intelligence; the ultimate state of self-deception that we are able to objectively, rationally, and compassionately view the world and our part in it, especially when emotionally charged.
IF we continually cultivate our lives on conscious levels, through mindfulness, meditation and compassion, however, we can overcome this illusionary intelligence, but we must admit, first, that we are all under its rule at some point.
Rationality, Green continues:
“…is not a power you are born with but one you acquire through training and practice. The voice of Athena simply stands for a higher power that exists with you right now, a potential you have perhaps felt in moments of calmness and focus, the perfect idea coming to you after much thinking. You are not connected to this higher power in the present because your mind is weighted down with emotions… continually reacting to what people give you, experiencing waves of excitement, insecurity, and anxiety that make it hard to focus.”
In a later chapter of his book, Green dives deeply into how the “law of conformity” tends to draw us into the depths of our worst behaviors when we come together as a group:
“We have a side to our character that we are generally unaware of — our social personality, the different person we become when we operate in groups of people. In the group setting, we unconsciously imitate what others are saying and doing. We think differently, more concerned with fitting in and believing what others believe. We feel different emotions, infected by the group mood.”
These realities are scientifically supported and explained in Sapolsky’s book. In essence, and echoing “Hardwiring Happiness” by Rick Hanson, in that we are hardwired to search out and remember the threats, or potential threats, to our survival, not the touchy-feely feel good events. And when those around us are feeling threatened, we immediately (and subconsciously) assume the same mental state.
THUS, living a dumbocracy type of life is, literally, part of our very essence. YET, we don’t need to accept it as a ruling force in our life.
Insignificant doesn’t equate to benign: Shame on you, Medium (but you can’t fully fight it so it’s not 100% your fault…)
This is where the dumbocratic influence has its most destructive effect: what seems so benign, and according to many what is their “God-given right” (to their opinion), is actually incredibly destructive and undermines the wellbeing, livelihood and survival chances of all of us.
I’ll use what seems to be an insignificant example that happened here, on Medium.
The pretext and/or context of my experience here is important. If you’re interested in my professional tenure as a neuropharmacologist and neurophysiologist, you can see my LinkedIn profile (and, hey, why NOT LinkIn with me, too…), but I’ll summarize it here by saying I’ve been studying how medications interact with and influence the brain for nearly 30 years now. I was fortunate enough to do a postdoctoral fellowship in a lab that ended up having some of my research of the mechanisms of neuroplasticity published in Science, considered along with Nature as one of the top ranked journals worldwide. This followed a PhD dissertation concentrating how how certain medications alter the functions of pain processing, and preceded a 15 year career in the pharmaceutical industry researching novel medications for neurological an other chronic conditions.
I was honored in my tenure to interact with some of the key scientists across the globe, having countless conversations about physiology, pharmacology, neuroscience and medicine. Some of these women and men won prestigious awards in their fields, most were either fully tenured at top ranked academic institutions or headed up research departments for major pharma or biotech companies. All of them kept adding to my own understanding of how the body works in healthy states, how they go wrong in diseased states, and how adding medications into the mix might help, or hurt.
It is not that I was, or am, the smartest person in the world that made me successful. It was an open mindset to know what I could based on the breadth and depth of a subject, and to know what I didn’t, and when to depend on the expertise and experiences of others much more knowledgeable than me.
I learned when my informed opinion should count and when it shouldn’t. I also learned when I should offer up my opinion and when I shouldn’t because the worst thing I could imagine doing professionally is pretending to know something based on limited information and/or a limited purview when I didn’t; this would easily happen because I was 1) well educated, 2) experienced, and 3) spoke with authority that I truly knew about what I was speaking.
Intellectual dishonesty is what this would equate to, though.
Unfortunately, many (and I mean, MANY) people, professionals or not, do this every day. Without hesitating; without thinking.
So…what happened here on Medium?
I’ll not disclose the exact circumstances because my intent is to not induce shame or point fingers or anything destructive. In short, someone who had some experience in drug development, but not specifically deeply in neuroscience (as far as I can tell), made a gross oversimplified comment about a section of a writing by another author about a certain natural product, the final comment being that the commentator thought the compound of interest is the “safest effective compound ever.”
I simply pointed out that the product of interest has been associated with:
- Changes in appetite.
- Changes in mood.
- Dry mouth.
and other side effects.
Doesn’t sound very safe.
The supposed efficacy, too, is wildly speculative. A recent continuing education review (by a well respected faculty member of a pharmacy school in the US, and, importantly, with no affiliation with any entity trying to promote the sales of the natural compound of interest) clearly states that “insufficient human data indicates it is effective” outside of two very specific genetic conditions. [And, as important as the effects are in these populations are, the overall efficacy here is only around 50% or so…]
The review also addresses the safety issue by clearly showing there are “many potentially serious drug interactions requiring insight from a trained health professional for safe use.”
For me to point out that their statement of the compound being the “safest effective compound ever” didn’t seem like an intellectual stretch or hoodwinking on my part. The response was absolutely dumbocratic:
“…I stick with my opinion that XXX may be the safest effective compound…” (italic emphasis was theirs)
Moreover, they also stated they:
“…did an exhaustive literature search before using it and found zero cause for concern.” (italic emphasis is mine)
This last point is quick shocking yet is another good example of how a dumbocratic approach is so insidious. A supposed ‘exhaustive literature search’ sounds very authoritative, yet according to the continuing education review, as well as my own simple literature search, shows that the compound of interest is both a substrate and an inhibitor and inducer of multiple metabolic enzymes in the liver (and body more widely), categorically placing it as something that absolutely should not be added to someone’s current pharmacy regimen without due caution. Specifically, the compound is metabolized by the cytochrome P450 (CYP) enzymes CYP2C19 and CYP3A4, and uridine 5'-diphospho-glucuronosyl-transferase (UGT) enzymes UGT1A7, UGT1A9 and UGT2B7. It upregulates CYP3A4 and CYP2B10, induces CPY1A1, and inhibits CYP2C8, CYP2C9, CYP2C19, UGT1A9 and UGT2B7. This clearly shows, as was summarized in the review:
“…(the data) suggests a strong risk of drug interactions with many CYP and UGT substrates (especially CYP2C19 substrates), CYP inducers, and CYP3A4 inhibitors.” (bold and italic emphasis mine)
How someone supposedly NOT versed in science, scientific methodology, literature searching and literature review, can espouse such an opinion is one thing (that is called ignorance — not knowing), but someone claiming to be them is quite another.
Medium clearly doesn’t have the capacity to monitor and vet every comment on every post, but it does have the capacity to monitor and vet the numerous articles on their focused platforms: Elemental, Human Parts, Health. It also has allowed a complete self-monitored platform around the compound of interest that I’m choosing not to disclose (again, to NOT shame, blame, etc., because these comments are general, not specific to the example used).
And that is how a dumbocracy works: it overwhelms the few by the mass and momentum of the many.
The best part and our (collective) antidote(s)?
We can ALL take a moment, a pause, minding the ‘gap’ between stimulus and response. This is rote large in both Green’s and Sapolsky’s books, as well as dozens of other insightful essays by experts far beyond my own acumen, on this and many topics.
Going back to the Nelson Mandela quote above, we can educate, nay, we must educate, ourselves out of this.
Other antidotes are to espouse a learner mindset (that Fred Kofman speaks wonderfully to in “Conscious Business”) or a growth mindset (that Carol Dweck has researched and published on). We can also stop being so ‘certain’ when we know we’re really not (as discussed wonderfully by Robert Burton).
We can call out overreaching, overarching, scientifically or morally incongruent statements when they’re made verbally, posted online or flung into the fray by any other means.
What we can’t do, though, is sit idle, mouths closed, nodding in assent when we are exposed to dumbocratic rhetoric.
As painful as it can be:
Speaking up doesn’t mean speaking unkindly, harshly, or in ways or tones that propagate our propensity to operate in a dumbocratic system. Indeed, the more we speak impeccably, to quote Don Miguel Ruiz from “The Four Agreements” the more we will combat the dumbocracy poison and the healthier we will collectively be.
This is where I’m asking YOU to commit to the cause. If you have no or very little experience of or insight around a particular topic, please PLEASE approach it like any curious learner would: ask question after question after question. Never stop asking questions…
If you keep asking questions and gathering experiences and insight along the way, please fight the urge to think you know something beyond what you do. Matter of fact, the more you learn and the more experience you gain should become the fodder for you to pause more and more before pretending you’ve got everything figured out.
When you become an expert, keep looking into your understanding through the eyes of a novice: rethink and reinvestigate what you thought you understood in the past; remember that REsearch is called that because the search for the ultimate truth never ends. We just become less and less ignorant, but we should never imply that we’ve got the whole story under wraps.
I’ll end this plea and discourse with a quote from one of my favorite of all neuroscientists:
“The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which means never losing your enthusiasm.”
― Aldous Huxley
Don’t lose the enthusiasm, don’t lose the excitement of learning and sharing your learning, but don’t lose the fact that your current understanding might be grossly inadequate and incomplete.
Mine isn’t and I’ll never pretend it is. I’m only about two-ish decades in trying to understand the human brain. I have a lot of learning left to do.
Dr. Gary Keil has been studying the brain and neuroplasticity since the mid-1980s. Amongst other things, he is a Founding member and Director of the Growth Leaders Network, LLC, a community of leaders dedicated to growing themselves, evolving together, and creating a Growth Culture in their organizations and world — transforming the challenges of our time into opportunities for our evolution. His professional tenure before the GLN focused on how the brain and nervous system, literally, rewire themselves (a process known as neuroplasticity) during the establishment of chronic pain conditions, and how medical and non-medical interventions must be used concurrently to bring a person’s life back from the crushing effects of unrelenting pain. His life as an ultramarathoner and ardent triathlete show how a normal person (which he considers himself to be) can harness the various energy sources that surround us to achieve greatness, especially following trauma and tragedy. Something as true for individuals as it is for businesses and societies.