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False Ideas Persist

October 29, 2018

One thing leads to another.  A false idea refuses to die out.  Instead, it changes to a new form.  It persists.  Many of the ideas presented here come from the various books and essays written by Stephen Jay Gould.

The original idea comes from evolution as described by Charles Darwin.  It was that poor people belong to a primitive human species.  We recognize it now as a false interpretation of evolution.  This false idea was held by rich people, who of course belonged to the pinnacle of human evolution.

The next version is more specific.  It agrees that poor people are members of the same human species, but argues that poor people have low intelligence.  People are poor because they have a genetic defect.  Families are poor because the gene for low intelligence is inherited.  This is also a false idea.  Intelligence tests are deeply flawed.  They have a strong cultural bias.  In fact, I learned in psychology class that intelligence tests only measure the ability to write intelligence tests.

Next, the false idea is generalized.  Low intelligence is the cause of all social ills.  Poverty, criminality, immorality, and illiteracy are all caused by low intelligence.  In a way, this list and its cause all makes sense.  It almost seems reasonable.  The only problem is that it’s incorrect.  Poor people are not stupid.  They’re poor because they don’t have enough money.  It is that simple.

Now, we come to the modern version, which has become a belief among many people.  Poor people waste their money.  They cannot budget.  They spend their money on luxuries instead of necessities.  They are too lazy to work.  All of these beliefs are false, of course.  People still laugh at the image of the “welfare queen”, a person who doesn’t exist.

These false beliefs are used to justify reducing welfare payments, placing limits on products that can be purchased by people on welfare, and adding work requirements to receipt of welfare payments.  They are also used to justify paternalistic treatment of poor people, by telling them what they need, without asking them what they want.

The common element in this chain of ideas and beliefs is a bias against poor people.  It’s a search for scientific evidence to support a pre-existing belief.  It’s just another way to blame the victim for their own condition.  It’s generalization from false ideas.  The beliefs are so powerful that scientific studies that disprove them are disregarded.  Instead, the search for scientific support goes on.


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