Is humanity getting dumb?

William Notman (1826-1891), Still Life with Books, 1870-80.
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By DANIEL BRAZIL*

The population of the planet is approaching 8 billion, and everything is growing exponentially: the number of ignorant people, geniuses, educated people, artists and criminals

A small article by Christophe Clavé has caused a stir in networks and scientific communities in the humanities since 2020, when it was published. He categorically asserts that humanity's IQ, which had been steadily rising, has gone into decline over the past 20 years. It would be an inversion of the thesis proposed in 1982 by the American psychologist James Flynn, who detected the constant increase in the rate of correct answers of the world's population in IQ tests.

One of the factors, according to Clavé, is the impoverishment of language. According to the French-Swissman, “it is not just a matter of reducing the vocabulary used, but also of the linguistic subtleties that allow one to elaborate and formulate complex thoughts. The gradual disappearance of tenses (subjunctive, imperfect, compound forms of the future, past participle) gives rise to a thought almost always for the present, limited in the moment: incapable of projections in time. The simplification of tutorials, the disappearance of capital letters and punctuation are examples of “fatal blows” to accuracy and variety of expression.”

The first impulse of individuals who have been educated by reading books, tackling dissertations and writing scholarly articles is to applaud enthusiastically, but caution is advised to take a pinch of salt with some of these assertions.

First of all, who is Clavé? A quick search tells us that he is not a linguist or social scientist, far from it. AND "professor of strategy & management”, and president of a consulting and investment company based in Switzerland. Okay, so he might even be a well-meaning executive concerned about what he claims is the “linguistic impoverishment” of young people. Legitimate concern, regardless of the individual's background. A doctor, an engineer or a musician may have the same fear when hearing their teenage son communicate with a vocabulary of three hundred words.

Secondly, there is a lack of scientific evidence for the bombastic assertion. Where did he get this data from? Alright, let's assume it's just a short opinion piece, not an academic thesis. We can grant the right of doubt, but it would be good form to work with information, if not statistically proven, at least accepted by common sense.

It is not uncommon for us to celebrate the inclusion of a new word in the dictionary. But it is also common to forget those words that lie there between pairs, useless in the modern era. If a Parnassian, or even a modernist, could travel back in time and listen to our conversations in the middle of the XNUMXst century, he would find our language very poor. Social gatherings, speeches and journalistic articles extinguished verbal rapapés and adjective cafunés, adopting more direct forms. Do we become poorer in sense – or intelligence, for that matter – for that reason?

I dare to suggest that other languages ​​and vehicles were occupying the space of written language in the XNUMXth century. Before, everything had to be transmitted through the word, the verb, which required a very wide range of words. With the media explosion of the second half of the XNUMXth century, things, situations, states, emotions, etc., can be suggested in other ways. It is not for nothing that an expression such as “a picture is worth a thousand words” could only have appeared in the century of photography, cinema, television and the internet, although it is so worn out that some assume it has existed since ancient Greece.

However, credit has to be given to Clavé for raising the hare. (Please note, reader, that I am using some old-fashioned expressions to add some spice to the debate.) It is one thing to be able to synthesize, another thing to appeal to a emoji. And I take the opportunity to, from the bottom of my multidisciplinary ignorance, suggest that if there is indeed a decline in humanity's IQ, it is also due to the abandonment of some basic questions of mathematics and logical reasoning.

No one takes care of dividing or multiplying anymore. Add, only if it has less than two digits. The cell phone, computer and all applications do it in three touches. It's commonplace to get to the bakery cashier and see the employee calculate how much a liter of milk plus 4 buns is on a machine, something that Seu Manoel from the corner of the 60s (20? 30? 40?) did in the blink of an eye. I'm not even going to talk about rule-of-three! But should we conclude that Seu Manoel was more intelligent than today's bakery clerk? Or just that he had no tools other than training in mental arithmetic?

I vaguely remember a science fiction story I read when I was young, in which in the distant future people completely lost the ability to do calculations. Computers do everything, and it doesn't occur to anyone to use the primitive methods of pencil, paper and brain. Until a prodigy boy comes along who knows how to do math. The worldwide network detects others, who are placed in a special school, and the tale ends with a scientist-monitor triumphantly declaring that “soon humanity will know how to extract a square root!”.

In the end, these are conclusions. I cannot agree with Clavé's statement that humanity is getting dumber, without concrete, measured and systematized evidence. I know that at various times this seems evident to us, as in Brazil in 2021, but it is reasoning driven more by emotion than reason. The planet's population is approaching 8 billion, and everything is growing exponentially: the number of ignorant people, geniuses, educated people, artists and criminals. It will always seem that we are surrounded by more and more stupid people, because we cannot distinguish the rest of the crowd. But this is a statistical question, not a linguistic one.

Clavé's article ends with an appeal for parents and teachers to “teach and practice the language in its most diverse forms. Even if it seems complicated. Especially if it's complicated. Because in that effort there is freedom. Those who assert the need to simplify spelling, discard language from its “defects”, abolish genres, tenses, nuances, everything that creates complexity, are the true architects of the impoverishment of the human mind.”

It is evident that there is a humanist, almost Enlightenment, motivation in our professor. The problem of the article is limited, therefore, to the development of a good idea from an argument without proof. It's a beautiful house built on soft sand.

* Daniel Brazil is a writer, author of the novel suit of kings (Penalux), screenwriter and TV director, music and literary critic.

 

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