Dr. Glenn McLaren


Gullibility is a failure of social intelligence in which a person is easily tricked or manipulated into an ill-advised course of action. It is closely related to credulity, which is the tendency to believe unlikely propositions that are unsupported by evidence.  Wikipedia


Despite having more scientific knowledge and access to more information than any other humans in our history, we seem to be just as, if not more, gullible than ever.

For example, I am writing this article on the day when the Australian national parliament passed legislation to lock in five years of tax cuts which, like the Trump administration’s tax cuts, will eventually most benefit the wealthiest in our nation at the expense of public services. This was the only policy the incumbent right wing, neoliberal government took to the recent election which promises to flatten the tax rate and destroy Australia’s proud tradition of progressive taxation, and working and middle-class Australians voted for it. In doing so they rejected the moderately left wing opposition’s attempt to remove tax rorts for the rich to better fund education, health and climate change policy and re-distribute wealth in the face of growing economic inequality.

A recent report, Household Income and Wealth Australia 2017-18, revealed that the net worth of the top 20 percent of households is more than 93 times that of the lowest 20 percent. While income remained stagnant in low wealth households, income of the top 20 percent rose more than 68 percent. So after decades of what is now acknowledged to be the failed neoliberal ideology of trickle-down economics which has seen a massive re-distribution of wealth to the already rich, the majority of Australians accepted the government’s line that these more-of-the-same tax cuts would be good for the economy.

Under neoliberalism, the state is the economy and the economy is the sum of its individual parts. The individual parts are defined as self-interested individuals rationally seeking to maximize their pleasure and reduce their pain. The tax cuts therefore were an appeal to self-interest and it seemingly worked, reinforcing the view that self-interest is all that drives us. Australians appeared to reject the view that those doing well should sacrifice something for the good of all. In doing this, they rejected the idea that we are a whole society and all inter-dependent.

But have we been duped and if we have been, why? Way back in 2007, in the midst of the global financial crisis, writers like George Monbiot were telling us that the dominant neoliberal economic policies such as lowering and flattening taxes, deregulation, dismantling and privatizing public services and breaking unions, were enthusiastically supported by the ultra-rich because they were the main beneficiaries. Claims that this was the key to prosperity for all were shown by the GFC and just recently, Australia’s Finance and Banking Royal Commission, to be a lie, as Monbiot argued. In his books and videos, economist Robert Reich shows how the rich lie to us, expanding corporate welfare to increase their profits at ordinary taxpayer’s expense. But still in the USA, Australia and many other countries, we vote for the policies which create such problems, while ignoring climate change and the plight of the victims of these policies at the lowest income levels.

To say that people are just voting in their self-interest is to blindly follow the simplistic logic of neoliberalism. The reality is that those voting this way are actually voting in the interests of a tiny percentage of humanity at their own expense. They are unknowingly sacrificing their interests for the rich. So the problem is not self-interest but gullibility, because many of us don’t even seem to know enough about what is in our self-interest to know when we are being duped.

In thinking about this problem I reflected on why it is tough being a philosopher these days. A general lack of historical knowledge seems to be the problem (which deserves another article). The general public, students and even other academics seem to have no clue about what philosophers do and have done and where they fit in the scheme of things, which is ironic seeing as our main role is to help humanity understand where they fit in the scheme of things. Students studying various academic disciplines are always surprised to hear that they were created by philosophers and the questions they addressed.

Even at university level, therefore, much of my time is spent familiarizing students with the stories of philosophy and philosophers and their impact on the present and future and continually justifying philosophy as relevant to their education and today’s global crises; work that should be done at lower levels of education. Once they know these stories many of them then recognize that philosophy is the very core of education and not just an interesting looking elective.

At this core is philosophy’s central role in developing a questioning approach to reality, which goes back at least to Socrates. I’m loathe to use the word skeptical because this is sometimes associated with the idea that knowledge of anything is impossible, there is no truth and one should not commit to anything. In the fields of philosophy, education and science the idea of healthy skepticism is discussed. Like Socratic skepticism, this is a level of skepticism where knowledge and truth are deemed possible but claims are met with questioning and investigation before provisional commitments are made. Skepticism is unhealthy when it degenerates into modern cynicism where we refuse to believe each other at all, or skepticism related to those who deny evidence and facts derived from rigorous inquiry preferring their own unsupported opinion.

What is becoming clear in today’s world is that the teaching of healthy skepticism and avoidance of cynicism and uninformed opinion across all fields, is one of the greatest gifts an education in philosophy can provide to overcome the problem of gullibility. I stress philosophy because increasingly in other disciplines I am noticing a high level of cynicism and less questioning as academics play games to attract funding. The principles of healthy skepticism in science came from philosophy, but because there is no money for philosophy or career prospects, there is less temptation in the field to compromise these principles. We have less to lose by acting ethically.

Funding or not, one thing I stress to my students is that philosophers are, or at least should be, the hardest people to sell anything to. Many hawkers who have come to my front door will attest to this, as will those exploited people I have encountered working on commission in shopping centres selling everything from gym memberships to charity donations.

The extent of gullibility observed from our election, therefore, perhaps points to a lack of education in philosophy and its ideals, including healthy skepticism and I believe it does. Even at universities like mine, well over 90 percent of students graduate without any education in philosophy, meaning that few learn the nature and importance of healthy skepticism. If this just led to individual problems of people being too easily sold consumer goods they don’t need or want, dreams they can’t achieve, untested cures for health problems or being taken in by con-artists on the internet more generally, then that might be on a scale we could manage. But historically, the biggest problem with gullibility has been whole communities and societies being taken in by con-artists.

One such example is now in Australia where we have been conned about the government’s tax cuts. We’ve become a gullible society and this is bad, because we now have the unfortunate situation in which perhaps the most powerful con-artists the world has seen are the leaders in our world. So the problem of gullibility is of more concern than ever, particularly with humanity facing global environmental collapse.

This problem is a theme in British journalist Paul Mason’s insightful new book, Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being. Mason skilfully reveals how so many of us have been taken in by a handful of rich and powerful men seeking to create a Handmaid’s Tale-like future. He reveals a disturbing historical pattern in which the ultra-rich regularly throw their support behind anti-human, anti-democratic and fascist movements in order to maintain their power and control over the gullible masses.

Now one thing you need to understand about healthy skepticism is that it requires energy and hard work, something today’s university students have trouble grasping. The easy option is to go with your gut or unquestioningly accept something as true. In his chapter, A General Theory of Trump, Mason refers to the German sociologist Erich Fromm who wrote in 1941 that the German people’s readiness to submit to fascism “seems to be due mainly to a state of inner tiredness and resignation.” For people in this state, simplistic ideologies and associated tax cuts can provide short term energy, like the sugar and caffeine in a so-called energy drink. But energy drinks, like other drugs, generate oscillations from big highs to big lows and exacerbate underlying health problems rather than solve them.

Just like consumers of energy drinks, many Americans and Australians, tired and worn down by the increasing pace and complexity of change, became easy prey for today’s neoliberal con-artists who Mason characterizes as,

…a minority fraction of the business elite, its centre of gravity sitting squarely in the world of private companies untroubled by stock market scrutiny, and with overlapping aims: massive deregulation, a trade war on behalf of domestic industries and a radically shrunken state…these were executives prepared to hijack the state to deliver favours, contracts and privatized assets to their own businesses…

The only obstacle to such a hijack is healthy skepticism and so through careful manipulation the neoliberals have had to create an environment which renders people gullible, such as denying them an education in philosophy, denying truth in general and distracting them with mindless and dangerous drugs, whether they be energy drinks, smart phones or the entertainment industry. Alternatively, an education in healthy skepticism is like a bowl of unrefined oats, a little difficult to chew and digest, but providing sustained energy and the fibre you need to eliminate the crap.


Image credit: Smabs Sputzer via flickr

About The Author

Glenn McLaren teaches philosophy at Swinburne University. Melbourne, Australia. Prior to becoming a philosopher he spent most of his working life as a fitness trainer. His main interest, therefore is in health, both of humans and the biosphere. As a process philosopher, he has a particular interest in transforming philosophy to make it more relevant to addressing our current and future global crises.