How is knowledge spread and made compelling?

Our friend over at the Open Society blog republished one of our pieces. He “edited out some of the bit about right-left brains.” And we were fine with that, as we understood his reasons. He said that, “I think this sort of dichotomy causes more misunderstandings for the average person than it clarifies.” And, “in order to keep this piece accessible to everyone, it’s better not to get into ongoing technical neuroanatomy debates here.”

We have no dispute with his choice of editing. It was just information and we like to share information, but it wasn’t even a part of the central text of what had been written. Still, it was important in a general sense, as background knowledge and explanatory context. In another comment, he brought up scientific illiteracy and the sorry state of (un-)education in this country. And we couldn’t disagree with any of that. But we responded back with some lengthy comments clarifying our position.

It’s not my first instinct to edit myself, as might be apparent to anyone reading my blog. I’m not always known for my concision. The idea of changing what I write based on the presumed level of knowledge of prospective readers isn’t exactly my style, not that I don’t understand the purpose of doing so. It’s not as if I never consider how others might read what I write, something I always try to keep in mind. I do want to communicate well. I’m not here to merely talk to myself. But thinking about it made me more self-aware of what motivates me in wanting to communicate.

We’re talking about not only knowledge but, more importantly, understanding and meaning, what forms our sense of shared reality and informs our sense of shared purpose. It’s an interesting and worthy topic to discuss. By the way, we felt like speaking in the plural for the introduction here, but the comments below are in first-person singular. These are taken from the Open Society blog with some revision. So, we’re republishing our comments to the republishing of our post. It’s almost like a conversation.

Before we get to our comments below, let us share some personal experience. When we were young, we had regular conversations with our father. He would always listen, question, elicit further thoughts, and respond. But what he never did was talk down to us or simplify anything. He treated us as if we were intellectual equals, even though obviously that wasn’t the case. He was a professor who, when younger, had found learning easy and rarely studied. He had obvious proof his intellectual abilities. We, on the other hand, always struggled with a learning disability. Still, our father instilled in us a respect for knowledge and a love of learning.

That is how we strive to treat all others. We don’t know if that is a good policy for a blog. Maybe that explains why our readership is so small. One could interpret that as a failure to our approach. If so, we fail on our own terms. But we hope that, in our good intentions, we do manage to reach some people. No doubt we could reach a larger audience by following the example of the Open Society blog. That blog is a much more finished product than the bare-bones text on offer here. So, maybe all my idealism is moot. That is an amusing thought. Then again, Open Society has republished other posts by us. So that is some minor accomplishment. Maybe those edited versions are an improvement. I’ll leave that for others to decide

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Sadly, you’re probably right that science education is so pathetically deficient in this country that discussion of even something so basic as the research on brain hemispheres likely “causes more misunderstandings for the average person than it clarifies.” I wish that weren’t true.

Still, I’d encourage others to look into the science on brain hemispheres. I’d note that the views of Iain McGilchrist (and Julian Jaynes, etc) have nothing to do with the layman’s interpretation. To be honest, there is no way to fully understand what’s going on here without some working knowledge in this area. But the basic idea comes across without any of the brain science. Maybe that is good enough for present purposes.

I’m not entirely opposed to making material more accessible in meeting people where they are at. But hopefully, this kind of knowledge will become more common over time. It is so fundamental that it should be taught in high school science classes. My aspiration for my blog is to inspire people to stretch their minds and learn what might at first seem difficult or strange, not that I always accomplish that feat. Instead, I’m likely to talk over people’s heads or simply bore them.

It can be hard to express to others why something seems so fascinating to me, why it’s important to go to the effort of making sense of it. I realize my mind doesn’t operate normally, to put it mildly. But even with my endless intellectual curiosity, I have to admit to struggling with the science at times (to be honest, a lot of the times). So, I sympathize with those who lose interest or get confused by all the differing and sometimes wrongheaded opinions about brain hemispheres or whatever.

* * *

Scientific illiteracy is a problem in the US. And it’s an open secret. I’ve seen plenty of discussion of it over the years. It would help if there was a better education system and not limited to college. Remember that three quarter of Americans don’t have any college education at all. That is why educational reform would need to start with grade school.

Still, I don’t know what is the main problem. I doubt the average American is quite as ignorant as they get treated, even if they aren’t well educated. For example, most Americans seem to have a basic grasp of the climate crisis and support a stronger government response. It’s not as if we had more science classes that we’d finally get politicians on board. The basic science is already understood, even by those politicians who deny it.

Saying the public is scientifically illiterate doesn’t necessarily tell us much about the problem. I was reading a book about the issue of climate change in one of the Scandinavian countries. They have a much better education system and more scientific literacy. But even there, the author said that it’s hard to have an honest public debate because thinking about it makes most people feel uncomfortable, depressed, and hopeless. So people mostly just don’t talk about it.

Part of it goes back to cognitive dissonance. Even when people have immense knowledge on a topic, there remains the dissociation and splintering. People can know all kinds of things and yet not know. The collective and often self-enforced silencing is powerful, as Derrick Jensen shows. The human mind operates largely on automatic. By the way, the science of brain hemispheres can explain some of why that is the case, a major focus of Jaynes’ work.

What we lack is not so much knowledge about the world as insight and understanding about our own nature. We have enough basic working knowledge already to solve or lessen all of the major problems, if we could only get out of our own way. That said, we can never have too much knowledge and improving education certainly couldn’t hurt. We’re going to need the full human potential of humanity to meet these challenges.

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Here is a thought. What if underestimating the public is a self-fulfilling prophecy? Paralyzing cynicism can come in many forms. And I know I’m often guilty of this. It’s hard to feel hopeful. If anything, hope can even seem naive and wrongheaded. Some argue that we’re long past that point and now it’s time for grieving lost opportunities that are forever gone. But even if we resign ourselves to mere triage, that still requires some basic sense of faith in the future.

I’m not sure what I think or feel about all of this. But what does seem clear to me is that we Americans have never fallen into the problem of overestimating the public. Instead, we have a disempowered and disenfranchised population. What motivation is there for the public to seek further knowledge when the entire system powerfully fucks them and their loved ones over and over again? What would inspire people to seek out becoming better informed through formal education or otherwise?

Knowledge matters. But the larger context to that knowledge matters even more. I don’t know what that means in practical terms. I’m just thinking the public should be given more credit, not so easily let off the hook. Even when public ignorance appears justified based on a failed education system or a successful non-education system, maybe that is all the more reason to hold up a high standard of knowledge, a high ideal of intellectual curiosity, rather than talking down to people and dumbing down discussion.

That isn’t to say we shouldn’t try to communicate well in knowing our audience. On many topics, it’s true that general knowledge, even among the elite, is limited at best and misinformed at worst. But the worst part is how ignorance has been embraced in so many ways, as if one’s truth is simply a matter of belief. What if we stopped tolerating this willful ignorance and all the rationalizations that accompany it. We should look to the potential in people that remains there no matter how little has been expected of them. We should treat people as intellectually capable.

Education is always a work in progress. Still, the American public is more educated today than a century ago. The average IQ measured in the early 1900s would be, by today’s standards of IQ testing, functionally retarded and I mean that literally (increases in IQ largely measure abstract and critical thinking skills). Few Americans even had high school degrees until the Silent Generation. Society has advanced to a great degree in this area, if not as much as it should. I worry that we’ve become so jaded that we see failure as inevitable and so we keep lowering our standards, instead of raising them higher as something to aspire toward.

My grandfather dropped out of high school. You know what was one of his proudest accomplishments? Sending two of his kids to college. Now kids are being told that education doesn’t matter, that college is a waste of money. We stopped valuing education and that symbolizes a dark change to the public mood. To not value education is to denigrate knowledge itself. This isn’t limited to formal education, scientific literacy and otherwise. I failed to get much scientific knowledge in high school and I didn’t get a college degree. Even so, I was taught by my parents to value learning, especially self-directed learning, and to value curiosity. I’ve struggled to educate myself (and to undo my miseducation), but I was inspired to do so because the value of it had been internalized.

The deficiency in education doesn’t by itself explain the cause. It doesn’t explain why we accept it, why we treat mass ignorance as if it were an inevitability. Instead of seeing ignorance as a challenge, as a motivation toward seeking greater knowledge, American society has treated ignorance as the natural state of humanity or at least the natural state of the dirty masses, the permanent underclass within the Social Darwinian (pseudo-)meritocracy. In this worldview, most people don’t merely lack knowledge but lack any potential or worth, some combination of grunt workers and useless eaters. What could shift this toward another way of seeing humanity?

* * *

I was wondering where knowledge is truly lacking, where curiosity about a topic is lacking, and where it matters most. Climate change is one topic where I do think there is basic necessary level of knowledge, most people have a fair amount of interest in it, and it obviously is important. What’s going on with the climate change ‘debate’ has to do with powerful interests controlling the reigns of power. If politicians did what most Americans want, we’d already be investing money and doing research to a far greater degree.

Ignorance is not the problem in that case. But it’s different with other topics. I’ve noticed how lead toxicity and high inequality maybe do more fall victim to ignorance, in that for some reason they don’t get the same kind of attention, as they aren’t looming threats in the way is climate change. In one post, I called lead toxicity a hyperobject to describe its pervasive invisibility. Temperature can be felt and a storm can be watched, but lead in your air, water, and soil comes across as an abstraction since we have no way to concretely perceive it. Even the lead in your child’s brain shows no outward signs, other than the kid being slightly lower IQ and having some behavioral issues.

Nonetheless, I’m not sure that is a problem of knowledge. Would teaching about lead toxicity actually make it more viscerally real? Maybe not. That’s a tough one. If you asked most people, they probably already know about the dangers of lead toxicity in a general sense and they already know about specific places where there are high rates, but they probably don’t grasp how widespread this is in so many communities, especially toxicity in general such as with toxic dumps. I don’t know what would make it seem more real.

Lead, as tiny particles, doesn’t only hide in the environment but hides in the body where it wreaks havoc but slowly and in many small ways. Your kid gets into a fight and has trouble at school. The first thought most parents have is simple concern for treating the behavior and the hurt the child is expressing. It doesn’t usually occur that there might be something damaging their child’s brain, nervous system, etc. All the parent sees is the result of changes in their child’s behavior. Knowledge, on the personal level, may or may not help that parent. Lead toxicity is often a larger environmental problem. What is really needed is a change of public policy. That would require not only knowledge, as politicians probably already know of this problem, but some other force of political will in the larger society. But since it’s mostly poor people harmed, nothing is done.

It’s hard to know how knowledge by itself makes a difference. It’s not as if there haven’t been major pieces on lead toxicity published in the mainstream media, some of them quite in depth. But the reporting on this comes and goes. It’s quickly forgotten again, as if it were just some minor, isolated problem of no greater concern. There definitely is no moral panic about it. Other than a few parents in poor communities that live with most severe consequences, it isn’t even seen as a moral issue at all.

That is what seems lacking, a sense of moral outrage and moral responsibility. I guess that is where, in my own thinking, self-understanding comes in. Morality is a deeper issue. Some of these thinkers on the mind and brain (McGilchrist, Jaynes, etc) are directly touching upon what makes the heart of morality beat. It’s not about something like brain hemispheres understood in isolation but how that relates to consciousness and identity, relates to the voices we listen to and the authority they hold. And, yes, this requires understanding a bit of science. So, how do we make this knowledge accessible and compelling, how do we translate it into common experience?

Take the other example. What about high inequality? In a way, it’s a hot topic and has grabbed public attention with Thomas Picketty, Kate Pickett, and Richard Wilkinson. Everyone knows it’s a problem. Even those on the political right are increasingly acknowledging it, such as the recent book Alienated America by the conservative Timothy Carney who works for a right-wing think tank. The knowledge is sort of there and yet not really. Americans, in theory, have little tolerance for high inequality. The problem is that, as the data shows, most Americans simply don’t realize how bad it’s gotten. Our present inequality is magnitudes beyond what the majority thinks should be allowable. Yet we go on allowing it. More knowledge, in that case, definitely would matter. But without the moral imperative, the sense of value of that knowledge remains elusive.

As for brain hemispheres, I suppose that seems esoteric to the average person. Even most well-educated people don’t likely take it seriously. Should they? I don’t know. It seems important to me, but I’m biased as this is an area of personal interest. I can make an argument that this kind of thing might be among the most important knowledge, since it cuts to the core of every other problem. Understanding how our brain-mind works underlies understanding anything and everything else, and it would help to explain what is going so wrong with the world in general. Knowledge of the brain-mind is knowledge about what makes knowledge possible at all, in any area. I suspect that, as long as our self-knowledge is lacking, to that degree any attempt at solving problems will be impotent or at least severely crippled.

Would discussing more about brain hemispheres and related info in the public sphere help with the situation? Maybe or maybe not. But it seems like the type of thing we should be doing, in raising the level of discussion in general. Brain research might not be a good place to start with our priorities. If so, then we need to find how to promote greater psychological and neurocognitive understanding in some other way. This is why I’m always going on about Jaynes, even though he seems like an obscure thinker. In my opinion, he may be one of the most important thinkers in the 20th century and his theories might hold the key to the revolution of the mind that we so sorely need. Then again, I could be giving him too much praise. It’s just that I doubt the world would be worse off for having more knowledge of this variety, not just knowledge but profound insight.

All in all, it’s a tough situation. Even if Jaynes’ book was made required reading in every school, I don’t know that would translate to anything beneficial. It would have to be part of a larger public debate going on in society. Before that can happen, we will probably need to hit a crisis that reaches the level of catastrophe. Then moral panic will follow and, assuming we avoid the disaster of authoritarianism, we might finally be able to have some serious discussion across society about what matters most. I guess that goes back to the context of knowledge, that which transmutes mere info into meaning.

* * *

Here is an interesting question. How does knowledge become common knowledge? That relates to what I mentioned in another comment. How does knowledge become meaning? Or to put it another way: How does the abstract become concretely, viscerally, and personally real? A lot of knowledge has made this shift. So much of the kind of elite education that once would have been limited to aristocracy and monks has now become increasingly common. Not that long ago, most Americans were illiterate and had next to no education. Or consider, as I pointed out, how the skills of abstract and critical thinking (fluid intelligence) has increased drastically.

We can see this in practical ways. People in general have more basic knowledge about the world around them. When Japan attacked, most Americans had little concept of where Japan was. We like to think American’s grasp of geography is bad and it may be, but it used to be far worse. Now most people have enough knowledge to, with some comprehension, follow a talk or read an article on genetics, solar flares, ocean currents, etc. We’ve become a scientific-minded society where there is a basic familiarity. It comes naturally to think about the world in scientific terms, to such extent that we now worry about scientific reductionism. No one worried about society being overtaken by scientific reductionism centuries ago.

Along with this, modern people have become more psychologically-minded. We think in terms of consciousness and unconsciousness, motives and behavior, cognitive biases and mental illnesses, personality traits and functions, and on and on. We have so internalized psychological knowledge that we simply take it for reality now. It’s similar with sociology. The idea of race as a social construction was limited to the rarified work of a few anthropologists, but now this is a common understanding that is publicly debated. Even something as simple as socioeconomic classes was largely unknown in the past, as it wasn’t how most people thought. My mother didn’t realize she was part of a socioeconomic class until she went to college and was taught about it in a sociology class.

That is what I’m hoping for, in terms of brain research and consciousness studies. This kind of knowledge needs to get over the hurdle of academia and spread out into the public mind. This is already happening. Jaynes’ ideas influenced Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials which has been made into an HBO show. His ideas were directly discussed in another HBO show, Westworld, and caused a flurry of articles in the popular media. He also influenced Neal Stephenson in writing Snow Crash, also being made into a show, originally planned by Netflix but now picked up by HBO. I might take the superficial view of brain hemispheres as a positive sign. It means the knowledge is slowly spreading out into the general public. It’s an imperfect process and initially involves some misinformation, but that is how all knowledge spreads. It’s nothing new. For all the misinformation, the general public is far less ignorant about brain hemispheres than they were 50 years ago or a hundred years ago.

Along with the misinformation, genuine information is also becoming more common. This will eventually contribute to changing understandings and attitudes. Give it a generation or two and I’m willing to bet much of what McGilchrist is talking about will have made that transition into common knowledge in being incorporated into the average person’s general worldview. But it’s a process. And we can only promote that process by talking about it. That means confronting misinformation as it shows up, not avoiding the topic for fear of misinformation. Does that make sense?

Death By Incuriosity

Whether or not curiosity killed the cat, it is the lack of curiosity that killed the human. And sadly, lack of curiosity is common among humans, if not cats.

There are two people I’ve known my entire life. They are highly intelligent and well educated professionals, both having spent their careers as authority figures and both enjoying positions of respect where others look up to them. One worked in healthcare and the other in higher education. They are people one would expect to be curious and I would add that both have above average intellectual capacity. They are accomplished men who know how to get things done.

I pick these examples because each has had health issues. It’s actually the one in healthcare who has shown the least curiosity about his own health. I suspect this is for the very reason he has been an authority figure in healthcare and so has acted in the role of defending establishment views. And nothing kills curiosity quicker than conventional thought.

This guy didn’t only lack curiosity in his own field of expertise, though. In general, he wasn’t one who sought out learning for its own sake. He had no habit of intellectual inquiry. So, he had no habit of intellectual curiosity to fall back on when he had a health scare. The bad news he received was a diagnosis of a major autoimmune disorder. I would assume that he took this as a death sentence and most doctors treat it that way, as no medication has shown any significant improvement. But recent research has shown dietary, nutritional, and lifestyle changes that have reversed the symptoms even in people with somewhat advanced stages of this disease.

Once diagnosed, he was already beginning to show symptoms. He had a brief window to respond during which he maintained his faculties enough that he might have been able to take action to seek remedy or to slow down the decline. But this window turned out to be brief and the choice he made was to do nothing with some combination of denial and fatalism. Inevitably, this attitude became a self-fulfilling prophecy. It was not the diagnosis but his lack of curiosity that was the death sentence. His mind is quickly disintegrating and he won’t likely live long.

The second guy has a less serious diagnosis. He a fairly common disease and he has known about it for a couple of decades. It is one of those conditions more easily managed if one takes a proactive attitude. But that would require curiosity to learn about the condition and to learn about what others have successfully done in seeking healing. The body will eliminate damage and regrow cells when the underlying problems are resolved or lessened while ensuring optimal nutrition and such, not that one is likely to learn about any of this from a standard doctor.

Like the healthcare figure, this educational figure’s first response was not curiosity. In fact, he spent the past couple of decades not even bothering to ask his doctor what exactly was his condition. He didn’t know how bad it was, didn’t know whether it was worsening or remaining stable. He apparently didn’t want to know. He has a bit more curiosity than most people, although it tends to be on narrow issues, none of them being health-related. The condition he has that risks the length and quality of his life, however, elicited no curiosity.

I had more opportunity to speak to him than to the other guy. In the past few months, we’ve had an ongoing discussion about health. I recently was able to get him to read about diet and health. But the real motivation was that his doctor told him to lose weight. Also, he was beginning to see serious symptoms of aging, from constant fatigue to memory loss. It was only after decades of major damage to his body that he finally mustered up some basic curiosity and still he is resistant. It’s easier to thoughtlessly continue what one has always done.

I sympathize and I don’t. Not much in our society encourages curiosity. I get that. It not only takes effort to learn but it also takes risk. Learning can require challenging what you and many others have assumed to be true. In this case, it might even mean challenging your doctor and taking responsibility for your own healthcare decisions. Maybe because these two are authority figures, it is their learned response to defer to authority and any dominant views that stand in for authority. That is the same for others as well. We are all trained from a young age to defer to authority (even if you were raised by wolves, you received such training, as it is a common feature of all social animals).

So, yes, I understand it is difficult and uncomfortable. Some people would rather physically die than allow their sense of identity die. And for many, their identities are tied into a rigid way of being and belonging. Curiosity might lead one to question not only the ideological beliefs and biases of others but, more importantly, one’s own. It could mean changing one’s identity and that is the greatest threat of all, something that effects me as much as anyone (but in my case, I’m psychologically attached to curiosity and so my identity might be a bit more fluid than most; the looseness of ego boundaries does come at a cost, as is attested by the psychiatric literature).

Yet, in the end, it is hard for me to grasp this passive attitude. I’ve always been questioning and so I can’t easily imagine being without this tendency (I have many weaknesses, limitations, and failures; but a lack of curiosity is not one of them). I do know what it is like to be ignorant and to feel lost in having no where to turn for guidance. In the past, knowledge was much harder to come by. When I was diagnosed with depression decades ago, after my own life threatening situation (i.e., suicide attempt), I was offered no resources to understand my condition. The reason for that is, at the time, doctors were as ignorant as anyone else when it came to depression and so much else. High quality information used to be a scarce and unreliable resource.

It has turned out that much of past medical knowledge has proven wrong, only partly correct, or misinterpreted. Because of the power of the internet and social media, this has forced open professional and public debate. We suddenly find ourselves in an overabundance of knowledge. The lack of curiosity is the main thing now holding us back, as individuals and as a society. Still, that downplays the powerful psychological and social forces that keep people ignorant and incurious. For the older generations in particular, they didn’t grow up with easy access to knowledge and so now reaching old age they don’t have a lifetime of mental habit in place.

That is part of the difference. I’m young enough that the emerging forms of knowledge and media had a major impact on my developing brain and my developing identity. On the other hand, there is obviously more going on than mere generational differences. I look to my own generation and don’t see much more curiosity. I know people in my generation who have major health issues and their children have major health issues. Do most of these people respond with curiosity? No. Instead, I observe mostly apathy and indifference. There is something about our society that breeds helplessness, and no doubt there are plenty of reasons to be found for giving up in frustration.

That is something I do empathize with. There is nothing like decades of depression to form an intimacy with feelings of being powerless and hopeless. Nonetheless, I spent the decades of my depression constantly looking for answers, driven to question and doubt everything. I should emphasize the point that answers didn’t come easily, as it took me decades of research and self-experimentation to find what worked for me in dealing with my depression; curiosity of this variety is far from idle for it can be an immense commitment and investment.

My longing to understand never abandoned me, as somehow it was a habit I learned at a young age. That leaves me uncertain about why I learned that habit of open-minded seeking while most others don’t. It’s not as if I can take credit for my state of curiosity, as it is simply the way I’ve always been (maybe in the way an athlete, for random reasons of genetics and epigenecs, might be born with greater lung capacity and endurance). Even in my earliest memories, I was curious about the world. It is a defining feature of my identity, not an achievement I came to later in life.

Because it is so integral to my identity, I’m challenged to imagine those who go through life without feeling much inclination to question and doubt (as happier people may be challenged to imagine my sometimes paralyzing funks of depression). It is even further beyond my comprehension that, for many, not even the threat of death can inspire the most basic curiosity to counter that threat. How can death be more desirable than knowledge? That question implies that it is knowledge that is the greater threat. Put this on the level of national and global society and it becomes an existential threat. In facing mass extinction, ecosystem collapse, superstorms, and refugee crises, most humans are no more motivated to understand what we face, much less motivated to do anything about it.

We don’t have habits of curiosity. It isn’t our first response, not for most of us. And so we have no culture of curiosity, no resources of curiosity to turn to when times are dire. More than a lack of curiosity alone, it is a lack of imagination which is a constraint of identity. We can’t learn anything new without becoming something different. Curiosity is one of the most radical of acts. It is also the simplest of acts, requiring only a moment of wonder or probing uncertainty. But radical or simple, repeated often enough, it becomes a habit that might one day save your life.

Curiosity as an impulse is only one small part. The first step is admitting your ignorance. And following that, what is required is the willingness to remain in ignorance for a while, not grasping too quickly to the next thing that comes along, no matter who offers it with certainty or authority. You might remain in ignorance for longer than you’d prefer. And curiosity alone won’t necessarily save you. But incuriosity for certain will doom you.

* * *

For anyone who thinks I’m being mean-spirited and overly critical, I’d note that I’m an equal opportunity critic. I’ve written posts — some of my most popular posts, in fact — that have dissected the problems of the curious mind, specifically as liberal-mindedness such as seen with the trait openness. The downside to this mindset are many, as it true when considering any mindset taken in its fullest and most extreme form. For example, those who measure high on the openness trait have greater risk of addiction, a far from minor detriment. Curiosity and related attributes don’t always lead to beneficial results and happy ends. But from my perspective, it is better than the alternative, especially in these challenging times.

My argument, of course, is context-dependent. If you are living in an authoritarian state or locked away in prison, curiosity might not do you much good and instead might shorten your lifespan. So, assess your personal situation and act accordingly. If it doesn’t apply, please feel free to ignore my advocating for curiosity. My assumption that my audience shares with me a basic level of life conditions isn’t always a justified assumption. I apologize to anyone who finds themselves stuck in a situation where curiosity is dangerous or simply not beneficial. You have my sympathy and I hope things get better for you in that one day you might have the luxury to contemplate the pros and cons of curiosity.

I realize that life is not fair and that we don’t get to choose the world we are born into. If life was fair, a piece like this would be unnecessary and meaningless. In a society where we didn’t constantly have to worry about harmful advice, including from doctors, in a society where health was the norm, curiosity might not matter much in terms of life expectancy. The average hunter-gatherer no doubt lacks curiosity about their health, but they also lack the consequences of modern society’s unhealthy environment, lifestyle, and diet. As such, in some societies, how to have a healthy life is common knowledge that individuals pick up in childhood.

It would be wonderful to live in such a society. But speaking for myself, that isn’t the case and hence it is why I argue for the necessity of curiosity as a survival tool. Curiosity is only a major benefit where dangerous ignorance rules the social order and, until things change in this society, that major benefit will continue. This isn’t only about allegations of psychological weakness and moral failure. This is about the fate of our civilization, as we face existential crises. The body count of incuriosity might eventually be counted in the numbers of billions. We are long past the point of making excuses, specifically those of us living in relative privilege here in the West.

* * *

To make this concrete, let me give an example beyond anecdotal evidence. It is an example related to healthcare and deference to medical authority.

The United States is experiencing an opioid crisis. There are many reasons for this. Worsening inequality, economic hardship, and social stress are known contributors. We live in a shitty society that is highly abnormal, which is to say we didn’t evolve to act in healthy ways under unhealthy conditions. But there is also the fact that opiods have been overprescribed because of the huge profits to be had and also because painkillers fit conventional medicine’s prioritizing of symptom treatment.

Ignoring why doctors prescribe them, why do people take them? Everyone knows they are highly addictive and, in a significant number of cases, can destroy lives. Why take that risk unless absolutely necessary? It goes beyond addiction, as there are numerous other potential side effects. Yet, in discussing alternatives, Dr. Joseph Mercola points to an NPR piece (Jessica Boddy, POLL: More People Are Taking Opioids, Even As Their Concerns Rise):

“Indeed, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention note that as many as 1 in 4 people who use opioid painkillers get addicted to them. But despite the drugs’ reputation for addiction, less than a third of people (29 percent) said they questioned or refused their doctor’s prescription for opioids. That hasn’t changed much since 2014 (28 percent) or 2011 (31 percent).

“Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician and commissioner of health for the City of Baltimore, says that’s the problem. She says patients should more readily voice their concerns about getting a prescription for narcotics to make sure if it really is the best option. […]

” “Ask why,” Wen says. “Often, other alternatives like not anything at all, taking an ibuprofen or Tylenol, physical therapy, or something else can be effective. Asking ‘why’ is something every patient and provider should do.” ”

* * *

“Knowing is half the battle. G.I. Joe!” That was great wisdom I learned as a child.

Fantasyland, An American Tradition

“The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, every individual free to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. From the start, our ultra-individualism was attached to epic dreams, sometimes epic fantasies—every American one of God’s chosen people building a custom-made utopia, each of us free to reinvent himself by imagination and will. In America those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts.”
~ Kurt Andersen, Fantasyland

It’s hard to have public debate in the United States for a number of reasons. The most basic reason is that Americans are severely uninformed and disinformed. We also tend to lack a larger context for knowledge. Historical amnesia is rampant and scientific literacy is limited, exacerbated by centuries old strains of anti-intellectualism and dogmatic idealism, hyper-individualism and sectarian groupthink, public distrust and authoritarian demagoguery.

This doesn’t seem as common in countries elsewhere. Part of this is that Americans are less aware and informed about other countries than the citizens of other countries are of the United States. Living anywhere else in the world, it is near impossible to not know in great detail about the United States and other Western powers as the entire world cannot escape these influences that cast a long shadow of colonial imperialism, neoliberal globalization, transnational corporations, mass media, monocultural dominance, soft power, international propaganda campaigns during the Cold War, military interventionism, etc. The rest of the world can’t afford the luxury of ignorance that Americans enjoy.

Earlier last century when the United States was a rising global superpower competing against other rising global superpowers, the US was known for having one of the better education systems in the world. International competition motivated us in investing in education. Now we are famous for how pathetic recent generations of students compare to many other developed countries. But even the brief moment of seeming American greatness following World War II might have had more to do with the wide scale decimation of Europe, a temporary lowering of other developed countries rather than a vast improvement in the United States.

There has also been a failure of big biz mass media to inform the public and the continuing oligopolistic consolidation of corporate media into a few hands has not allowed for a competitive free market to force corporations to offer something better. On top of that, Americans are one of the most propagandized and indoctrinated populations on the planet, with only a few comparable countries such as China and Russia exceeding us in this area.

See how the near unanimity of the American mass media was able, by way of beating the war drum, to change majority public opinion from being against the Iraq War to being in support of it. It just so happens that the parent companies of most of the corporate media, with ties to the main political parties and the military-industrial complex, profits immensely from the endless wars of the war state.

Corporate media is in the business of making money which means selling a product. In late stage capitalism, all of media is entertainment and news media is infotainment. Even the viewers are sold as a product to advertisers. There is no profit in offering a public service to inform the citizenry and create the conditions for informed public debate. As part of consumerist society, we consume as we are consumed by endless fantasies, just-so stories, comforting lies, simplistic narratives, and political spectacle.

This is a dark truth that should concern and scare Americans. But that would require them to be informed first. There is the rub.

Every public debate in the United States begins with mainstream framing. It requires hours of interacting with a typical American even to maybe get them to acknowledge their lack of knowledge, assuming they have the intellectual humility that makes that likely. Americans are so uninformed and misinformed that they don’t realize they are ignorant, so indoctrinated that they don’t realize how much their minds are manipulated and saturated in bullshit (I speak from the expertise of being an American who has been woefully ignorant for most of my life). To simply get to the level of knowledge where debate is even within the realm of possibility is itself almost an impossible task. To say it is frustrating is an extreme understatement.

Consider how most Americans know that tough-on-crime laws, stop-and-frisk, broken window policies, heavy policing, and mass incarceration were the cause of decreased crime. How do they know? Because decades of political rhetoric and media narratives have told them so. Just as various authority figures in government and media told them or implied or remained silent while others pushed the lies that the 9/11 terrorist attack was somehow connected to Iraq which supposedly had weapons of mass destruction, despite that the US intelligence agencies and foreign governments at the time knew these were lies.

Sure, you can look to alternative media for regularly reporting of different info that undermines and disproves these beliefs. But few Americans get much if any of their news from alternative media. There have been at least hundreds of high quality scientific studies, careful analyses, and scholarly books that have come out since the violent crime decline began. This information, however, is almost entirely unknown to the average American citizen and one suspects largely unknown to the average American mainstream news reporter, media personality, talking head, pundit, think tank hack, and politician.

That isn’t to say there isn’t ignorance found in other populations as well. Having been in the online world since the early naughts, I’ve met and talked with many people from other countries and admittedly some of them are less than perfectly informed. Still, the level of ignorance in the United States is unique, at least in the Western world.

That much can’t be doubted. Other serious thinkers might have differing explanations for why the US has diverged so greatly from much of the rest of the world, from its level of education to its rate of violence. But one way or another, it needs to be explained in the hope of finding a remedy. Sadly, even if we could agree on a solution, those in power benefit too greatly from the ongoing state of an easily manipulated citizenry that lacks knowledge and critical thinking skills.

This isn’t merely an attack on low-information voters and right-wing nut jobs. Even in dealing with highly educated Americans among the liberal class, I rarely come across someone who is deeply and widely informed across various major topics of public concern.

American society is highly insular. We Americans are not only disconnected from the rest of the world but disconnected from each other. And so we have little sense of what is going on outside of the narrow constraints of our neighborhoods, communities, workplaces, social networks, and echo chambers. The United States is psychologically and geographically segregated into separate reality tunnel enclaves defined by region and residency, education and class, race and religion, politics and media.

It’s because we so rarely step outside of our respective worlds that we so rarely realize how little we know and how much of what we think we know is not true. Most of us live in neighborhoods, go to churches and stores, attend or send our kids to schools, work and socialize with people who are exactly like ourselves. They share our beliefs and values, our talking points and political persuasion, our biases and prejudices, our social and class position. We are hermetically sealed within our safe walled-in social identities. Nothing can reach us, threaten us, or change us.

That is until something happens like Donald Trump being elected. Then there is a panic about what has become of America in this post-fact age. The sad reality, however, is America has always been this way. It’s just finally getting to a point where it’s harder to ignore and that potential for public awakening offers some hope.

* * *

Fantasyland
by Kurt Anderson
pp. 10-14

Why are we like this?

. . . The short answer is because we’re Americans, because being American means we can believe any damn thing we want, that our beliefs are equal or superior to anyone else’s, experts be damned. Once people commit to that approach, the world turns inside out, and no cause-and-effect connection is fixed. The credible becomes incredible and the incredible credible.

The word mainstream has recently become a pejorative, shorthand for bias, lies, oppression by the elites. Yet that hated Establishment, the institutions and forces that once kept us from overdoing the flagrantly untrue or absurd—media, academia, politics, government, corporate America, professional associations, respectable opinion in the aggregate—has enabled and encouraged every species of fantasy over the last few decades.

A senior physician at one of America’s most prestigious university hospitals promotes miracle cures on his daily TV show. Major cable channels air documentaries treating mermaids, monsters, ghosts, and angels as real. A CNN anchor speculated on the air that the disappearance of a Malaysian airliner was a supernatural event. State legislatures and one of our two big political parties pass resolutions to resist the imaginary impositions of a New World Order and Islamic law. When a political scientist attacks the idea that “there is some ‘public’ that shares a notion of reality, a concept of reason, and a set of criteria by which claims to reason and rationality are judged,” colleagues just nod and grant tenure. A white woman felt black, pretended to be, and under those fantasy auspices became an NAACP official—and then, busted, said, “It’s not a costume…not something that I can put on and take off anymore. I wouldn’t say I’m African American, but I would say I’m black.” Bill Gates’s foundation has funded an institute devoted to creationist pseudoscience. Despite his nonstop lies and obvious fantasies—rather, because of them—Donald Trump was elected president. The old fringes have been folded into the new center. The irrational has become respectable and often unstoppable. As particular fantasies get traction and become contagious, other fantasists are encouraged by a cascade of out-of-control tolerance. It’s a kind of twisted Golden Rule unconsciously followed: If those people believe that , then certainly we can believe this.

Our whole social environment and each of its overlapping parts—cultural, religious, political, intellectual, psychological—have become conducive to spectacular fallacy and make-believe. There are many slippery slopes, leading in various directions to other exciting nonsense. During the last several decades, those naturally slippery slopes have been turned into a colossal and permanent complex of interconnected, crisscrossing bobsled tracks with no easy exit. Voilà: Fantasyland. . . .

When John Adams said in the 1700s that “facts are stubborn things,” the overriding American principle of personal freedom was not yet enshrined in the Declaration or the Constitution, and the United States of America was itself still a dream. Two and a half centuries later the nation Adams cofounded has become a majority-rule de facto refutation of his truism: “our wishes, our inclinations” and “the dictates of our passions” now apparently do “alter the state of facts and evidence,” because extreme cognitive liberty and the pursuit of happiness rule.

This is not unique to America, people treating real life as fantasy and vice versa, and taking preposterous ideas seriously. We’re just uniquely immersed. In the developed world, our predilection is extreme, distinctly different in the breadth and depth of our embrace of fantasies of many different kinds. Sure, the physician whose fraudulent research launched the antivaccine movement was a Brit, and young Japanese otaku invented cosplay, dressing up as fantasy characters. And while there are believers in flamboyant supernaturalism and prophecy and religious pseudoscience in other developed countries, nowhere else in the rich world are such beliefs central to the self-identities of so many people. We are Fantasyland’s global crucible and epicenter.

This is American exceptionalism in the twenty-first century. America has always been a one-of-a-kind place. Our singularity is different now. We’re still rich and free, still more influential and powerful than any nation, practically a synonym for developed country . But at the same time, our drift toward credulity, doing our own thing, and having an altogether uncertain grip on reality has overwhelmed our other exceptional national traits and turned us into a less-developed country as well.

People tend to regard the Trump moment—this post-truth, alternative facts moment—as some inexplicable and crazy new American phenomenon. In fact, what’s happening is just the ultimate extrapolation and expression of attitudes and instincts that have made America exceptional for its entire history—and really, from its prehistory. . . .

America was created by true believers and passionate dreamers, by hucksters and their suckers—which over the course of four centuries has made us susceptible to fantasy, as epitomized by everything from Salem hunting witches to Joseph Smith creating Mormonism, from P. T. Barnum to Henry David Thoreau to speaking in tongues, from Hollywood to Scientology to conspiracy theories, from Walt Disney to Billy Graham to Ronald Reagan to Oprah Winfrey to Donald Trump. In other words: mix epic individualism with extreme religion; mix show business with everything else; let all that steep and simmer for a few centuries; run it through the anything-goes 1960s and the Internet age; the result is the America we inhabit today, where reality and fantasy are weirdly and dangerously blurred and commingled.

I hope we’re only on a long temporary detour, that we’ll manage somehow to get back on track. If we’re on a bender, suffering the effects of guzzling too much fantasy cocktail for too long, if that’s why we’re stumbling, manic and hysterical, mightn’t we somehow sober up and recover? You would think. But first you need to understand how deeply this tendency has been encoded in our national DNA.

Fake News: It’s as American as George Washington’s Cherry Tree
by Hanna Rosin

Fake news. Post-truth. Alternative facts. For Andersen, these are not momentary perversions but habits baked into our DNA, the ultimate expressions of attitudes “that have made America exceptional for its entire history.” The country’s initial devotion to religious and intellectual freedom, Andersen argues, has over the centuries morphed into a fierce entitlement to custom-made reality. So your right to believe in angels and your neighbor’s right to believe in U.F.O.s and Rachel Dolezal’s right to believe she is black lead naturally to our president’s right to insist that his crowds were bigger.

Andersen’s history begins at the beginning, with the first comforting lie we tell ourselves. Each year we teach our children about Pilgrims, those gentle robed creatures who landed at Plymouth Rock. But our real progenitors were the Puritans, who passed the weeks on the trans-Atlantic voyage preaching about the end times and who, when they arrived, vowed to hang any Quaker or Catholic who landed on their shores. They were zealots and also well-educated British gentlemen, which set the tone for what Andersen identifies as a distinctly American endeavor: propping up magical thinking with elaborate scientific proof.

While Newton and Locke were ushering in an Age of Reason in Europe, over in America unreason was taking new seductive forms. A series of mystic visionaries were planting the seeds of extreme entitlement, teaching Americans that they didn’t have to study any book or old English theologian to know what to think, that whatever they felt to be true was true. In Andersen’s telling, you can easily trace the line from the self-appointed 17th-century prophet Anne Hutchinson to Kanye West: She was, he writes, uniquely American “because she was so confident in herself, in her intuitions and idiosyncratic, subjective understanding of reality,” a total stranger to self-doubt.

What happens next in American history, according to Andersen, happens without malevolence, or even intention. Our national character gels into one that’s distinctly comfortable fogging up the boundary between fantasy and reality in nearly every realm. As soon as George Washington dies fake news is born — the story about the cherry tree, or his kneeling in prayer at Valley Forge. Enterprising businessmen quickly figure out ways to make money off the Americans who gleefully embrace untruths.

The Shallows of the Mainstream Mind

The mainstream mindset always seems odd to me.

There can be an issue, event, or whatever that was reported in the alternative media, was written about by independent investigative journalists, was the target of leaks and whistleblowers, was researched by academics, and was released in an official government document. But if the mainstream media didn’t recently, widely, extensively, and thoroughly report on it, those in the mainstream can act as if they don’t know about it, as if it never happened and isn’t real.

There is partly a blind faith in the mainstream media, but it goes beyond that. Even the mainstream news reporting that happened in the past quickly disappears from memory. There is no connection in the mainstream mind between what happened in the past and what happens in the present, much less between what happens in other (specifically non-Western) countries and what happens in the US.

It’s not mere ignorance, willful or passive. Many people in the mainstream are highly educated and relatively well informed, but even in what they know there is a superficiality and lack of insight. They can’t quite connect one thing to another, to do their own research and come to their own conclusions. It’s a permanent and vast state of dissociation. It’s a conspiracy of silence where the first casualty is self-awareness, where individuals silence their own critical thought, their own doubts and questions.

There is also an inability to imagine the real. Even when those in the mainstream see hard data, it never quite connects on a psychological and visceral level. It is never quite real. It remains simply info that quickly slips from the mind.

No One Knows

Here is a thought experiment. What if almost everything you think you know is wrong? It isn’t just a thought experiment. In all likelihood, it is true.

Almost everything people thought they knew in the past has turned out to be wrong, partly or entirely. There is no reason to think the same isn’t still the case. We are constantly learning new things that add to or alter prior fields of knowledge.

We live in a scientific age. Even so, there are more things we don’t know than we do know. Our scientific knowledge remains narrow and shallow. The universe is vast. Even the earth is vast. Heck, human nature is vast, in its myriad expressions and potentials.

In some ways, science gives a false sense of how much we know. We end up taking many things as scientific that aren’t actually so. Take the examples of consciousness and free will, both areas about which we have little scientific knowledge.

We have no more reason to believe consciousness is limited to the brain than to believe that consciousness is inherent to matter. We have no more reason to believe that free will exists than to believe it doesn’t. These are non-falsifiable hypotheses, which is to say we don’t know how to test them in order to prove them one way or another.

Yet we go about our lives as if these are decided facts, that we are conscious free agents in a mostly non-conscious world. This is what we believe based on our cultural biases. Past societies had different beliefs about consciousness and agency. Future societies likely will have different beliefs than our own and they will look at us as oddly as we look at ancient people. Our present hyper-individualism may one day seem as bizarre as the ancient bicameral mind.

We forget how primitive our society still is. In many ways, not much has changed over the past centuries or even across the recent millennia. Humans still live their lives basically the same. For as long as civilization has existed, people live in houses and ride on wheeled vehicles. When we have health conditions, invasively cutting into people is still often standard procedure, just as people have been doing for a long long time. Political and military power hasn’t really changed either, except in scale. The most fundamental aspects of our lives are remarkably unchanged.

At the same time, we are on the edge of vast changes. Just in my life, technology has leapt ahead far beyond the imaginings of most people in the generations before mine. Our knowledge of genetics, climate change, and even biblical studies has been irrevocably altered—throwing on its head, much of the earlier consensus.

We can’t comprehend what any of it means or where it is heading. All that we can be certain is that paradigms are going to be shattered over this next century. What will replace them no one knows.

Humanity in All of its Blindness

I’ve often written about various kinds of cognitive blindness.

Sometimes it’s an incomprehensibility. We don’t understand something and so to that extent we can’t really see it, not for what it is. The conceptual or cultural framework is lacking. There is no box to put it into or words to describe it. Maybe it wasn’t part of how we were raised.

Other times, there is a simultaneous knowing and not knowing. This relates to willful ignorance, in that we can go to great efforts at not knowing something that otherwise should be obvious. Even dissociation and splitting of consciousness can be involved, and it is probably more common than people think. It could involved suppressed trauma or even just general discomfort.

There is also context-dependent memories. I’ve had experiences that were some strange mix of emotions, almost visceral. When they happen, I recall having experienced them before. But when not experiencing them, I couldn’t for the life of me dredge up the memory of the experience, what it felt like or even figure out what elicited it. I forget all about them, until they pop back up in my experience.

All of these demonstrate how limited is our consciousness. Our perception is extremely narrow and filtered. We never see what is behind us, so to speak. The world is vast and we are puny. The flashlight of consciousness only lights up a few feet directly in front of us.

I was thinking about this because I came across another example of this. I’d heard of it before, but the way someone wrote about it caught my attention. It is from Scott Alexander at the Slate Star Codex blog. The post is: WHAT UNIVERSAL HUMAN EXPERIENCES ARE YOU MISSING WITHOUT REALIZING IT? I recommend checking it out. It’s a short read.

He discusses a number of examples of individuals lacking some common experience and not realizing it. These people even learn to speak about the experience, but they don’t realize that others are speaking literally. They assume it is just a metaphorical way of expressing something else.

This could involve color blindness or smell blindness. The blogger also shares his own experience of a medication that blunted his emotions for five years when he was a teenager, long enough that he forgot what he had lost, until he went off the medication.

I had a thought about how this might apply beyond the individual. I’ve been reading books about ancient societies. One of the challenges is that the best evidence left behind are texts, but that requires translation and interpretation. Many words in other languages simply have no equivalent in English. They might not even have any conceptual equivalent in our thinking. This brings up the question if we even have a psychological equivalent of the experience being described. Translation can end up blinding us to how different were those ancient societies and the people who lived in them.

We are creatures of our cultural upbringing, products of out time and place. After a few generations, events are lost from living memory. Experience dies with those who possessed the memory of them.

It isn’t even necessary to look to ancient societies to realize this. Cultural misunderstandings happen all the time. Modern languages also have words that don’t translate into other modern languages.  Heck, even when we share the same language, we often seem clueless and oblivious to other people’s experience.

That is why I find it bizarre that many people will assume that ancient people must have thought, felt, and perceived the world basically the same as they do. What immense hubris, considering many people struggle trying to understand their own family members and significant others.

The thing about being blind to something is that you are often blind to your blindness, as you are often ignorant to your ignorance. You just don’t know what you don’t know, and you don’t know that there is something you could or should know. That is how we live our lives until we stub our toe or walk face first into some aspect of reality or human experience we didn’t realize was there. But for most things we can go our entire lives without ever discovering our blindness.

The Shamelessness of Shaming

There’s a reason education sucks, it’s the same reason that it will never, ever, ever be fixed. It’s never going to get any better, don’t look for it, be happy with what you got. Because the owners of this country don’t want that. I’m talking about the real owners, now. The real owners, the big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions. Forget the politicians, they’re an irrelevancy. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice. You have owners. They own you. They own everything. [..]

But I’ll tell you what they don’t want. They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. That’s against their interests. They don’t want people who are smart enough to sit around the kitchen table and figure out how badly they’re getting fucked by a system that threw them overboard 30 fucking years ago.

You know what they want? Obedient workers,­ people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork but just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shittier jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, reduced benefits, the end of overtime and the vanishing pension that disappears the minute you go to collect it.

~ George Carlin

I was watching one of those videos showing how stupid kids are these days. It was the 2014 video from Texas Tech University. I think I’ve seen it before or one of the videos like it.

But the video itself isn’t important. It was highly edited and far from being an honest polling or scientific survey. It’s easy to focus on a few people and try to paint an entire demographic in bad light. It’s the same way the American media, political elite, and middle-to-upper classes love to shame the poor. It is good to keep in mind some of the kids in the video might be the first generation in their family to have gone to college.

This shaming has been going on for the entirety of US history, which is a relevant fact. Do the makers of such videos know the history of shaming? If not, what excuse do they have for being ignorant? It is fair to dismiss this bullshit shaming out of hand, because it is bullshit. People who participate in it are the ones who should feel ashamed.

The motivation behind the video, that of shaming people, irritated me. I went to a mediocre high school. And I know many people have gone to even worse high schools. Teachers are underpaid and overworked, and it just gets worse in poor areas. Few students get a good education and aren’t prepared for college, if and when they get there. I dropped out of college because of how underprepared and overwhelmed I was, although depression and learning disability played a role.

Anyway, the following are some of my thoughts.

* * *

I try to stay humble and keep perspective.

I know that when I came out of high school I was extremely ignorant. If anyone had asked me any questions about history, I would have given some really clueless answers, assuming I responded at all. It has taken me a couple of decades of serious reading and research to lessen that vast ignorance and I still remain ignorant about most areas of knowledge.

Learning is hard, for most of us. On top of that, many people have bad or uninspiring experiences of school. I suspect it is a rare person who makes it out of school with curiosity intact and a love of learning instilled in them.

I do find it sad that Americans aren’t better educated. But shaming them for a failed education system isn’t likely to improve anything. I understand the humor of wrong answers. And yet I save my outrage for the social problems and political incompetence that keeps producing ignorant Americans, generation after generation.

* * *

Ignorance is the starting point we all have in life. And it takes immense effort to move very far from that starting point.

I doubt people are more ignorant than they ever were. The closest equivalent to the Civil War for earlier generations might have been the War of 1812. If you asked young Americans a few generations ago why the War of 1812 was fought, most probably couldn’t have told you. It simply wouldn’t have felt relevant to them. Even talking to the older generations alive right now, those of my parents age and above, I’m constantly surprised by how little they know about American history and world history. It certainly isn’t limited to a single generation.

In the not too distant past, most people didn’t have much if any education at all. Even in early 20th century before universal public education, few Americans graduated high school or even elementary school. A large part of the population wasn’t even literate generations ago. In the late 1800s, about 1 in 5 Americans couldn’t read. Even though our education system is far from perfect, the improvements in public education are vast. We should fully appreciate that, even as we seek to do better.

I’d make another point. People tend to only know about what is close to their lives. When I was growing up, the Cold War was still going on. When my parents were growing up, the last of the Civil War veterans and former slaves were still living. When my grandparents were growing up, the last of the Indian Wars were fought. When my great grandparents were growing up, Reconstruction was still happening or had ended not too long before. When my great great grandparents were growing up, the Civil War took place—some of them having been born born near the death of the last American founders and could have met John Quincy Adams.

For most of US history, the country was young. No event was further back than a few generations. Now that we are in the 21st century, the the major events that shaped the country are beginning to feel ever more distant. There is also simply more history to be learned. Learning about US history for a kid born in the past was easier for the simple reason there was less to learn, but even then most Americans didn’t learn much history.

We are only shocked by ignorance today because, unlike in the past, we have come to believe that people shouldn’t be ignorant. It used be that people didn’t care about history all that much, for it didn’t put a roof over their heads or food on their tables. It is interesting that the world has changed so much that we now consider ignorance, the normal state of humanity, to be a mark of shame.

If we actually care about knowledge so much, why don’t we improve education and fund it better for all students?

* * *

I was thinking about what kinds of knowledge is valued.

Kids these days are taught a ton of info, a wider spectrum of knowledge than in past generations. For example, I bet the youth today know more about the larger world than did the youth a century ago. WWI was the first generation of Americans who even saw much of the world beyond US borders. And now traveling the world is common.

What we are taught is based on what those in power deem important. But that is dependent on historical situations and events. At present, kids are probably learning a lot about the Middle East and their knowledge in this area would put most adult Americans to shame. The focus of education in the past, for those who got an education, would have been far different.

I’ve talked to my parents about their childhood and young adulthood. My mom didn’t even know about the Cold War until the Reagan presidency, despite her having been born in the early Cold War. My parents barely knew what was happening in the Civil Rights movement when they were in high school and college. My parents didn’t know about sundown towns, even though my dad grew up in one and both of my parents went to college in one.

My dad also had never heard of bombing and terrorism of Black Wall Street, which occurred a short distance away from his mother’s childhood home. She moved to a major Klan center in high school. Her and my maternal grandfather had to have known the town they moved their young family to was a sundown town, as there were signs that said so. Yet no one talked about any of this and my father was raised in ignorance.

My maternal grandparents didn’t get much education. It is understandable that they didn’t know much. But my paternal grandparents were college educated. When the last of the Indian Wars happened in their childhoods, did any of my grandparents know about it. If not, why not? Like the Tulsa Riots, some of those Indian Wars happened not all that far from where my maternal grandmother spent her early life.

What excuses this ignorance? Nothing. Yet this is the common fate of humanity. We remain ignorant, unless we individually and collectively put immense effort toward informing ourselves. There is all kinds of knowledge we don’t value as a society, even when we should.

* * *

The impulse to shame is easy to give into. I do it myself on occasion.

I think this impulse comes from a place of frustration and apathy, verging on cynicism. We all see the problems we collectively face and we don’t know what to do about them. So, we look for scapegoats. Sometimes that means the youth and at other times it means the poor, minorities, or immigrants.

It is easier to project onto others and pretend one isn’t a part of the problem. It is easier to ridicule others than to try to understand. It is easier to blame than to help. Our laughter has a nervous edge to it, as we all realize the problem points back to all of us. It’s the kind of humor people distract themselves with.

Instead, why don’t we simply deal with the problem?

More Words

I’ve written so often about knowledge and ignorance, truth and denialism. My mind ever returns to the topic, because it is impossible to ignore in this media-saturated modern world. There are worthy things to debate and criticize, but it is rare to come across much of worth amidst all the noise, all the opinionating and outrage.

I don’t want to just dismiss it all. I don’t want to ignore it and live blissfully in my own private reality or my own narrow media bubble. I feel compelled to understand the world around me. I actually do care about what makes people tick, not just to better persuade them to my own view, but more importantly to understand humanity itself.

Still, noble aspirations aside, it can be frustrating and I often let it show. Why do we make everything so hard? Why do we fight tooth and nail against being forced to face reality? Humans are strange creatures.

At some point, yet more argument seems pointless. No amount of data and evidence will change anything. We can’t deal with even relatively minor problems. Hope seems like an act of desperation in face of the more immense global challenges. Humanity will change when we are forced to change, when maintaining the status quo becomes impossible.

It is irrational to expect most humans to be rational about almost anything of significance. But that doesn’t mean speaking out doesn’t matter.

I considered offering some detailed thoughts and observations, but I already expressed my self a bit in another post. Instead, I’ll just point to a somewhat random selection of what others have already written, a few books and articles I’ve come across recently—my main focus has been climate change:

Apocalypse Soon: Has Civilization Passed the Environmental Point of No Return?
By Madhusree Mukerjee

It’s the End of the World as We Know It . . . and He Feels Fine
By Daniel Smith

Learning to Die in the Antrhopocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization
By Roy Scranton

Reason in a Dark Time: Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed – And What it Means for Our Future
By Dale Jamieson

Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World
By Timothy Morton

Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor
By Rob Nixon

The Culture of Make Believe
By Derrick Jensen

The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life
By Eviatar Zerubavel

States of Denial: Knowing about Atrocities and Suffering
By Stanley Cohen

Living in Denial: Climate Change, Emotions, and Everyday Life
By Kari Marie Norgaard

Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change
By George Marshall

What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming: Toward a New Psychology of Climate Action
by Per EspenStoknes

How Culture Shapes the Climate Change Debate
By Andrew Hoffman

The Republican War on Science
By Chris Mooney

Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten Our Future
By Donald R. Prothero

Climate Change Denial: Heads in the Sand
By Haydn Washington

Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming
By James Hoggan

Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming
By Naomi Oreskes & Erik M. Conway

The man who studies the spread of ignorance
By Georgina Kenyon

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate
By Naomi Klein

Climate Change, Capitalism, and Corporations: Process of Creative Self-Destruction
By Christopher Wright & Daniel Nyberg

Exxon: The Road Not Taken
By Neela Banerjee

Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA
By E.G. Vallianatos

Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil
By Timothy Mitchell

Democracy Inc.: How Members Of Congress Have Cashed In On Their Jobs
By The Washington Post, David S. Fallis, Scott Higham (Author), Dan Keating, & Kimberly Kindy

Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism
By Sheldon S. Wolin

Just How Stupid is the Intellectual Elite?

I came across an article recently, as linked to in a comment, that is about a topic of great interest to me: ignorance. The article piqued my curiosity because it was a thoughtful analysis of various data and examples, including an insightful view of how geographic location plays into how we prioritize (or not) knowledge of the larger world.

The author begins by discussing Rick Shenkman’s 2008 book, Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the Truth about the American Voter. It’s a provocative title meant to catch one’s attention. It probably was the publisher, rather than the author, that chose the title. I decided to get the book and have since read it.

I was disappointed and underwhelmed. The book ended up being too much like the title. Maybe I should have paid closer attention to the negative reviews. My curiosity got the better of me and my curiosity remains unsated. Shenkman touches on many worthy issues, but never takes it very far. It felt more like a magazine opinion piece stretched out into a book.

He complains about the stupidity of the American public, going on and on about the failure of “The People”, both in actuality and as a concept. He almost goes so far as to blame democracy itself, with an argument that questions whether The People are worthy of democracy. His discussion is a bit more complex than that, but it does come off as expressing intellectual snobbery and class disconnect. I didn’t get the feeling that he actually knew what he was talking about. His knowledge seemed narrow, and his understanding of many issues, from democracy to liberalism, seemed superficial.

I came to the conclusion that the author is a part of the problem. He is a member of the clueless intellectual elite. He wants to be a public intellectual and so presents himself as an expert, in his role as a professional historian, writer, and tv talking head. Maybe this book wasn’t his best work… I don’t know, but I was unimpressed. His being a historian, I’d have expected more depth to his analysis. He demonstrated even less knowledge about demographics and social science.

I’ve read some great books these past years. There are several that cover the study of ignorance, agnotology, a topic that has often come up in relation to racial prejudice and biases. Another more recent book I’ve looked at focuses the idea and the history of “The People” in great detail. Shenkman’s book doesn’t hold a candle to any of these.

There is nothing I consider more important than the public intellectual. The failure of democracy is directly connected to the failure of public intellectuals, which isn’t identical to just the intellectual elite, but the broader intellectual engagement across class lines. A good example of a newer work by a working class public intellectual is Hand to Mouth by Linda Tirado. I’m a big fan of the working class public intellectual, a role that goes back to the revolutionary generation, involving such great writers as Thomas Paine. Even so, I also appreciate the insight that sometimes comes out of academia, such as Michelle Alexander.

There is an important difference between academics like Shenkman and Alexander. He presents his argument as coming from on high, looking down upon “The People”. You never get the sense that he is entirely including himself as part of the general public. He is self-consciously an intellectual elite. As for Alexander, instead of complaining about the disenfranchized and disadvantaged, she seeks to speak for them and to offer genuine sympathetic understanding. Even in terms of pure scholarship, Shenkman just isn’t playing on the same level. Alexander backs her opinions with immense data, something Shenkman doesn’t do nearly as well. What he offers seems mostly to be cherrypicked factoids lacking much in the way of larger context and probing insight.

I almost feel bad for being so critical. Ignorance is a serious problem. For certain, I’m not dismissing the concern. I just don’t think the challenge was well met by Shenkman. If anything, he didn’t take his project seriously enough. This is an issue that shakes our society to its foundation, whether or not we have and are capable of having a functioning democracy.

What relevance does “The People” even have in a supposed representative democracy when it isn’t clear anyone is actually representing them? Who is there to give voice to the voiceless, to offer sympathetic understanding to those lost in a system of enforced ignorance? What does it mean to be a public intellectual at a time when the intellectual elite often seem more clueless than the uneducated and miseducated masses?

The Stories We Know

It suddenly occurred to me where I might have first came across the idea of simultaneously knowing and not knowing.

This would have been almost two decades ago, sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s in the years following my graduating from high school in 1994. I probably was back in Iowa City, Iowa at the time and regularly visiting bookstores, in particular the famous Prairie Lights. I was reading a lot of weird stuff at the time, both non-fiction and fiction. Along with reading the likes of Robert Anton Wilson, I came across Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions. I then read some of Ellison’s own fiction collections.

In his book Strange Wine, he has his typical introductory comments that are typically entertaining. He told of an anecdote that had been shared with him by Dan Blocker, an actor from the show Bonanza who played the character Hoss Cartwright. Blocker pointed out that the incident was far from unusual and, based on that, Ellison explored the idea of knowing and not knowing, specifically in terms of the distinction between reality and imagination, between unmediated experience and media portrayals.

Here is Blocker’s anecdote as written in Strange Wine introduction (Kindle Locations 54-62):

“He told me– and he said this happened all the time, not just in isolated cases– that he had been approached by a little old woman during one of his personal appearances at a rodeo, and the woman had said to him, dead seriously, “Now listen to me, Hoss: when you go home tonight, I want you to tell your daddy, Ben, to get rid of that Chinee fella who cooks for you all. What you need is to get yourself a good woman in there can cook up some decent food for you and your family.”

“So Dan said to her, very politely (because he was one of the most courteous people I’ve ever met), “Excuse me, ma’am, but my name is Dan Blocker. Hoss is just the character I play. When I go home I’ll be going to my house in Los Angeles and my wife and children will be waiting.”

“And she went right on, just a bit affronted because she knew all that, what was the matter with him, did he think she was simple or something, “Yes, I know… but when you go back to the Ponderosa, you just tell your daddy Ben that I said…”

“For her, fantasy and reality were one and the same.”

Ellison sees this as representative of a change that has happened in our society because of the boob tube. He was writing in the 1970s and it was a time when nationalized mass media was really hitting its stride. He described all the hours people spent watching television and the state of mind it creates.

Before the Bonanza story, Ellison shared another story about a news reporter who shot herself in the head live on television. He sees this as indicative of how media has become our very sense of reality. Killing oneself during a live broadcast makes the incident more real. I think he goes a bit overboard on his diatribe against media, but he has a point. I would simply broaden his point and extend it back in time.

Mediated reality isn’t a new invention. Ever since written language and bound books, the world has never been the same. Christians were the first group to bind books. This allowed them to spread their mediated reality far and wide. Even though there was no evidence that Jesus ever existed, this messianic figure became more real to people than the people around them. Untold numbers of people killed and died in the name of a man who may have simply been a fictional character.

To understand the power of the Bible as mediated reality, take the experience of Daniel Everett. He once was a Christian who became a missionary living among the Amazonian Piraha tribe. These people didn’t understand Christianity because they didn’t understand reality mediated through books. They only trusted information they had experienced themselves or someone they knew had experienced. When they asked Everett if he had experienced any of the events in the Bible, Everett had to admit he hadn’t even met Jesus. The idea of blind faith was meaningless to the Piraha. Instead of converting them to Christianity, they converted him to atheism.

As a fiction writer, Ellison should understand the power of words to make the imagined seem real. It isn’t just about television and movies or today about the internet. All of culture and civilization is built on various forms of mediated reality. The earliest forms of media through art and the spoken word had a similar revolutionary impact.

We humans live in a world of ideas and beliefs, frames and narratives. We never know anything unfiltered. This is how we can know and not know at the same time. The stories we tell force coherency to the inconsistency within our own minds. Stories are what gives our lives meaning. We are storytelling animals and for us the stories we tell are our reality. A collective story passed on from generation to generation is the most powerful of all.