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

* * *

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.

* * *

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?

Open-Minded Learning: Humility and Passion

My ongoing blogging project has got me thinking about the act of learning. One thing that has been made clear to me once again is how learning is only possible to the extent you can admit you aren’t certain about what you think you know. If you believe you already have an answer, you won’t likely go out of your way seeking alternative viewpoints and new data.

This insight is at the heart of my mistrust of  the mindset of ideologues and true believers. Ideological belief systems have a way of becoming self-contained and self-referential, thus forming reality tunnels and echo chambers. It’s not that I don’t have biases like anyone else, but I want to hold them lightly and see them clearly for what they are. Of course, I will fail again and again. But it is the continual striving for intellectual humility that matters.

This entire project was inspired by my (trying to) discuss certain issues with others. It was evident that others felt more confident in what they thought they knew than I did. That was part of my point in disagreeing with particular people. It’s not that I certainly and conclusively know they are wrong and I am right. Rather, there are just too many complicating factors to declare anything with absolute certainty.

More importantly beyond conclusions, I realized that the basic issues were less than clear, as I wrote about the other day. Many people seem to assume that race and IQ are relatively simple things, but in reality they are highly subjective constructs and there is a lot of high level debate about how useful or unuseful are such constructs. So, I wanted to get back to first principles and build a foundation before trying to construct an analysis and argument. I needed to educate myself in order to know what made sense and what was bullshit.

Along with basic issues, there is also a lot of basic data that is less than well known. Most people know a little bit about topics like this and a little bit of knowledge can be dangerous. Even among the more well informed, I’ve found their knowledge tends to be selectively narrow.

A related example came from a comment to a previous post:

The phrase “As violent crime has sharply decreased, the prison population has sharply increased. ” is not clear. Do you mean that increase of prison population has followed the violent crime decrease (e.g. first rate decreased, then prison population increased)? Otherwise, the effect is what I would perfectly expect.

This isn’t intended as a way to pick on one person. This commenter is in good company.

Yes, for many people in our society this seems like common sense and, based on mainstream data and understanding, it might be the most obvious conclusion to come to. But the problem is that, when something just makes sense to you, it decreases any motivation to challenge the status quo opinion. And the majority who share this status quo opinion won’t challenge you either. As long as you remain (self-)satisfied with what you think you know, you will never discover that what you think you know might be false. There is nothing more dangerous than a comfortable belief that explains away a complex problem with a wave of the hand.

We must demand responsibility of ourselves to dig deeper. This is yet another aspect of intellectual humility.

Never assume you know anything until you’ve thoroughly researched a topic and even then accept your limitations as a human. No, don’t just accept your limitations, embrace them and be upfront about them. Be clear about what motivates you, about why you care at all in the first place. Don’t take your bias as an unquestioned assumption. Defend your bias, if you can. Defend it with passion like it truly mattered.

This intellectual humility was perfectly expressed in the introduction to the revised and expanded edition of The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould. The foe of intellectual humility is the stance of false objectivity that hides ideological self-certainty. So, I’ll end this post with the words of Gould in his defense of intellectual passion (Kindle Location 505-565):

“Scholars are often wary of citing such commitments, for, in the stereotype, an ice-cold impartiality acts as the sine qua non of proper and dispassionate objectivity. I regard this argument as one of the most fallacious, even harmful, claims commonly made in my profession. Impartiality (even if desirable) is unattainable by human beings with inevitable backgrounds, needs, beliefs, and desires. It is dangerous for a scholar even to imagine that he might attain complete neutrality, for then one stops being vigilant about personal preferences and their influences— and then one truly falls victim to the dictates of prejudice.

“Objectivity must be operationally defined as fair treatment of data, not absence of preference. Moreover, one needs to understand and acknowledge inevitable preferences in order to know their influence— so that fair treatment of data and arguments can be attained ! No conceit could be worse than a belief in one’s own intrinsic objectivity, no prescription more suited to the exposure of fools. (Phony psychics like Uri Geller have had particular success in bamboozling scientists with ordinary stage magic, because only scientists are arrogant enough to think that they always observe with rigorous and objective scrutiny, and therefore could never be so fooled— while ordinary mortals know perfectly well that good performers can always find a way to trick people.) The best form of objectivity lies in explicitly identifying preferences so that their influence can be recognized and countermanded. (We deny our preferences all the time in acknowledging nature’s factuality. I really do hate the fact of personal death , but will not base my biological views on such distaste. Less facetiously, I really do prefer the kinder Lamarckian mode of evolution to what Darwin called the miserable, low, bungling, and inefficient ways of his own natural selection— but nature doesn’t give a damn about my preferences, and works in Darwin’s mode , and I therefore chose to devote my professional life to this study.)

“We must identify preferences in order to constrain their influence on our work, but we do not go astray when we use such preferences to decide what subjects we wish to pursue. Life is short, and potential studies infinite . We have a much better chance of accomplishing something significant when we follow our passionate interests and work in areas of deepest personal meaning. Of course such a strategy increases dangers of prejudice, but the gain in dedication can overbalance any such worry, especially if we remain equally committed to the overarching general goal of fairness, and fiercely committed to constant vigilance and scrutiny of our personal biases.

“(I have no desire to give Mr. Murray ammunition for future encounters, but I have never been able to understand why he insists on promulgating the disingenuous argument that he has no personal stake or preference in the subject of The Bell Curve, but only took up his study from disinterested personal curiosity— the claim that disabled him in our debate at Harvard, for he so lost credibility thereby. After all, his overt record on one political side is far stronger than my own on the other. He has been employed by right-wing think tanks for years, and they don’t hire flaming liberals. He wrote the book, Common Ground, that became Reagan’s bible as much as Michael Harrington’s Other America might have influenced Kennedy Democrats. If I were he, I would say something like: “Look, I’m a political conservative, and I’m proud of it. I know that the argument of The Bell Curve meshes well with my politics. I recognized this from the beginning. In fact, this recognition led me to be especially vigilant and careful when I analyzed the data of my book. But I remain capable of being fair with data and logical in argument, and I believe that the available information supports my view. Besides, I am not a conservative for capricious reasons. I believe that the world does work in the manner of the bell curve, and that my political views represent the best way to constitute governments in the light of these realities.” Now this argument I could respect, while regarding both its premises and supporting data as false and misinterpreted.) I wrote The Mismeasure of Man because I have a different political vision, and because I also believe (or I would not maintain the ideal) that people are evolutionarily constituted in a way that makes this vision attainable— not inevitable, Lord only knows , but attainable with struggle.

[ . . . ]

“Some readers may regard this confessional as a sure sign of too much feeling to write a proper work in nonaction [sic nonfiction]. But I am willing to bet that passion must be the central ingredient needed to lift such books above the ordinary, and that most works of nonfiction regarded by our culture as classical or enduring are centered in their author’s deep beliefs. I therefore suspect that most of my colleagues in this enterprise could tell similar stories of autobiographic passion. I would also add that, for all my convictions about social justice, I feel even more passionate about a closer belief central to my personal life and activities: my membership in the “ancient and universal company of scholars” (to cite the wonderfully archaic line used by Harvard’s president in conferring Ph.D.’ s at our annual commencement). This tradition represents, along with human kindness, the greatest, most noble, and most enduring feature on the bright side of a mixed panoply defining what we call “human nature.” Since I am better at scholarship than at kindness, I need to cast my fealty with humanity’s goodness in this sphere. May I end up next to Judas Iscariot, Brutus, and Cassius in the devil’s mouth at the center of hell if I ever fail to present my most honest assessment and best judgment of evidence for empirical truth.”