02 December 2013

"Has It Ever Occurred to You..."

I want to thank Jerome Doolittle over at Bad Attitudes, a blog of pointed snippets and commentary I've been reading for years, for pointing me to this article on Psychology Today's blogsite.

Normally, I read/skim posts from the Wisblog Roll on the right side of this page, absorb the information, chase down the links, and continue on my merry way. When I read Doolittle's post the subject struck a chord with me, but I didn't have the time to run down the reference. And I was haunted by it the entire weekend. When I got back to my computer, I couldn't remember where I had originally seen it. I had to page through several of my regular haunts until I found it.

Here's the money quote:
Dunning and Kruger often refer to a “double curse” when interpreting their findings: People fail to grasp their own incompetence, precisely because they are so incompetent. And since, overcoming their incompetence would first require the ability to distinguish competence from incompetence people get stuck in a vicious cycle. 
“The skills needed to produce logically sound arguments, for instance, are the same skills that are necessary to recognize when a logically sound argument has been made. Thus, if people lack the skills to produce correct answers, they are also cursed with an inability to know when their answers, or anyone else’s, are right or wrong. They cannot recognize their responses as mistaken, or other people’s responses as superior to their own.”
I realize that PT has what I would call an "empathy bias", that is to say they don't necessarily see the Gohmerts, Palins, and Becks of the world as knaves, but rather as fools deserving of our understanding. They are granted a certain amount of cultural 'authority' by virtue of their having access to the megaphone of politics and media PR and are allowed to say, or repeat, whatever talking point some political handler or PR flack has put in front of them. To PT, their lies are not lies (because they don't necessarily know what they are saying is false), they simply don't know any better and, in fact, because of their self-regard do not even recognize that they could be wrong. More's the pity.

The problem of assertive, self-confident, self-righteous ignorance has long been a puzzler for me. How do you deal with people for whom the concept of a shared, factual reality is foreign? People for whom the notion of truth is simply irrelevant or at least subsidiary to an emotionally satisfying 'gotcha' point? Especially when they are politically aggressive and noisy and well-funded. Especially when they make every effort to avoid inconvenient facts.

This is quite possibly the central problem Socrates (via Plato) addressed 2500+ years ago in the nascent democracy of ancient Athens:
Sophistry + Rhetoric + PR vs. Truth + Logic + Reality.
Quaint, I know, but the Protagoras is still relevant today.

Socrates was famous for asking questions like 'What does it mean to lead a good life?' 'What is excellence (or virtue), and how important is its pursuit in everything I am and do?' and 'What does it mean to "know thyself"?' These are the sorts of questions that any self-aware person should constantly be asking themselves so they don't fall into the trap of ignorance and bias. It is a philosophical attitude. One that helps a person understand when they might be wrong or mistaken.

The authors of the PT article identify the sort of ignorance into which these types of question simply cannot enter.
The Dunning-Kruger effect describes a cognitive bias in which people perform poorly on a task, but lack the meta-cognitive capacity to properly evaluate their performance. As a result, such people remain unaware of their incompetence and accordingly fail to take any self-improvement measures that might rid them of their incompetence.
A correlate of this Dunning-Kruger effect might possibly explain how roughly 40% of Americans believe themselves to be in the top 1% financially and thus how they can be duped by political con artists into voting against their own economic self-interest.

Sure, it's possible to argue over what is or isn't a fact, what may or may not be true, what the nature of reality is, what is or isn't a logical solution. And those are the sorts of arguments we should be having in the public sphere. But when we get into the realm of ignorance, emotional manipulation, blind faith, false premises, preconceived notions, self-serving prejudices, ideologically based propaganda, etc., dialogue—and, more importantly, real societal progress—becomes difficult if not impossible. An emotionally satisfying argument is not necessarily the best.

Critical thinking, logic (Aristotelian/classical/propositional as well as symbolic), rhetoric (its uses and abuses) need to be an integral part of every person's education to help them break out of this vicious cycle of ignorance and prepare them for the public sphere of life in a nominally democratic society such as ours. But the question is: how can we inculcate these sorts of values/virtues in a society/culture in which they are not prized and, in fact, in which there are wealthy and powerful interests arrayed against them?

1 comment:

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®© said...

There's a lot of money invested in keeping our nation clueless.

And "our" side isn't exactly resisting. Not since the neoliberals took over the Democratic party.

"We didn't lose this fight. Barack Obama was in law school when this fight was lost."