Sunday, February 17, 2008

The limitless abyss of the irrational mind

From a New York Times article on Susan Jacoby's interesting-sounding new book, The Age of American Unreason:

But now, Ms. Jacoby said, something different is happening: anti-intellectualism (the attitude that “too much learning can be a dangerous thing”) and anti-rationalism (“the idea that there is no such things as evidence or fact, just opinion”) have fused in a particularly insidious way.

Not only are citizens ignorant about essential scientific, civic and cultural knowledge, she said, but they also don’t think it matters.

She pointed to a 2006 National Geographic poll that found nearly half of 18- to 24-year-olds don’t think it is necessary or important to know where countries in the news are located. So more than three years into the Iraq war, only 23 percent of those with some college could locate Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel on a map. (Emphasis added.)

An anecdote from Jacoby's story explaining how she came to write the book is even more distressing.

It occurred on September 11th, 2001:

Walking home to her Upper East Side apartment, she said, overwhelmed and confused, she stopped at a bar. As she sipped her bloody mary, she quietly listened to two men, neatly dressed in suits. For a second she thought they were going to compare that day’s horrifying attack to the Japanese bombing in 1941 that blew America into World War II:

“This is just like Pearl Harbor,” one of the men said.

The other asked, “What is Pearl Harbor?”

“That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War,” the first man replied.

I'm aware that the fact such episodes cause me almost physical forms of discomfort may be a sign of a certain pedantic streak in my character; however, the extent to which people seem to hold such confused notions about basic geography and chronology leaves me no choice.

And I believe Jacoby's anecdote is largely true: a college-educated friend asked me a few years ago whether Germany had democracy or not. I was tempted to tell him about the hereditary monarch that rules over us and the onerous feudal dues that we owe to the local liege lord, but I resisted. I have a sneaking suspicion, though, that he would have believed me had I done so.

In a different context today, Dale says some very worthwhile things about scientific illiteracy and what approaches may (and may not) be useful in addressing it.

He notes correctly:
There is nothing in the furniture of the universe that makes it inevitable that mankind will, on balance, choose reality (messy, difficult, counterintuitive) over delusion (comforting, easy, clean).
And a very fine example of that can be found in an article by Steven Novella at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry on the myths of the modern anti-vaccination movement. (Via A&L Daily and The Wife)

It is a depressing read in so far as it demonstrates how ineffective reason, evidence and the scientific method can be when faced with the contortions of conspiracy-minded rationalisation:

The forces of irrationality are arrayed on this issue. There are conspiracy theorists, well-meaning but misguided citizen groups who are becoming increasingly desperate and hostile, irresponsible journalists, and ethically compromised or incompetent scientists. The science itself is complex, making it difficult for the average person to sift through all the misdirection and misinformation. Standing against all this is simple respect for scientific integrity and the dedication to follow the evidence wherever it leads.

Right now the evidence leads to the firm conclusion that vaccines do not cause autism. Yet, if history is any guide, the myth that they do cause autism will likely endure even in the face of increasing contradictory evidence.

As the article demonstrates clearly (if depressingly) there is no amount of evidence from the real world that can move a truly committed believer.


Matt M said...

Overheard on a bus (here in the UK) a few years ago:

Teenage Girl #1: You know George Bush is President of America?
Teenage Girl #2: Yeah.
Teenage Girl #1: Well, who's President over here then?

J. Carter Wood said...


One of my favourite bits of film dialogue comes from Whit Stillman's Barcelona:

FRED: Maybe you can clarify something for me. Since I've been, you know, waiting for the fleet to show up, I've read a lot, and--

TED: Really?

FRED: And one of the things that keeps popping up is this about "subtext." Plays, novels, songs--they all have a "subtext," which I take to mean a hidden message or import of some kind. So subtext we know. But what do you call the message or meaning that's right there on the surface, completely open and obvious? They never talk about that. What do you call what's above the subtext?

TED: The text.

FRED: OK, that's right, but they never talk about that.

Disgustipated said...

Excellent read. I have been thinking alot about how regressive the US has become in it's "collective beliefs" on religion, science and just plain damn facts and it is upsetting especially in the age of information there is no excuse.

Dale said...

Interesting. I caught the same article on Susan Jacoby and look forward to her new book.

Sometimes in the course of blogging, I'll wonder, "gosh, aren't I belaboring the obvious here?" And then something from pop culture or everday life reminds of how appallingly uninformed people can be on the (seemingly) most basic of things. So on my blog I have more or less sworn off the assumption that people can count their own thumbs, and just proceed in a way that probably tees off people who have read at least two books.

I gather that's an elitist thing to say but I can also point to vast acreages of my own ignorance and, in any case, elitism is hardly the worst of things.

J. Carter Wood said...

Indeed, disgustipated, anyone with an internet connection is about 10 seconds from at least a basic set of (reasonably) reliable information about most any topic whatsoever.

(Of course, he or she may run across a website offering No Good Information whatsoever, but that's what, say, education is supposed to teach: the ability to sift information, at least on a basic level, so as to judge its value.)

The issue is not so much -- as you note, Dale -- one of not knowing certain more detailed or sophisticated things. I think there is a level of basic factual information that you should just be expected to pick up by walking half awake through this life (Pearl Harbor did not mark the start of the Vietnam War, Germany is a democracy, where a nation is located that one's own country has invaded, etc.)

The Wife has mentioned to me that some of her students (and these are otherwise quite good students), for example, apparently were surprised by her mention that the oceans are being over-fished. They apparently believed that the oceans, being so vast, were a limitless resource. Overfishing (hardly an obscure topic) somehow...passed them by.

The other thing that Jacoby mentions that is the more difficult issue is not so much knowledge itself but rather the attitude toward it. So, not being ignorant, as such, but the notion that it is OK (or maybe even somehow better) not to know too much.

That is the more disturbing thing.

I mean...there's a lot I don't know. But I feel bad about that, try to conceal it or -- given enough time and motivation -- remedy it.

I don't think it's elitist to advocate the superiority of that sort of perspective on things.

And if it is, then so be it.