MARCH 28, 2017
The most pressing question of our age is not what will happen when the computers outsmart us. Nor is it the future of globalisation, or how to stop climate change.
It is much more fundamental than these: Why is everyone so mean and stupid, and why is it getting worse?
Read the news, watch TV, browse your social media feed, talk to your relatives: Moronic proclamations, transmitted in a solution of rage, are the currency of the day.
Consider the Brexit debate in the United Kingdom, or last year’s presidential race in the United States. The intellectual depravity and personal acrimony of these contests made both nations’ previous exercises in competitive incivility look lily-livered. We all play our part.
I myself have a notable capacity for self-deception and a nasty temper. Twitter makes both worse. But the fact that no one is innocent only makes the question more pressing. Something has damaged our ability to talk about matters of substance, and respect those with the expertise to do so convincingly.
What is it? Pointing an accusing finger at the Internet — the same finger jabbed at television few decades ago — is logical, inasmuch as the Internet has changed the intellectual landscape radically and recently.
The Internet cannot be the whole answer, though. In The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach argue that a big part of the problem is that we have a profound misunderstanding of how human intelligence works.
WE UNDERSTAND VERY LITTLE
Knowledge is the product — in the words of philosopher Philip Kitcher — of a cognitive division of labour. Each of us may be expert in a small area but that area is bounded on all sides by the work of others, work we could never reproduce ourselves. Yet we imagine ourselves as rugged cognitive individualists, growing our own intellectual food and living in mental houses built with our own hands. This is a dangerous error.
Dr Sloman and Dr Fernbach offer clever demonstrations of how much we take for granted, and how little we actually understand. An example: Try drawing a picture of a bicycle, with the chain, all the bits of the frame, and the pedals all in the correct place. It is not so easy.
In an experimental setting, half of people set this task fail it. If that is too basic, explain how a flush toilet works. Easy? Well, unless you described how a trapway creates a siphoning effect, you got it wrong.
Moving from everyday objects to specialised domains, the problem gets worse.
When put to the test, people are consistently surprised to find out how little they know about all sorts of things. We know enough to get around the world, but our sense that we understand how the world works is largely an illusion — an illusion that information technology serves to make more convincing.
An Internet search creates the impression of understanding, or even expertise, rather than the real thing. And as technology improves, people depend on it ever more.
“Eventually they lose focus, become distracted, and check out, leaving the system to run on its own.” This is harmless, until something goes wrong and human competence is needed — fast.
Dr Sloman and Dr Fernbach point out several deadly accidents that this phenomena has contributed to.
The illusion has a particularly insidious effect on politics. People who think they know more than they do about something — the healthcare system, say, or global warming —are demonstrably more likely to have strong opinions about it.
This is in part because we fill in the gaps in our knowledge with value commitments: Healthcare becomes a matter of our attitude to government interference, not medicine; global warming becomes about attitudes towards science, not atmospheric gases.
And once strong views are in place, sensible compromise slips out of out of reach. The book is stimulating, and any explanation of our current malaise that attributes it to cognitive failures — rather than putting it down to the moral wickedness of one group or another — is most welcome.
ILLUSION OF KNOWLEDGE
Dr Sloman and Dr Fernbach are working to uproot a very important problem. I only wonder if they appreciate how deep those roots go. The illusion of knowledge is not a common-or-garden cognitive bias.
It is one thing to read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast And Slow (2011) and resolve to be less risk-averse. It is another thing to reject an idea that has helped underpin the western intellectual tradition since the 17th century. The Enlightenment project was, in part, about rejecting received knowledge and replacing it with individual reason.
Given what passed for institutional knowledge in pre-Enlightenment Europe — religious dogma — one can hardly blame Descartes for starting with cogito ergo sum instead.
The individual mind was a tool not just of discovery, but of political resistance.
This helps explain why the idea that knowledge is something that each of us, bit by bit, can build up from truths accessible to all of us, is a core feature not just of Cartesian rationalism but British empiricism as well.
An informative example is David Hume’s famous argument about miracles. It goes like this: A miracle, by definition, is something that violates a natural law — that is, a conjunction of events that holds with perfect consistency in our experience. Bits of lead always fall when dropped; human life always ends in death.
We also have experience that testimony can be a source of truth. But testimony and the truth of what is testified do not always go together.
Sometimes people are mistaken, or lie. So, when assessing a report of a miracle (“Jesus walked on water”), we have to weigh our perfectly consistent experience that water’s surface does not support bodies against the inconsistent experience that people tend to tell the truth.
The balance must always go with the more perfect experience. The target here is religious authority. The weapon of choice is the idea that all knowledge is based in individual experience.
A good target and an appealing idea, but the argument falls down for reasons that Dr Sloman and Dr Fernbach make clear.
QUESTIONING EXPERT OPINIONS
For Hume, we believe what experts tell us because we have individual experience of expert reliability.
This is daft: Most of us have no standing to even make indirect inferences about the trustworthiness of experts. The idea that I would have reasons of my own to believe, say, Prof Stephen Hawking’s view of quantum gravity is risible.
Yes, we should question experts where we can. But what I know to be true simply cannot be comprehensively underwritten by my own experience or reasoning. We are tiny labourers at work in a vast field.
This message, which philosophers of science and knowledge have been sending for decades now, has not gotten through. The general public, sad to say, have taken the individualistic bias of the Enlightenment on board, while jettisoning its commitment to learning.
This awful combination is explored by Tom Nichols in The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. Mr Nichols is an academic — a professor at the US Naval War College — but happily he has not written an academic work.
He is a specialist taking a hard look at the broader culture and responding with disgust, in the noble tradition of literary historian Paul Fussell’s gimlet-eyed Class and art historian Robert Hughes’ The Culture of Complaint.
If Dr Sloman and Dr Fernbach characterise our culture as labouring under a pervasive illusion, Prof Nichols sees it as suffering from an emotional disorder, a crazed egocentricity brought about by self-satisfied egalitarianism and know-nothing libertarianism (one of the pleasures of the book is the way that it shows the same problems have arisen from the characteristic maladies of both ends of the ideological spectrum).
The result is aggressive disdain for anyone who would presume to know more than anyone else.
[Ah! "Education Inflation". Or being Educated beyond your Intelligence. You might have met someone like that. He officially has a university degree. But he's an idiot. And thinks he is smart. As smart as any expert.]
Technology has encouraged us to confuse access to information with knowledge. Education treats teachers as customer-service professionals rather than people who know things that students do not, and offers students inflated grades, meaningless credentials and a false sense of their own wisdom.
Journalists are encouraged to give their audiences what they want, rather than telling them what they need to know.
This may sound like a rant you have heard before, but Prof Nichols has a sense of humour and chooses his examples well. His anger is a lot more attractive than the standard condescension. The tricky bit, of course, is what to do about this mess.
Here, Prof Nichols can say little more than what sensible people always have. Citizens — now so proudly ill-informed that they cannot even make use of expert opinion in fulfilling their civic role — must rediscover a sense of responsibility.
Legal scholar Cass Sunstein has similar worries, as reflected in the title of his new book, #republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media. His organising principle is the distinction between the freedom of the consumer who enjoys the full spectrum of choice, and the freedom of the citizen who is a fit participant in a representative democracy.
The Internet promotes consumer freedom. It gives us all the information we want. Unfortunately, it can also suppress the freedom of the citizen, by limiting exposure to the full range of information citizens may not want — but absolutely need.
The ability to customise our informational environment, delivered by social media, makes it less likely that citizens will come across information that would change their minds or have chance encounters with perspectives different from their own.
The epistemic prisons we build for ourselves do worse than lock us into the views we currently have, while protecting our dumbest ideas from revision.
As Prof Sunstein shows in his review of the experimental evidence, they tend to make our views more extreme. Online, the views of a few individuals can create cascades of information and opinion. Insulated digital communities tend to become more isolated and their views become more extreme. The moderate form of this syndrome results in an electorate characterised by mutual suspicion and incomprehension.
[So we're back to the internet.]
Its ultimate form incubates terrorist cells. Prof Sunstein, as one might expect of an academic associated with “nudge” theory, thinks better choice architecture and better-designed regulations are the key to finding a solution. He thinks we should be subsidising online public forums at which citizens are exposed to views they might not otherwise encounter.
He wants social media companies and online publications to make it easier for their users to access diverse views — perhaps with prominent “opposing viewpoint” or “serendipity” buttons. And he suggests that the online recruitment efforts of violent extremists may require us to reinterpret free speech protections.
The standard test that speech must present a “clear and present danger” may put too strong a requirement that the danger be imminent. All three of these books are written with vigour and humanity.
But the solutions the authors present are less compelling than their articulations of what has gone wrong. This is not a criticism so much as an acknowledgment that they have gotten hold of a very nasty set of problems. There is much work to be done, and it will take a lot of intelligence and a lot of civility to complete it. FINANCIAL TIMES
Robert Armstrong is the FT’s chief leader writer.
"Everybody" has always been "stupid" - if we define "smart" as the top 10% (or 1%) of humanity (in intelligence) and the rest as "average to stupid". However, Democracy empowers the majority, which tends to be average (to stupid).
The problem (from the perspective of Brexiters, Trumpeters, ReturnMyCPF-ers, Aljunied Repenters, etc) is that the 10% (elites) are talking down to them. Democracy then allows them (the mean and stupid) to stick it to the elites.
"Mean and stupid" is the reaction and response of the elites to the majority not agreeing with them. Or not understanding them in the first place.
"Mean and stupid" is what the majority then calls the elites for talking down to them and calling them "mean and stupid" because the elites' explanations are perfunctory, and incomprehensible.
Am I hallucinating? Take the recent water tariff hikes. PM Lee has to concede that the communication was done badly.
And the 2014 National Day Rally, when PM Lee had to explain CPF retirement schemes. AT. THE. NATIONAL. DAY. RALLY. It's so complicated that it takes a PM at the NDR to explain?
I am inclined to conclude (perhaps wrongly) that the complaint of "mean and stupid" are the complaint of the elites and experts incapable of making themselves comprehensible to the general public (i.e. the stupid), and dismissing their complaints.
Then of course, there is the blowback from the "mean and stupid" (or basket of deplorables) gallery.
Then things get really mean and stupid.
A self-fulfilling prophecy really.
See also "Elitism. It's all in your head."]