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The Metacognitive Deficit is Symptomatic of an Epistemological Problem

Tuesday, August 31st, 2010


NYT Columnist David Brooks (via Metamodern):

A Case of Mental Courage

….Burney’s struggle reminds one that character is not only moral, it is also mental. Heroism exists not only on the battlefield or in public but also inside the head, in the ability to face unpleasant thoughts.

She lived at a time when people were more conscious of the fallen nature of men and women. People were held to be inherently sinful, and to be a decent person one had to struggle against one’s weakness.

In the mental sphere, this meant conquering mental laziness with arduous and sometimes numbingly boring lessons. It meant conquering frivolity by sitting through earnest sermons and speeches. It meant conquering self- approval by staring straight at what was painful.

This emphasis on mental character lasted for a time, but it has abated. There’s less talk of sin and frailty these days. Capitalism has also undermined this ethos. In the media competition for eyeballs, everyone is rewarded for producing enjoyable and affirming content. Output is measured by ratings and page views, so much of the media, and even the academy, is more geared toward pleasuring consumers, not putting them on some arduous character-building regime.

In this atmosphere, we’re all less conscious of our severe mental shortcomings and less inclined to be skeptical of our own opinions. Occasionally you surf around the Web and find someone who takes mental limitations seriously. For example, Charlie Munger of Berkshire Hathaway once gave a speech called “The Psychology of Human Misjudgment.” He and others list our natural weaknesses: We have confirmation bias; we pick out evidence that supports our views. We are cognitive misers; we try to think as little as possible. We are herd thinkers and conform our perceptions to fit in with the group.

But, in general, the culture places less emphasis on the need to struggle against one’s own mental feebleness. Today’s culture is better in most ways, but in this way it is worse

True, and kudos to David Brooks for calling attention to the deficit in metacognition. However, I suspect that there is more to this phenomena than decadence, ADHD and a handy internet connection. There’s a problem with our epistemology. To be specific, a common epistemological standard is fading from American life, giving license to demagogues and emboldening fools.

There are many possible causes. The decline of critical thinking, logic, history and science in the curricular standards of American public schools; the disappearance of liberal education and the excesses of postmodernism, deconstructionism, constructivism and crit theory in our universities; the dumbing down of the MSM into 7 second sound bite infotainment and partisan agitprop; political correctness and its fetishes of race and gender victimization and witch-hunting; the growing legitimization of magical thinking inherent in religious fundamentalism and secular equivalents in irrationality like “deep ecology” or crackpot conspiracy theories. All of these and more have combined to erode standards of public discourse to an ever lower common denominator.

John Adams once argued before a Massachusetts jury that “facts are stubborn things”. Today it is unlikely that such an appeal would work. Not only do many people believe that they are entitled to their own set of “facts” but that they can, if they wish, dispense with facts entirely, yet self-righteously insist that their deliberate ignorance should be given the same weight as an informed argument because they “have a right to their opinion” without anyone daring to ask them why they are so morally and intellectually retarded.

Where once intellectual embarrassment prevented outright lies or inane arguments from being made in respectable forums, the popular deference to the dignity of cranks puts tin-foil hatters and their OCD political convictions about Bush orchestrating 9/11 or Obama being a secret Muslim in the center of public debate instead being confined to off-center mimeographed pamphlets passed out at airports by glassy-eyed true-believers. We feel compelled as a society to politely entertain drivel that should never have been heard past a kitchen table with a three quarters empty bottle of whiskey on it.

The country needs to regain a common intellectual ground that eschews nonsense for what it is.

The Mob of Virtue

Sunday, August 1st, 2010


Small “r” republican virtue, to be precise.

A wise man once told me that a weakness of our Constitutional system was that the Framers implicitly presumed that people of a truly dangerous character, from bullies to bandits to political menaces to the community, would primarily be dealt with in age-old fashion by outraged neighbors whose rights had been trespassed and persons abused one time too many. They did not prepare for a time when communities would be prohibited from doing so by a government that also, as a whole, had slipped the leash. Indeed, having read LockeMontesquieuCicero, Polybius, Aristotle and Plato, they expected that such a state of affairs was “corruption” of the sort that plagued the Old World and might happen here in time. A sign of cultural decadence and political decay. They gave Americans, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, “A republic, if you can keep it”. It remains so only with our vigilance.

It is happening now.

We have forgotten – or rather, deliberately been taught and encouraged to forget – the meaning of citizenship.

We have let things slip.

Joseph Fouche superbly captures this implicit element, the consequences of the loss of fear of  informal but very real community sanction, in his most recent post:

People Like Us Give Mobs a Bad Name

….A classic American mob could exhibit any or all of these strategies. It could be a saint inciting a mob to attack others who deviated from a shared narrative. It could be a knave in saint’s clothing inciting an attack on personal rivals. It could be a moralist inciting a mob against the local knaves. The one constant is that an American mob was an expression of communal self-government by moralists seeking to punish what they saw as deviant, even if its manifestation was frequently unpleasant. It was a sign the local people were engaged.

Samuel Adams was the Lenin of the American Revolution. He conceived a hatred for the British Empire and a desire for American independence well before anyone else did. Adams skillfully used mobs alongside legal pretense to incrementally spread his agenda. Others followed his example. In the Worcester Revolution of 1774, the local population shut down the normal operations of royal government in west and central Massachusetts and drove royal officials out of those regions (the book to read is Ray Raphael’s The First American Revolution: Before Lexington and Concord). The British crown lost control of inland Massachusetts before Lexington and Concord were even fought.

However, eleven years later, when many of the same local residents attempted to do the same thing in protest of the policies of a now independent Massachusetts, the state government put down their rebellion with Samuel Adams’s strong support. The difference? An apocryphal remark attributed to Adams captures some of the truth behind his attitude: “the man who dares to rebel against the laws of a republic ought to suffer death”. Mobs protesting the actions of an unrepresentative government like the British Parliament, Adams argued, were valid. Mobs protesting the actions of a representative government like Massachusetts’s state government, on the other hand, were treasonous. This doctrine, supported by other Revolutionary leaders, especially the cabal behind the Order of the Cincinnati, was eventually enshrined as the higher law of the land in the slow motion coup d’etat that overthrew the Articles of Confederation and replaced it with the more authoritarian United States Constitution in 1787-1788.

While mobs continued to combine, they were gradually neutered by the conscious agenda of American elites who sought to replace informal norms enforced by communal censure with formal norms applied under the professional supervision of “wiser heads”. This was a collusion between saints and knaves against moralists. Saints got purer standards that were not reliant on the whims of moralists who got stirred up in unpredictable ways that might violate the saints’ prevailing narrative while knaves got credentials that allowed them to entrench their positions and agendas under the cover of serving a higher good. The same sense of community morality and punishment that gave nineteenth century self-government its vigor and occasional excess was weakened as moralists were tuned out by saints embedded in holy isolation and knaves concerned only with advancing personal priorities. Moralists saw the knaves getting away with free riding off of them and began to opt out, leaving room for more knaves to free ride. For a little formal pretense, the returns on rent seeking were enormous.

The ideal went from a citizenry engaged in self-government to a system designed to advance the best and brightest. Meritocracy sounds good in theory and has some positives in reality. However, a perfect meritocracy is a perfect tyranny. All of the leaders are on once side and all the followers are on the other. This tendency toward the separation of the best from the rest may only be checked by the tendency of those on the ascendant to favor their own children, whatever their merit, over strangers that are more meritorious. This will force some aspiring meritocrats to side with the followers and bring about a rotation of elites. But the transition may take a while and its best to start before you have a meritocratic problem….

Read the whole post here.

Today’s circumstances, with the elite determinedly crafting rules for the mass but not for their class, have an ominous portent for the future of America as a democratic republic, but violence is not yet required.

Political engagement is.

Religions of the Chaos Lords

Saturday, May 29th, 2010

 Pamela L. Bunker and Dr. Robert J. Bunker at SWJ Blog

The Spiritual Significance of ¿Plata O Plomo?

Conventional wisdom holds that narco gang and drug cartel violence in Mexico is primarily secular in nature. This viewpoint has been recently challenged by the activities of the La Familia cartel and some Los Zetas, Gulfo, and other cartel adherents of the cult of Santa Muerte (Saint Death) by means of religious tenets of ‘divine justice’ and instances of tortured victims and ritual human sacrifice offered up to a dark deity, respectively. Severed heads thrown onto a disco floor in Michoacan in 2005 and burnt skull imprints in a clearing in a ranch in the Yucatán Peninsula in 2008 only serve to highlight the number of such incidents which have now taken place. Whereas the infamous ‘black cauldron’ incident in Matamoros in 1989, where American college student Mark Kilroy’s brain was found in a ritual nganga belonging to a local narco gang, was the rare exception, such spiritual-like activities have now become far more frequent.

These activities only serve to further elaborate concerns amongst scholars, including Sullivan, Elkus, Brands, Manwaring, and the authors, over societal warfare breaking out across the Americas. This warfare- manifesting itself in ‘criminal insurgencies’ derived from groups of gang, cartel, and mercenary networks- promotes new forms of state organization drawn from criminally based social and political norms and behaviors. These include a value system derived from illicit narcotics use, killing for sport and pleasure, human trafficking and slavery, dysfunctional perspectives on women and family life, and a habitual orientation to violence and total disregard for modern civil society and democratic freedoms. This harkens back to Peter’s thoughts concerning the emergence of a ‘new warrior class’ and, before that, van Creveld’s ‘non-trinitarian warfare’ projections.

Cultural evolution in action, accelerated by extreme violence.

Even a Dancing Fool Can be a Leader

Monday, March 8th, 2010

A big hat tip to John Robb for finding and posting this gem. I guess Nazism, the French and Russian Revolutions, the Spartacus Revolt and several world religions could all have been ignited by an inspired moment of interpretive dance:

Saturday, March 3rd, 2007


I watched “The Departed” last night, which was generally excellent, if a tad long with an entirely unmemorable and wooden love interest. The plot twists nicely for a gangster film and Jack Nicholson gives an adeptly understated performance as Frank Costello, a character based on the real-life Irish mob boss of Boston’s Winter Hill Gang, the notorious James J. ” Whitey” Bulger, who like Costello, was both casually murderous and a protected informant of the FBI. Matt Damon is out-acted by Leonardo DiCaprio in their joint scenes, but as neither of them will ever be confused with Sir Laurence Olivier, that really doesn’t matter much.

Worth the price of a movie rental.

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