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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.

Fallen Walls and Fallen Towers by Adrienne Redd

Monday, August 30th, 2010


Fallen Walls and Fallen Towers: The Fate of the Nation in a Global World by Adrienne Redd

I “met” Dr. Adrienne Redd some years ago through the kind offices of Critt Jarvis, which resulted in a wide-ranging and intermittent email discussion, sometimes joined by John Robb and others, of “virtual states”, “virtual nations”, “micropowers” and evolving concepts of sovereignty and statehood in international relations. It was an intellectually stimulating conversation.

Today, Dr. Redd is Nimble Books’ newest author, and she has just sent me a review copy of Fallen Walls and Fallen Towers, the culmination of approximately seven years of research and writing.  Redd investigates nothing less than the “fate of the state” and I am looking forward to reading her argument in detail.

To be reviewed here soon….

Recommended Reading

Monday, August 30th, 2010

Top Billing! Shepherd’s Pi –  Free Tools for the New Scientific Revolution

This important post by Lewis Shepherd is of particular interest to those readers who are quants, scientists, university researchers, computer experts, intel analysts, DIY geeks, engineers and business innovators:

….One groundrule was that invited private-sector speakers were not allowed to give anything resembling a “sales pitch” of their company’s wares. Fair enough – I’m no salesman.  The person who immediately preceded me, keynoter Vint Cerf, slightly bent the rules and talked a bit about his employer Google’s products, but gee whiz, that’s the prerogative of someone who is in large part responsible for the Internet we all use and love today.

I described in my talk the radical new class of super-powerful technologies enabling large-data research and computing on platforms of real-time and archival government data. That revolution is happening now, and I believe government could and should be playing a different and less passive role. I advocated for increased attention to the ongoing predicament of U.S. research and development funding.

….To supplement those points from my talk, here are some items from Microsoft Research’s new focus on scientific tools, available for free here. Most of these are open-source tools and “research accelerators”

The post is long and rich in links, apps and explanations.

 Defense Horizons (Dr. Sean Kay) – From Sputnik to Minerva: Education and American National Security

….Public discourse following the September 2001 terrorist attacks initially implied that this new challenge would inspire a Federal response in realigning educational security infrastructure, as had Sputnik. By 2003, however, evidence indicated that the level of educational investment was disappointing. For example, the United States had enormous deficits in critical language expertise, especially in Arabic, Farsi, and Pashto. In 2003, the Department of Education noted that, of the 1.8 million graduates of American colleges and universities,a total of 22 students had completed degrees in Arabic.11

The Washington Monthly (Kevin Carey) – The Mayo Clinic of Higher Ed ( Hat tip to Eddie)

….Next, Lehmkuhle had to hire professors and decide how to organize their work. Traditional universities isolate their faculty in academic departments that often view one another as strange denizens of another planet at best, outright enemies at worst. Departments also accumulate administrative structures-chairs, vice chairs, and so on-over time. Lehmkuhle didn’t have enough money to pay for vice chairs, and he wanted professors from different disciplines to work together. The solution: no departments.

Traditional universities also separate teaching from research. These functions are not just disconnected, but often antagonistic. Many professors vying for tenure in the publish-or-perish system are openly encouraged to neglect their students in favor of scholarship. Lehmkuhle resolved this tension by making tenure at UMR contingent on three factors: teaching, research in the academic disciplines, and research about teaching. For UMR professors, applying their analytic powers to their own teaching practice would be a standard part of the job.

….I saw Muthyala’s approach to teaching in action when I attended one of his classes. For more than an hour, he stayed in motion, moving in a 270-degree arc around the room, alternating between short explanations of the material and friendly interrogation. Questions and diagrams popped up on wall-mounted projection screens as students used their laptops to examine data on spreadsheets and flip back and forth between charts on PowerPoint slides. Some pulled portable whiteboards down from racks and began scrawling out equations with green markers as other members of their team pointed and offered suggestions. “Can we rule out an ester unambiguously?” Muthyala asked at one point. “No, we cannot. Make sure you read up on proton NMR spectroscopy before you come to the next class.” This went over my head, but the students seemed to understand completely. And I did understand the term “creatine” when it was mentioned. After all, it had come up in another class already.

SWJ Blog (Ann Marlowe)David Galula: His Life and Intellectual Context and (G. Murphy Donovan)- Signals and Noise in Intelligence

Yet almost nothing has been published about the life and intellectual context of Galula, who died of a sudden illness while at the height of his intellectual achievements, at the age of 48, in 1967.

Little in Galula’s career was predictable, and much of his brilliant work reflects his varied and rich life. Though he is best known for writing about his experiences as a captain and major in the French Army in Algeria, Galula had almost completely formed his theories before taking command. Like Forrest Gump, Galula seems to have turned up everywhere that a military theorist of his time needed to be

Next excerpt:

….Roberta Wohlstetter‘s (1912-2007) military intelligence study, Pearl Harbor; Warning and Decision (1962), is required reading for most entry level Intelligence professionals, yet there is little evidence that her cautionary classic has had a lasting impact on Intelligence praxis. The proliferation of Intelligence agencies since Mrs. Wohlstetter‘s day may have increased the ambient noise within the IC by orders of magnitude. If spending is a measure of complexity, the Intelligence budget has trebled in less than a decade. The IC now employs nearly a quarter million souls at a cost of 75 billion dollars per annum. The Director on National Intelligence (DNI) claims that ten thousand analysts are working the terror problem alone. Indeed, terrorism has become a cash cow for academics, think tanks, and government agencies

Historyguy99 – Piper Bill Millin, 51st Highand Division, RIP

For those who don’t know, Bill Millin was the personal piper of Brigadier Simon Fraser, 15th Lord Lovat who led the 1st Special Service Brigade ashore at Sword Beach on D-Day. Lovat ordered Millin to pipe the troops as they stormed the beaches in defiance of an order banning the playing of the pipes. Millin continued to play and marched back and forth along the beach piping as his comrades fell around him. His bravery stunned the Germans, who later claimed that they spared him because they thought him mad

CTOvision –  The Devil is in the Details: Seven Tests to Apply to any Cyber Conflict Concept

Bob Gourley on old and new thoughts about cyber conflict.

Joseph FoucheWorth Reading: Richelieu and Olivares

Excellent historical review/essay.

The Jamestown FoundationHawks vs. Doves: Beijing Debates “Core Interests” and Sino-U.S. Relations

Congratulations to Dr. Barnett for the new additions to his family!

Cameron on Afghanistan 2050

Sunday, August 29th, 2010

The  Afghanistan 2050 Roundtable going on at Chicago Boyz:

Charles Cameron –Afghanistan 2050

….Let me clothe my speculations, then, in science fiction, openly presented as such, about “branching world-lines” and the ways in which possible futures branch out from the experienced present and often ill-remembered past… I’ll take Everett’s “Many-Worlds” theory as my framework, and throw in a very slight shift of the long pendulum – I see us backing away from the intensive cultivation of material goods and values which has characterized the last few centuries, and very gradually turning towards a more introspective, contemplative sense of the world and our place in it.

….Historians – on the world-line this is written from, and consequently in those cognate worldlines in which you are reading me – tend to date the by now (2050) clear shift in priorities (if not in actualization) currently emerging along these world-lines to the 2020 joint publication in Nature and Physical Review G of Dogen’s confirmation of the Everett-Klee Transformation Hypothesis, which stated (in its minimal formulation) that free choice is the mechanism by which a human individual switches tracks in a given “present moment” from a “past” world-line to a particular “future” world-line, branching “in that moment” from the first.

Gupta’s 2024 dissertation at the revived Nalanda University suggesting that “morality decisioning” (a horrible phrase, now thankfully forgotten) was the key to shifting from more suffering-dense, competitive and warlike to less suffering-dense, more collaborative and peaceable world-lines was quickly followed by the recognitions that meditative (Snyder, 2025) and liturgical (Hopkins, 2025) practices were among the most powerful methodologies, certainly complementing and perhaps even surpassing “good works” by considerable margins in widely repeated tests of “world-hopping” as the practice of side-stepping from one line to another came to be called.

Read the rest here.

Fingerspitzengefühl, Jawohl!

Friday, August 27th, 2010

Dr. Chet Richards gives a concise and practical explanation of the intuitive strategic-tactical skill, Fingerspitzengefühl.

Developing the touch

Ibis raised an interesting question in one of his comments:  If Fingerspitzengefühl can be taught, why do so few people have it?

Two points:  First, Fingerspitzengefühl is a skill, so although most people can get better at it, some are going to get a lot better.

Second, it’s a strange kind of skill, not for performing complicated or even dangerous tasks mystically well, but for sensing what is going on among groups of people in conflict and then influencing what happens.

….The first problem in learning Fingerspitzengefühl is that you can’t learn it by yourself.  You have to have at least two groups of people to practice with – your team and some opponents.  And to develop this skill, you have to practice a lot, because people, unlike clubs, don’t obey laws as simple as f=m•a.  And you have to practice influencing your own team – call that “leadership” – while also influencing the opposition – call that “strategy.”  And you have to learn it in increasingly unstructured and even threatening situations, under varying time constraints. This is the concept behind Vandergriff’s adaptive leader methodology, which I’ve referred to before….

Read the whole thing here.


My thoughts on fingerspitzengefuhl.

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