The Metacognitive Deficit is Symptomatic of an Epistemological ProblemTuesday, August 31st, 2010
WARNING: RANT AHEAD!
NYT Columnist David Brooks (via Metamodern):
….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.