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The Metacognitive Deficit is Symptomatic of an Epistemological Problem


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.

11 Responses to “The Metacognitive Deficit is Symptomatic of an Epistemological Problem”

  1. YNSN Says:

    I agree with you.  The only way to fix this, in an era where information is cheap and verification is lacking, is to teach critical thinking in schools.  Not, indirectly as it is currently in schools, but directly.  The same goes for teaching an individual to teach themselves.  To give a concise context to just about anything in the US today probably requires a Masters level degree in just US history and government.  The time required to be fluent enough in subjects just does not fall neatly into a scholastic time line. 

  2. shane Says:

    Great post/rant on epistemology! My theory is that the root cause is not malice or vanity as much as it is overstimulation.

    MSM condenses to 7-sec sound bites not because they think we’re stupid, but because they know we’re overwhelmed.

    This is the price we pay for convenient broadband access. And in response, we try to gasp for breath while rocketing across the surface rather than dive deeply into content.

    The irony is that our free and easy access to "stubborn facts" has decreased our willingness to perceive them.

  3. Cheryl Rofer Says:

    And the MSM seems to have taken seriously Mad Magazine’s "All the news that fits, we print!"

    There seems to be very little fact-checking by reporters these days and a willingness to spread the nonsense quite uncritically.

  4. J. Scott Says:

    Shane is on to something. If you want to see the future, check out the movie Ideocracy—if we stay on the present track, that’s how we’ll end up.

  5. historyguy99 Says:

    I join in recognizing your great post, and add my "dittos" to the comments of the blog friends above; who share your concern and dismay at how far the intellectual ballon has deflated over the past quarter-century.

  6. zen Says:

    Gracias, my friends. I fear this trend will take a decade or more to reverse, if it is reversible.
    Need to check out Ideocracy – thx Scott!

  7. MMaineiac Says:

    Good post. There is a decline in respect for expertise and authority. I don’t know if there has been a decline in critical thinking skills or if the lack of thinking skills is just more obvious given that voices which would not have been heard before at all now are heard.

    One other point, never before have some many people, including non-academics, had the opportunity to communicate in this fashion (blog posts, comments) and get feedback from other readers or  the blog post author himself. I know this has caused me to think with a little more care  what I am thinking or trying to communicate. Likewise I have a blog in my own field with 50 or so readers and sometime  get WTF comments which make me rethink what I have written. None of this would have occurred a decade ago.

  8. Joseph Fouche Says:

    This post:http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/08/we-are-all-talk-radio-hosts/highlights an argument that reasoning is not based on what is correct but that "the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade." If that argument is correct, what approximates society wide reasoning is based not on abstractly correct reasoning but reasoning that wins arguments. Sophistry or rhetoric, as the Greeks and Romans called it. The "point system" or social metrics that determine who wins arguments and who looses and the social rewards or penalties that follow determine the quality of reasoning. The only check that may impose truth on a society may be external to it by a potential someone with more accurate internal social metrics.

  9. MM Says:

    It is interesting how the meaning of data and information changes and how the human mind adapts.  With tiny amounts of objective data we develop explanations of existence with gods and superstitions and long trains of abstract reasoning.  Today with vast amounts of data we construct information and abstract reasoning around large and thin seas of bits of fact and what that means to us.                                                                                                        We are different thinkers than past generations.                                                                       I love the three rules: In our world there are three "ways". A) The right way B) The wrong way C) The way it is The last choice has nothing to do with the first two.

  10. zen Says:

    Citizen JF quoted:
    "argument that reasoning is not based on what is correct but that "the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade."
    True, and a worthy point. That said, the internalization of epistemological methodology partly determines the implicit as well as explicit standards of "persuasiveness" and what constitutes "reasoning". While irrational factors will still effect the ultimate equation, perhaps significantly ( ex. JFK-Nixon Debates, TV viewers) it is better if the irrational variables are modifiers of a rational standard rather than acting as the irrational standard.

  11. Dethu Ytidiputs Says:

    Thus is the evolution of man where some are sheep. To re-engineer this is a mamoth undertaking and the schools are key. When we have decided to develop critical thinking and develop our senses. We can start working on the schools.

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