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August 17, 2015

Terrific Bill Whittle "Afterburner" Video Essay on The Great Unlearning

Check it out at Legal Insurrection.

If you don't have the time, I'll just mention one key insight, which is new to me. Whittle discusses the famous embarrassment of online outrage junkies commenting on Steven Spielberg's hunting of a triceratops.

From Twitchy:


Now, some people commenting on the Great Triceratops Hunt seem to have been kidding, trolling, or looking to cause other people embarrassment. The original poster above is probably that sort.

But Joyce Carol Oates, who seems fairly humorless and addicted to outrage, seems serious to me.

Now, Bill Whittle has an interesting insight into such clowns: He thinks they detect, on some level, that this is a triceratops. He thinks they understand, on some level, then, that this must be fake, given that triceratops have been extinct for 60 million years. (Or whatever.)

But what he says he detected people doing is putting aside that basic information to make a case in their own minds that what they were seeing was worth believing -- all in order to get themselves to the socially-approved emotional state of outrage.

That is, they actually sort of knew this could not be real, but convinced themselves this was some kind of bizarre mutant rhino so that they could conform with the herd.

They put aside their brains to join the Herd Brain, he suggests.

Let me link an article from March of 2015 in which a professor of philosophy suggests that conspiracy theories (and I mention that, because Whittle begins with the continuing Moon Landing Hoax conspiracy theory) should be categorized not as errors of thinking but as the product of intellectual vices.

He discusses an "Oliver" who believes in the 9/11 conspiracy theory despite the large amounts of evidence and counter-argument against it.

You realise, of course, that Oliver’s theory about 9/11 has little going for it, and this might make you wonder why he believes it. The question ‘Why does Oliver believe that 9/11 was an inside job?’ is just a version of a more general question posed by the US skeptic Michael Shermer: why do people believe weird things?

...

I want to argue for something which is controversial, although I believe that it is also intuitive and commonsensical. My claim is this: Oliver believes what he does because that is the kind of thinker he is or, to put it more bluntly, because there is something wrong with how he thinks. The problem with conspiracy theorists is not, as the US legal scholar Cass Sunstein argues, that they have little relevant information. The key to what they end up believing is how they interpret and respond to the vast quantities of relevant information at their disposal. I want to suggest that this is fundamentally a question of the way they are. Oliver isn't mad (or at least, he needn't be). Nevertheless, his beliefs about 9/11 are the result of the peculiarities of his intellectual constitution -- in a word, of his intellectual character.

...

Gullibility, carelessness and closed-mindedness are examples of what the US philosopher Linda Zagzebski, in her book Virtues of the Mind (1996), has called 'intellectual vices'. Others include negligence, idleness, rigidity, obtuseness, prejudice, lack of thoroughness, and insensitivity to detail. Intellectual character traits are habits or styles of thinking. To describe Oliver as gullible or careless is to say something about his intellectual style or mind-set -- for example, about how he goes about trying to find out things about events such as 9/11. Intellectual character traits that aid effective and responsible enquiry are intellectual virtues, whereas intellectual vices are intellectual character traits that impede effective and responsible inquiry. Humility, caution and carefulness are among the intellectual virtues Oliver plainly lacks, and that is why his attempts to get to the bottom of 9/11 are so flawed.

Now there's something to be said for that, but I want to disagree to this extent:

This professor of philosophy is here using a loosey-goosey definition of the word "know." Philosophers usually write entire books on "knowing." (One quarter of philosophy is about Being; one quarter about Knowing; one quarter about the Being of Knowingness and one quarter about the Knowing of Beingness.)

Now, I understand he is writing for a lay audience here, and yet still this word "knowing" he uses -- it's very slippery.

How much do you, as a person, actually know?

Let me give you an example to illustrate my point.


If I ask you to name Einstein's famous equation relating energy and mass, I'm sure all of you would say:

e = mc^2.

But do you know that? In what sense do you know that?

Here's how I know that: I know it because someone told it to me when I was very young, and that person seemed credible, and I've believed it ever since.

Obviously, however, I have done absolutely no actual testing of this claim. In fact, I've only done light, pop-science level reading about the claim.

I accept it is true; I do not doubt Einstein, nor the thousands of scientists who have used his equation fruitfully to discover other things.

But do I know it? I understand it, on a superficial level -- energy is equal to mass times the speed of light squared; and I realize the very low-level deduction that "mass is therefore supercompacted energy" or "the total potential energy in a small amount of matter is very, very large" -- but do I know it?

I do not know it in the sense I know many other things. I know what I ate today, I know that the sun is up. I even know some abstract, sciencey things: I know the Doppler effect is real, as I hear it with every passing car.

But do I know e=mc2 like I know the things I really know?

I would say I do not; I would say I believe e=mc2, based upon the assumption that authorities I believe credible are in fact credible.

But this gets me to my point: Science is now a hyperspecialized field. Physicists not only get Ph.D.'s, but then go on for years of post-doc education as part of elite groups. Only after all that -- Ph.D. plus 4-6 year apprenticeship at the foot of an acknowledged master physicist -- are you really now ready to be a master physicist yourself, and lead your own working group.

There was once a time when an educated man could know, with some degree of facility, say, one tenth of the world's knowledge. Even early on, you could not know it all, but if you were educated and a polymath, you could know about one tenth of it, let's say, back in the age of Newton.

As humanity's collective knowledge base has expanded hyperbolically (I saw a claim recently that we've written more in the past 5 years than in all of history before now), the fraction of knowledge truly possessed by any particular person, no matter how well educated, has diminished at the same hyperbolic rate.

Thus, almost all of us, even those post-doc physicists I mention above, are required to believe many, many more things than they could ever actually be said to actually know.

And so I come to this caveat about this idea of conspiracy theory as intellectual sloth: I do see some elements of that, but when you get right down to it -- not to be a sophist, here -- but most of what we "know" about the world and its history, say 85-99%, depending on how much of a scholar one is, actually consists merely of believing a set of authorities, or disbelieving another set of authorities.

I'm not a sophist, and I get annoyed at sophists, and I'm not trying to say something stupid like "we're all equally ignorant" or that kind of thing. I'm not. I don't think we're all equally anything.

But at the heart of it, when we talk about the things we know: I agree 100% with Bill Whittle about the moon landings. They happened.

But how does he know that? How do I know that?

This is rather axiomatic, but ultimately all second-hand information about the world is gotten, get this, second hand.

And so my caveat about conspiracy theorists is not that I agree with them, or would necessarily disagree that they could use some mental muscle building when it comes to good mental habits.

However, I would say that they are making a more meta point (whether intended or not) about the basis of and character of actual information, and how most of it, at the end of the day, comes down to which "experts" you happen to believe.

Not what you actually know.

Now, I do not think that all experts are made equal; nor do I think that all objections to the accepted orthodoxy are made equal. It was once an orthodox scientific belief that, while the coasts of Africa and South America seemed so complimentary that you suspected that a great force had simply pulled them apart and separated them at the seems, this was pure coincidence, for of course there was no force acting in the world that could pull continent-sized masses asunder.

Then there was.

It was previously the best scientific explanation for the extinction of dinosaurs was that gradual processes, such as volcanism pumping more aerosols into the atmosphere, caused the world to cool, and support less plant life, which resulted in a mass die-off due to starvation. It was specifically rejected (as a meta-scientific rule of thumb) that any sudden, singular event caused the extinction.

This rule had been put into science to screen out many pseudoscientific claims about sinking continents (like Atlantis or Mu) or attempting to prove Biblical narratives (like the Great Flood) in scientific journals.

But eventually that rule was ruled to be a bad rule, because of course it was proven ( I believe) that a major asteroid hit the earth about sixty million years ago on the Yucatan peninsula and killed the dinosaurs in a few years-- a very dramatic singular, non-gradual process.

Because so much is unknowable to people now, even in principle -- humanity's common knowledge base has grown too large -- people are forced to resort to their own private explanations of how the world works.

And this applies especially to government action --as government has grown in size and distance from the individual, the average citizen feels less and less like he even understands what it's doing (quick -- explain what the Fed does), and resorts to less-than-logical explanation which he can understand (even if they're not very accurate).

Just like they used to, before the world seemed like it could be knowable during the Enlightenment. That is, before the Enlightenment, when it seemed the Knowledge of All Things was potentially within any educated (and diligent) man's grasp, people resorted to magical, supernatural explanations to explain strange events.

Conspiracy theories are nothing more than magical, supernatural explanations dressed up to sound vaguely modern.

And so I don't know if this is definitely a "defect" in people's thinking, so much as it is an improvised stopgap in reaction to the fundamental unknowability of the world, and a reversion to the Old Ways of explaining everything as the workings of Mysterious Wizards.

Corrected: It's just e = m c squared, not e = m c quantity squared, as i said in the article. Also, I threw in the ^ to indicate it's a square, not a doubling.


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