Saturday, December 15, 2012

Educated Far Beyond Their Capacity to Undertake Analytical Thought


We live in a highly complex universe. Most of what we call our knowledge of the universe comes from culture; that is, it is passed from one individual to another, rather than having each individual learn on his/her own. We don’t feel that way at all. Each of us feels he/she has a deep understanding, and that we are clear-eyed observers. But we are kidding ourselves. Given any area of knowledge — literature, nuclear physics, climate change, psychology — the set of true experts is extremely small. Experts are the scientists who can perform and understand experiments whose outcome creates the cultural database of knowledge (or the database of a particular belief bubble).

I’ll finish with one pertinent (and extremely annoying) example: climate change. In the course of the last decade I’ve gotten into numerous arguments about climate change. I believe in anthropogenic climate change — the gradual warming of the earth due to human activity. What’s my evidence for it? Experts I trust told me so. That’s it. On two or three occasions I’ve learned the scientific basis for these opinions. But that’s irrelevant. I would have to study for, perhaps a decade to have a personal opinion that mattered. No amount of fancy talk could push me one way or the other. In such a complex area I rely totally, totally, on the opinions of people I consider experts. It is possible that my judgement of who is an expert may change, but that is the only thing that could change my opinion.

We consider ourselves experts, that we think for ourselves. But for 99% of our knowledge, we rely on the authority of others.

Heh. This has actually been on my mind for a couple months, ever since I read Razib Khan saying essentially the same thing:

(T)he smart know where to go to reinforce their biases. That is, they’re far better at motivated reasoning, and become progressively more polarized and ideological.

My point is that the reality is on many topics very few of us ‘reason for ourselves.’ Rather, we trust certain people who know better. On economics smart liberals trust Paul Krugman, and smart conservatives trust Greg Mankiw. Not only are these individuals gifted with a specialized knowledge of economics in relation to the typical smart person, but they’re much smarter than average. That’s one reason I’m usually not interested in talking politics in detail with people: why not just go to the source that they’re garbling?

Practically speaking, of course, very few of us are in any position to accurately assess those sources. I know I'm not. Like Socrates, all I know is how little I know, but unlike Socrates, I can't even console myself by smirking with disingenuous irony as I say that.

Isaiah Berlin distinguished between foxes and hedgehogs in one of his most famous essays, with foxes being those who know many things, while hedgehogs know one big thing. Me, I'm an intellectual magpie, collecting the jewels of other people's thoughts and bringing them back to my nest to set them in pleasing arrangements. At best, perhaps, a slightly eloquent parrot.