Thursday, November 22, 2012

Mr. Sullivan's Cherry Tree

Yesterday, off-blog, I was asked with the best of intentions as to whether or not people weren't generally stupider today than they used to be.  This came out of a rather bloodless article from Andrew Sullivan (what else is new) which fails to produce any conclusion or indeed reason for being, except that apparently old Andy, when he hasn't anything to say, goofs together a bunch of quotes as though people out there are "arguing," "considering," "summarizing" or "pushing back" deep inside Andy's head.

If there is a depth that can be found sufficient to do more than wet the ankles.

I am not a fan of Mr. Sullivan.  My primary experience with him is his occasional appearances on Bill Maher's show, in which he's one of the "good guys" - because he's basically a liberal - but in which he manages to say absolute shit without beginning to comprehend that he's just said it.  He's a perfect example of the worst kind of liberal - heart in the right place, but lacking the least sense of practicality, reality or qualification.  His "fame" results from that peculiar recent phenomenon of a blogger who has grown popular from his ability to research and link, while simultaneously offending only the tiniest demographic of the population:  people who can read and who actually know anything.

Obviously, people who can't read aren't offended by him.  They just don't know he exists.

According to Andy's talking puppets, we somehow A) know the memory of a resident of Athens 3,000 years ago; B) are able to use the uselessness of I.Q. tests in reference to Siberian hunter-gatherers has allows us to draw a historical conclusion about all human beings from non-modern persons; C) miss the fact that Stephen Hawking would have died nearly at birth 200,000 years ago, along with the fact that we have so few examples of human genes from 200,000 years ago that it would not be expected to find a comparative 1 in a million persons with extraordinary intelligence; and D) know that extreme selection is a thing of the past because we can guess everything about human development a million years from now - i.e., that now that we've established the modern world, human beings will never face any crisis that will need extreme selection.

Now, I'm sure that these four quoted people are quite brilliant, and that reading their whole articles does indicate that they don't believe any of the shit I just said in the previous paragraph - although Mr. Crabtree ought to read something about Athens in 1,000 B.C., since the whole Mediterranean basin was in an extreme dark age following the decimation of the Minoan and Mycenean cultures, a situation that didn't change for the next two and a half centuries.  So, no bright, intellectually alive Greeks around at the time he quotes.  But I'm quibbling.

 What our friend Andy has done is carefully cherry-picked the articles to make ... well, not a point to be sure, but supposedly the "balanced" opinion of intellectuals today.  It's what people do when they don't end the data they've gathered with their own opinion ... which is not something ANY supposedly educated person would have done prior to about forty years ago.

This habit of the University Bubble, to present arguments and 'facts' without examination, so long as they are notated, is the first reason to think that intelligence is dead.  It doesn't matter what YOU think, or what YOU believe ... so long as you quote what others have squatted out in order to achieve their tenures, you get to be a 'scholar' too.

Funny that Descartes, Abelard, Erasmus, Luther, Francis Assisi and so on, the alive intellectuals of their day, don't spend all their time quoting and notating their sources.  For some incomprehensible reason, they simply wrote under the assumption that if you were bright enough and open minded enough to actually read the words, you could make up your own mind if they were true.

This is SO unlike the modern age, where you only know it's true if it has the right stamp of approval following the words - a university degree, a cultural notation, some kind of evidence that the speaker is rich or powerful or at the very least had a job once where he or she sat next to the rich and powerful.

Fuck the words.  The words they say don't matter.  Their resume is all that matters, so that once they begin to write total shit on the page, like our friend Andy does with adroit fluidity, it doesn't matter because, for shit sakes, the man has been on television sitting right next to Noam Chomsky.

That proves he must be right, doesn't it?

I ask you - are we getting dumber ... or is it just that reading things with the intention of piecing out the truth ourselves is too much work?  Perhaps it's so much simpler to look at the brand and feel the joy of having it stamped on our ass.


Bryan said...

If you'll allow me to be dense for a moment, I can direct you to a little thing called the Flynn Effect, which suggests that IQ has been steadily rising since we first began measuring it in general populations. Whether it is an effect of education, or better nutrition, or most probably a combination of the two (among many other factors), it is an interesting phenomenon.

More to the point, I think that we are not getting dumber. It is most likely that we are not taking the time to fact check and analyze what we read because we simply do not have the time. Given the torrential amount of information we are bombarded with every day, the task of taking a moment of careful consideration is multiplied by the hundreds of moments we would need. Furthermore, in most people this task must be prompted, making it an intrusion into the flow of daily routine (which at this point is mostly a passive consumption of information).

Obvious questions arise from this: why is reflection and consideration not a natural response? Why don't people try to limit the amount on information they consume?

If I can tentatively answer these questions, I would say that critical thinking, like many things, needs to be taught. Reasoning in spite of the intuition is fundamentally counter-intuitive, which means that it is unlikely to occur spontaneously. A lack of critical thinking, then, is not a failing of intelligence, but of education. As I am fond of saying, stupidity and ignorance are not the same.

To the second, I would suggest that as a society we have not learned that information intake needs to be regulated. The tremendous amount of information being poured on us arrived not in a trickle but in a sudden torrent. Compare the two decades ago with today and you'll see that we have opened ourselves up to information in ways the 80s could have never imagined. A change this fast cannot be accommodated quickly by society. Maybe 50 years from now we'll have a better handle on it.

(Sorry for the wall of text. I am studying this in school, and I find the subject fascinating.)

Alexis said...

It was an excellent and well-reasoned response, generally in support of my education proposal, and stated entirely without the need to quote your sources.

As such, thought-provoking and relevant.

Careful that your school doesn't kill that habit in you.

Konsumterra said...

iq is a measure of adaption to modernity. IQs have been raising for a hundred years - as long as we cared to test them. An ape tested pointed to a tree as a place of safety instead of a house and failed (scored only 70) ethnic variations testing under anglos have same problems. There are many good books on how we are getting smarter - if iq was a measure of surviving with nothing in wild our hunter gatherer and ape friends would do better. Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter is a non-fiction book written by Steven Berlin Johnson is very good.

Butch said...

About rising IQ scores, it seems to me we are just getting better at educating people to do well on IQ tests. Whether or not doing well on an IQ test is an accurate measure of intelligence, well...

I have a friend who graduated from medical school but discovered during his internship he really doesn't like dealing with people (or all the paperwork). He was smart enough to be a doctor... but he discovered too late in the process that he doesn't like being a doctor. He found a job in a related field but he'll have a hard time climbing out of the pile of debt he built up over the years. Lots of people told him to suck it up and stick with being a doctor long enough to make some money... which I'm sure a lot of people in his situation would have done. And you wonder how good a doctor that kind of person really is.

tussock said...

It seems people will always think everyone is getting dumber. Each person naturally becomes much better in their fields of interest as time passes, while everyone outside that field doesn't, much.

So everyone's life is full of other people becoming relatively less able to understand the things you personally interact with most often. Younger people most obviously so.

Mr. Sullivan's problem would thus be that he can't understand how much better he's getting at his day job (getting published, getting on TV, etc), and how much he's not getting better at his hobbies (thinking about history and genetics).