Forgetting How to Think

Today, a growing proportion of the populace aspires to be on a par with experts, and sees real experts as suspicious or even bogus figureheads, like the rich landowners of the industrial revolution who kept the general population poor with malice and greed. I now see this kind of challenge quite often when people don't like the conclusions experts present: a head-in-the-sand rejection of knowledge in what is now seen as a kind of open market for being right.

Academic titles and values are being eroded today faster than any melting polar ice cap. Daily lives have become so easy for many that previously unthinkable resources like money, goods or information are available available at the mere push of a button. What once took years of planning and consultation with experts to obtain is now available in a Corn Flake box, at the local supermarket, or comes with its own remote control. With or without an education, a Child of the Internet can feel superficially `brilliant', and be bolstered with unreasonable confidence in their own judgement.

That, of course, is due mainly to the genius of commerce - turning hard work and difficult ideas into consumable produce for everyman. But this ease of use is also a very dangerous and double-edged sword, for today almost everyone thinks they know the answer to sometimes subtle and complex questions. All you need is a sound-bite answer from some conjured webpage to assure you of an equal right to expertise. Respect for true understanding has withered to mere scepticism of personal credentials.

The emperor's new mind

There is surely a fundamental loss of humility in us all: as the general level of perceived education has become more universal, the respect for what is truly special has been devalued. Easy answers abound in books, on TV, and the Internet, removing some of the mystique of expertise -- but how do you know which sources as true in a purely market driven world? Answers are easy to sell to the lost and the needy; such souls are easily seduced by charlatans selling snake-oil or religion.

The Internet has created a false impression, namely that if you just say something loudly enough and with sufficient confidence, it must be true. It fuels the hopeless postmodernists who think that all knowledge is merely a matter of opinion (the sky is only blue because some male chauvinist has imposed their prejudice on us). Even setting that kind of tomfoolery aside, it boils down to simple pragmatism: answers are unimportant. What we need is good questions -- and experts are people who know how to ask those questions. After all, if you don't ask the right questions (or even realize that there are questions to be asked) how will you know the if you've got the right answers?

'I can't believe that!' said Alice.
'Can't you?' the Queen said in a pitying tone. 'Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.'
Alice laughed. 'There's no use trying,' she said 'one can't believe impossible things.'
'I daresay you haven't had much practice,' said the Queen. 'When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast...'

The question is king

As a professor (intellectual landowner), what I have learned is that it is not the answers that are important, but rather how to ask the questions. That is how you get to the bottom of an issue. An answer is a dead end, but a question opens new vistas of opportunity. The skill learned by academics is not how to spot when answers are the right, but the opposite: to easily spot when answers are the wrong. That is a much easier thing to do. Essentially, we develop acute nonsense detectors. For instance, a red flag to any thinker would be the phrase `that's just the way it is!' or `it must be so'. That is a clear sign that the person claiming something as truth does not understand what they think they know. Having no understanding of information means you are unqualified to wield that information. Put it down, Eugene, and walk away.

The scientific method has been developed over centuries to systematically approach a state of improved certainty about what we know. But science has become a dirty word, devalued by the apparent ease of access to knowledge. But no matter, we can use a word from commerce instead: the scientific method is just a process of `quality assurance' for knowledge. It is a `bullshit detector', and like any QA process, it is very hard work. Those who have not passed their test, who don't carry a flying license for knowledge, should not be caught wielding possibly dangerous material. If it ever got to court, it would be called fraud.

The Lost Art of Reasoning

Eagerness to pretend knowledge is only one part of the contemporary intellect. You don't have to go to university to be smart, you just have to think carefully about stuff. I believe that is connected to reading and writing.

Writing skills seem to be on the decline, or does every generation believe this? I believe that writing is one of the most important things we do. Story-telling is a form of thinking (in narrative) that seems to be the basis of much of our conscious reasoning. Probably this ability to relate stories evolved in our past in order remember and navigate pathways through complex terrain (I don't know this, I'm guessing and you should not take my word for it -- or probably anyone else's without due diligence).

In her book Proust and the Squid, Maryanne Wolf of Tufts University, argues that the rise of human civilization can be correlated with the rise of reading and writing -- that the discipline of using our brains for something they were not directly designed for appears to have encouraged human development. The structures we use in our brains are too old for writing to have played a role in their development (writing is a modern activity), so at best our abilities to read and write (and therefore by implication civilization itself) is a pleasant side-effect of skills developed for something else entirely (like wandering through a forest).

The means however that if we actually stopped reading and writing in the future (if, for instance, we only pushed buttons for a living and never exercised our minds), we could quickly revert to primal stupidity and disorganized living. Indeed, I imagine that I see the tendency towards this every day. Blind faith in hearsay knowledge is so cheap today that the market for our attention has been flooded with cheap catchetisms and even speculations masquerading as truth. The general lack of critical judgement is poor training. People no longer expect to have to ask incisive questions. No answer ever came before a question in the past -- but today, by flooding the mind with easy answers, we quash every interesting question before it even forms. This is the world of information as noise.

In science, `analytical thinking' basically means coming up with a plausible story for something that is robust to criticism. Anyone can make up an answer, even promote it with false confidence, but not every story is unassailable. Learning to read and write helps these reasoning skills, by forcing us to work and rework ideas until they are quality-assured.

No substitute for hard work

The real danger we are in today is believing that good answers are easy answers -- that low-cost is a sufficient virtue in itself. Neither depth of experience nor investment of effort are `in' because the economy of thought has been flooded with cheap produce from The Internet.

We all recognize this trend: the triumph of short-term reward over long-term benefit. It is the negative side of business and politics, the obsession with money and accountability -- the abhorrence of risk for the greater good. This is the cowardly approach to the future. We've all seen the harmful effects of this kind of trend in society. It has already brought us close to the near heat-death of research in the West.

Is the situation hopeless? No, it is never hopeless. One can hope that this is just one development in a trend that will swing back like a pendulum in time. Of course; I don't know this either, so please verify it, or better still make it happen as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Civilizations have collapsed before, but never one that made it so far. Respect for real thinkers will eventually come back one the value of information crashes on the global exchange.

My answer? The only one I know: think harder, and then think harder still. Success lies in effort, not in ease. Read, write, then do it all over again to make it better. Repeat until perfect, or die trying.