Friday, December 31, 2010

Is The Idea Of An Enlightenment Dead?

Chris Mooney, a blogger over at The Intersection, gave an interesting 5 minute discussion where he despairs that the idea of an enlightenment may be as good as dead.  Why?  Let's read some quotes: (Or you can watch above yourself, between the 15 and 20 minute marks)

First: smart people are good at defending their preconceived notions:

We all think that, the longer you've been in school the more you've learned, you become more scientific in your thinking. You become more rational. 
NO! It doesn't work like that. In fact, the smarter you are the better you are at gathering information that agrees with with what you already wanted to believe anyways. And the better you are at arguing your point, the better you are at confirming your biases. In fact when arguments come at you, you've already got a armada of counter arguments. 
Unfortunately this is all too true.  In fact, we just posted on a poll that seem to suggest the more educated you are the more likely you are to side with your political parties views on climate change.  (And Chris discusses this very thing in the video.)

So: if you want someone to accept climate change, or any other issue that runs against someones world view, educating them further does not seem to mean they will be more likely to accept it!

Second: Many hoped that things like TV or the Internet will finally unite society, making us less ignorant of the world and therefore more likely to make correct decisions.  Unfortunately, this optimistic idea has failed and the media seems to only compounds the problem:
You have to throw human nature with the modern media system... The Internet came along fractionating the audience even further into self selecting the little pockets of information and their going for the stuff that they already agree with. So this confirmation bias, this sense that we're going to reaffirm ourselves, now we've got media that purposely allows us to do it.  
And so it is.

If you are right leaning there are websites and a dedicated 24 hour cable news network for you.  If you are left leaning you've got the same options from cable and the web.  If you are an atheist you have blogs like Pharyngula where you can find hundreds of other people to help reassure you that you are correct and people who are not atheists must be idiots. If you are religious... and so it goes.

On one hand smart people are great at gathering information and putting together clever arguments and on the other we have a well structured media system to assist them in their efforts.

And so Chris concludes:
We have to give up on frankly, the enlightenment.... central to the enlightenment... is this idea that truth triumphs, everybody becomes a better critical thinker. and society advances and we become more reasoned we become more knowledgeable... it's not like that.
Unfortunately, I fear he is correct.  Ultimately, the talent of being smart and resourceful mixed with the ease of finding whatever you want from the modern media will probably kill the idea of a society that converges on "truth" (whatever that means) and thus will kill the idea of an enlightenment.


(Oh and Happy New Years!)


  1. That's why if you want to convert someone you have to soften their heart. Intellectual arguments for something don't work even though smart people think they might.

  2. After listening to the discussion I was more impressed with what everyone else said not really with what Chris Mooney said. I was more impressed with what Shankar Vedantam (the last one) had to say.

    Essentially Chris Mooney was making the case that Republicans tend to be anti-Rational and that they reject scientific data simply because it is scientific. He makes the (ironically enough) irrational claim that people who reject global warming science are motivated by nothing more than a deep seated irrationality. Because of the presence of such overt irrationality he says that this goes against the spirit of the Enlightenment. Hence his assertion that the Enlightenment is dead.

    But as Shankar Vedantam pointed out, whether or not someone accepts or rejects the science behind global warming has less to do with their desire for rationality and more with the political baggage. In this sense Republicans are acting rather rationally and not irrationally as Mooney implies. Essentially what is comes down to is not a question of whether or not Republicans, or religious people, are rational or not but whether or not they accept the additional baggage that comes along with the "science" behind global warming.

    The problem is that the science behind global warming has accrued a lot of excess baggage and that means that people will oppose it for reasons other then the quality of the science or even whether they accept the process of science at all. If accepting global warming was contingent on accepting that Al Gore should have won the 2000 election then less people would accept global warming (I seriously think that there are people who reject the idea of global warming for precisely this reason). Or if accepting global warming is contingent on having higher taxes or having a socialist type society then there will be people that will reject it not because they are anti-intellectual but because they reject the taxes and socialism that comes with it. If we consider it like this then people's rejection of global warming is much more rational than someone like Mooney makes it out to be.

    Also as both Vedantam and the first guy (I can't recall his name) pointed out, the irrational nature of people is not restricted to only Republicans and religious people. Many Democrats also have irrational biases that are just as bad as the a denial of global warming. The only difference is that they are not generally ridiculed by the media for it, nor do they have bloggers writing books about how Democrats are anti-scientific.

  3. Quantumleap42,

    Thanks for the comment, and I agree Mooney is speaking in an anti-Republican tone which I tried to not bring up as it detracts from my main message that whether you are left or right, the smarter more educated and more able you are the more you will use your cleverness to cling to your views. So adding more education may not be that helpful.

    Maybe climate change is garbage by the way. (For sake of argument) My point was, *if* it wasn't, and if it were correct, smart people who receive *more* education combined all the fragmented media outlets we have today appear to be even more set that climate change is wrong.

    But not to pick on climate change. I think this goes for just about anything.

    So my point is: this throws into equation whether society can really achieve any type of convergence on true ideas by adding more education and more means of communication/media into society.

    Many people think more education will solve the problems or more avenues for communication like the internet... But they may be wrong.

    (Climate change was just an example we have polling data on which is why it was used.)

  4. John S.

    Yes, it is nice when people try to approach things with an open mind.

  5. Some days I also despair, but I also have to question whether such glory days of enlightenment have actually ever existed, or whether it's even a realistic expectation. I generally like Chris Mooney, but along with Quantumleap42, I don't think telling people that they are being irrational is going to help.

  6. Jared*,

    Believe it or not I'm actually very optimistic about the future. :)

    And it's interesting what you say about Mooney because I think one of his main goals in life is to convince people who communicate science to the public to *not* go around "telling people that they are being irrational".

  7. JS,

    Many issues at many levels.

    I have observed here before: ignorance increases at a much faster pace than knowledge. Igonrance marches on!

    And, as Buddha observed: life is impermanent so is ennlightenment. Otherwise, we all will be Buddhas, enlightened... I dread to see a world where everybody is a Buddha; but statistics assure me that it only changes the baseline in the infinite pond of ignorance.

    Ignorance is bliss. An ostrich knows that instinctively.

  8. Ancient1,

    Yes, I think there is some truth to ignorance is bliss. I know my mom feels this way when I talk about evolution.

  9. I wonder what real evidence we have for the claim that smart, educated people are only (or even mostly) learning to defend their pre-conceived ideas. I know I have played around with this idea with respect to philosophers recently in print. But getting the causal structure (and the coefficients) right turns out to be really hard -- impossible with the data we had on hand for that paper.

    Specifically with respect to evidence and political positions, why think that the causal arrow goes from the politics to the science and not the other way around? I for one started out college as a Republican, but the force of many, many empirical studies on issues from climate to poverty to education to tax policy have steadily moved me farther and farther left politically.

    What I am suggesting is not that the evidence is clearly in favor of left-leaning political positions but that people might come to their politics because they are convinced by evidence policy-by-policy. Since people often disagree about the science or are ill-informed or cannot adequately understand it -- especially on the edges of our knowledge, where measurements are poor and scarce, experiments are non-existent, and data are difficult to analyze and interpret -- political disagreements should not be surprising even if people are more or less rational, right?

  10. Jonathan,

    Thank you very much for your comment as it does point out the major flaws with the above post. (Which I admit.) Especially the idea that a lot may be being inferred from not much hard data. (Citing the poll I did is not much in terms of hard data.) And it is an interesting idea that may actually is working the other way around.

  11. Joseph,

    Actually, I think I'm optimistic overall. I believe that most people still value truth and honesty. As long as that's true, I think we'll be alright, temporary setbacks notwithstanding.

  12. Jared*,

    Thanks again and yes I am happy too since I also believe most people value truth and honesty which will go a long ways.

  13. I book I read a while ago, "Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time" by Michael Shermer had a chapter titled "Why Smart People Believe Weird Things" which says basically the same things as your post. At the time it was very surprising to me. I thought education was the key to make everyone rational.

  14. Stan,

    I'm glad to know Shermer has similar sentiments as I'm sure he has done more homework on the issue then I have. Would you recommend his book?

  15. Sorry to be the interjecting newcomer, but these complaints go way back; philosophers, theologians, and scientists for hundreds of years have decried the public unwillingness to think deeply. A few examples:

    "It seems to me that men do not rightly understand either their store or their strength, but overrate the one and underrate the other. Hence it follows that either from an extravagant estimate of the value of the arts which they possess they seek no further, or else from too mean an estimate of their own powers they spend their strength in small matters and never put it fairly to the trial in those which go to the main." --Francis Bacon, The Great Instauration

    John Locke argued, in the Letter Concerning Toleration that reformed Christians of his time had failed to understand the repercussions of the reformation itself: "The business of true religion is quite another thing. It is not instituted in order to the erecting of an external pomp, nor to the obtaining of ecclesiastical dominion, nor to the exercising of compulsive force, but to the regulating of men's lives, according to the rules of virtue and piety. Whosoever will list himself under the banner of Christ, must, in the first place and above all things, make war upon his own lusts and vices."

    One of the best examples is Nietzshe's assertion that "God is dead" and that none of the thinkers of his time had realized that they had killed Him. You can find the same sort of complaint in every religious text on earth. Not ripping anyone; it's just that we've all got to find ways to push things forward even in the face of doubt.

  16. Cameron,

    I'm glad that you are a newcomer and have shared some interesting quotes. Thank you. And I agree, we really do always need to press forward even in the face of doubt.

    Great stuff.

  17. Education is really about a profession, a way of making a living, and, not, I emphasize, not, to knowledge and enlightenment.

    Enlightenment can not be taught in a classroom. Enlightenment is not a collective property, it is not a “group” thing. If it can be taught, we would have Buddha explosion, and not of physicists, economists, doctors, etc.

    Much of the squabbling in the video is exceptional expression of ignorance on march. What we have here is multiplicity of ignorant (limited, myopic) views, nothing more.

    For example, global warming, is buzz, without any context. None of the people in the panel could relate to a nomadic woman collecting sticks and dung for fuel to cook a meal. And, would that woman care about our punditry of temperature rise of a few degrees in 100 years?

    What we need is an articulation, a vision for life on the planet called Earth, that needs to be translated as a blueprint for life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, through squabbles, not wars overt and covert. But, we are at war forever. Welcome 2011!

  18. Ancient1,

    Well, I know at least I cannot relate to "a nomadic woman collecting sticks and dung for fuel to cook a meal." I just go to Costco. :)

    Which actually brings up an interesting point: how much of our ability to sit around and philosophize is because we as a species no longer have to spend all of our time "collecting sticks and dung for fuel to cook a meal" and hunting and gathering all day?

  19. JS,

    If you go to Costco, you should know all the stick and dung gatherers there! Especially, those with big SUV, like 6000 lbs plus.

    What global warming? It is for the nomads to stop burning sticks. I need my fireplace and I like the smell of real hardwood burning...

    You get the drift.


To add a link to text:
<a href="URL">Text</a>