by Barry Brownstein
“Our ignorance is sobering and boundless,” philosopher Karl Popper famously observed.
Popper continued with what could be a credo for humble individuals willing to admit the limits of individual knowledge: “With each step forward, with each problem which we solve, we not only discover new and unsolved problems, but we also discover that where we believed that we were standing on firm and safe ground, all things are, in truth, insecure and in a state of flux.”
If the world is full of challenging problems and individuals with boundless ignorance, it is not surprising Popper believed, “There are no ultimate sources of knowledge.” We can only “hope to detect and eliminate error” by allowing criticism of the theories of others as well as our own.
Popper was writing before the era of social media and the contemporary attack on free inquiry on college campuses. Endless opinions, based on nothing but feelings, are shared by those who want to eliminate criticism of their views and stymie debate on the critical issues of our time. Popper would be dismayed.
We are Ignorant of Our Ignorance
In their book The Knowledge Illusion, cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Phillip Fernbach report on experiments testing “the illusion of understanding.” Their findings confirm a glaring gap between individuals’ perceived knowledge and actual knowledge.
In one study, participants were asked: “on a scale from 1 to 7, how well do you understand how zippers work?” Then follow-up questions asked, “How does a zipper work? Describe in as much detail as you can all the steps involved in a zipper’s operation.”
The disconnect between the response to the first question and answers to the follow-up questions was striking. In answer to questions probing for genuine knowledge, people had little to say. Having little to say when asked for explanations, respondents were somewhat disabused of their illusion of understanding.
What about economic issues, tax policy, health care, or “hot button scientific topics like climate change?”
Again, researchers followed their same procedure by first asking study participants to rate, on a scale of one through seven, their understanding of an issue such as a national flat tax. Next, participants were asked to provide “an explanation of all the effects that the policy would lead to.” Again, when asked for explanations, participants had little to say.
Study participants saw they were less informed than they thought. Here though is a critical point: In other studies, which asked participants to think about an issue rather than to explain an issue, respondents were not disabused of their ignorance.
Sloman and Fernbach write, “Usually when people think about their position on an issue, they recollect why they believe what they do and they generate arguments in favor of the position they already have… they are not engaged in causal explanation.”
The beauty of asking for a causal explanation “is that it takes explainers outside of their own belief system.”
Yet in contemporary America, fewer and fewer Americans are trained in the art of thinking through causal explanations. The Wall Street Journal reports, “at some of the most prestigious flagship universities, test results indicate the average graduate shows little or no improvement in critical thinking over four years.” Incredibly, “at more than half of schools, at least a third of seniors were unable to make a cohesive argument, assess the quality of evidence in a document, or interpret data in a table.”
In contemporary America, particularly on college campuses, opinions based on feelings top everything.
The Closing of Society
We are quickly moving away from Popper’s vision of an “open society” and away from a society where the citizenry can consider causal explanations and policy implications.
We have transformed ourselves, author David Brooks recently opined in The New York Times, from a society where errors are overcome by “bringing different perspectives and expertise to the table” to a society where “progress is less about understanding and liking each other and more about smashing structures that others defend.”
The latter worldview is a “conflict theorist worldview” where “most public problems are caused not by errors or complexity, but by malice and oppression.” Brooks continues:
The powerful few keep everyone else down. The solutions to injustice and suffering are simple and obvious: Defeat the powerful. Passion is more important than reason because the oppressed masses have to mobilize to storm the barricades.
Importantly, Brooks warns that those who hold a conflict worldview also believe “debate is counterproductive because it dilutes passion and sows confusion. Discordant ideas are not there to inform; they are there to provide cover for oppression.”
With the rise of the “conflict theorist worldview” comes increasing polarization and tribalization. Views you disagree with are to be suppressed because those who hold opposing views are assumed to be motivated by bad intentions.
Feelings Over Reason
David Brooks is concerned that students who shut down free speech “manage to combine snowflake fragility and lynch mob irrationalism into one perfectly poisonous cocktail.”
You may have never heard of the late poet Audre Lorde, but to call her the poet laureate of the feelings-trump-reason camp would not be inaccurate. Railing against the canons of Western civilization, she wrote, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Jillian Kay Melchior reports it would be a mistake to overlook Lorde’s influences on college campuses.
Lorde believed “true knowledge and, therefore, lasting action,” comes from “our feelings.” In another essay she wrote, “‘It feels right to me,’ acknowledges the strength of the erotic into a true knowledge, for what that means is the first and most powerful guiding light toward any understanding.”
If you think this antirational rhetoric is being marginalized, guess again. Melchior reports on student activism at the University of Pennsylvania, where students “took down a portrait of Shakespeare in the English Department, replacing it with a printout photo of Lorde.”
Rather than giving voice to the oppressed, Lorde gives voice to those who would substitute feelings for scholarship and debate. By marginalizing the classic canons of Western civilization, long-term prospects for the most marginal members of society are diminished.
Of course, Lorde is not alone in providing the “intellectual” firepower to justify the growing irrationalism that threatens an open society.
Sloman and Fernbach pointedly write, “You can’t consider the implications of a policy by ruminating on how you feel about it.” They add, “Getting people to think beyond their own interests and experiences may be necessary for reducing their hubris and thereby reducing polarization.”
How long will freedom be sustained in a society whose citizens are unwilling to recognize their own hubris and unwilling to consider anything but their own feelings?
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Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore. He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership. To receive Barry’s essays subscribe at Mindset Shifts.
Reprinted with permission from FEE.org