Response to Shrinkwrapped on Counter-Knowledge

Shrinkwrapped has an important series of reflections on my post on Damian Thompson’s new book. I respond in detail:

Both Thompson and Landes have identified a serious danger facing our Civilization, however, if anything I think they underestimate the danger.

Both take the position that in our culture and civilization, rationality and reality testing are the default mode of thinking for the population. Unfortunately, this is exactly 180 degrees off. Rationality and logical thinking are late developments and are not universal. They are mental habits dependent on mental structures that are painstakingly assembled over the course of a long period of time. They are abilities that require a tremendous investment of time and energy to acquire and are extremely sensitive to disruption.

I don’t think this represents my position. (I’ll let Damian speak for himself.) I think that a) SW is right that reality testing is a mental habit painstakingly assembled over the course a long time — more or less a millennium in Western Europe — and not the default mode. On the other hand the reason I may sound like I think the way SW says, is that I think that this manner of “reading reality” — which includes self-criticism, a renunciation of narcissistic vanity, exegetical modesty — is at the core of civil society. So if we have a civil society it’s good evidence that this form of thinking has become the “norm” or “default mode” of western civilization, and if this kind of flakey thinking is still seeping into the mainstream, then this is a deviation — from a Western norm.

Damian Thompson seems puzzled by the easy acceptance of Conspiracy Theories and nonsense by large groups of people, and distressed to see such beliefs moving form the fringes toward the center. The cruel secret is that such beliefs are a great deal easier to acquire and hold than true knowledge.

As I have noted on many occasions, the human mind is a conservative device. Once a template has been established it is far easier to fit new data into the existing framework than to question one’s assumptions and expend mental energy trying to make sense out of contradictions.

This is problematic. We are trained to ignore conspiracy theories. That template was established and one of the things that attracts many conspiracy-theorists is that they are violating the accepted template.

If you already know that George Bush stole the election in 2000, then it is much easier to believe he could also be capable of engineering 9/11, of lying about Saddam’s WMD, and a host of other nonsense that has flourished on the left. If you do not understand how the theory of evolution has been researched and examined in minute detail by innumerable scientists, if you have no real idea how the edifice of science was built, then the minor flaws and incompleteness of the theory can easily be used to support beliefs that have no evidence to support them at all, such as Intelligent Design. (Perhaps the Deity did in fact create life and the universe and included a consistent body of evidence to support the theory of evolution; if so, this would not be resolvable using scientific methodology and until he or his agent appears or reappears, whichever you prefer, it is a matter of faith not science.)

There have been many factors that have contributed to the assault on reason which have eroded our capacity for reality testing. Science is hard; scientific knowledge is only slowly accumulated by extremely hard work mastered by only an extremely small minority of very bright people. Most science is impossible to understand by most people. We have long since reached the Arthur C. Clarke inflection point where “technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.” Magic is explained by magical thinking, not by science. Science has been reliably demonized by those who are incapable of performing or understanding science. The rigors of the Scientific Method, the single most important reason for our civilization’s success, are too difficult for our children’s tender self-esteem to tolerate. Once we no longer expect our children to understand that 1 + 1 must always equal 2, even if we want it to equal 1.99 or 3, and that all answers are equivalent as long as they are trying really, really hard, we have surrendered our ability to think.

Now we’re back to my comments on post-modernism. The problem is that one need not understand either the complexity of modern science or its technological magic boxes (computers), in order to partake of reality-testing. Self-criticism and a certain modesty is within the reach of every human being.

Worse, even among those who should know better, the temptation to take mental shortcuts persists. When rationality is further subverted by unconscious desires, it is no contest, real knowledge has no chance of surviving.

Anthropogenic Global Warming, a theory that is reliably presented as “proven” by politicians who have no idea what they are talking about, is a prime example. AGW might be an adequate focus for current anxiety; it might even be a potential problem down the road; but as an avenue to increase state power in the hands of bureaucrats and politicians, it has already been “proven.” They do not see themselves as cynical manipulators but as visionaries warning of danger and trying to save the planet. That science does not proceed the way they think it does completely eludes their attention.

This is a good example of what I meant about modesty. Proponents of AGW have enormous ambitions and no self-criticism; so science becomes another black box to manipulate. It’s interesting to think that in the Middle Ages, as far as I know, no one argued that black magicians actually thought they were white magicians. Today, at least in the West, some of the worst black magicians, think they’re doing white magic.

We are living in dangerous times. Anxiety over the future and the pace of change (change ushered in by magical technologies that no one can fully understand) naturally produces powerful regressive forces in a culture. Our rationality can be so subtly and easily subverted that we usually don’t recognize it until far too late. Worse, those whose grasp of reason is weakest, either through limited native intellectual abilities or poor pedagogy, are most susceptible to adopt the easy solutions of irrationality.

limited native intellectual abilities or poor pedagogy or emotional immaturity…

The pace of change naturally produces anxieties over the future, some of which can activate powerful regressive forces in a culture. The question is, what are non-regressive ways of expressing a legitimate anxiety about runaway technologically-driven social change?

Just beneath the surface of even the most stable and reasoned mind exists a cauldron of irrationality. The Unconscious can never be fully tamed and is forever attempting to find access to the Conscious mind to enable and effect its desires. Conspiracy Theories, false prophets and messiahs, and easily identifiable scapegoats are the result; they are here to stay and will plague us and increase until we re-establish the safe haven that can only come from Knowledge.

I’m a bit confused by this finale. Can you explain what the “safe haven that can only come from Knowledge” is? Is this (regressive) pre-post-modernism: knowledge=truth=objectivity=reality? Why is knowledge “safe”? It may “set us free,” or empower us, or enlighten us, but nothing about it suggests either stability or safety. On the contrary, part of what is so frightening about reality and why people run to the cocoons of conspiracy theory and other forms of counter-knowledge is precisely to flee the ego-wounding world of registering what’s going on around us.

6 Responses to Response to Shrinkwrapped on Counter-Knowledge

  1. [...] Augean Stables wrote an interesting post today on Response to Shrinkwrapped on Counter-KnowledgeHere’s a quick excerpt Shrinkwrapped has an important series of reflections on my post on Damian Thompson’s new book. I respond in detail: Both Thompson and Landes have identified a serious danger facing our Civilization, however, if anything I think they underestimate the danger. Both take the position that in our culture and civilization, rationality and reality testing are the default mode of thinking for the population. Unfortunately, this is exactly 180 degrees off. Rationality and logical thinking are late de [...]

  2. Richard Landes Responds

    Richard Landes posted a response to Knowledge and Counter-Knowledge. I took issue with his assertion that rationality and reality testing are the default mode of thinking for the population. Here is a part of Response to Shrinkwrapped on Counter-Knowle…

  3. This is getting addicting. I thought I had sincerely attempted to resolve the last round to let it rest awhile, but my return to read the of the exactitude and discipline of science opens my “mouth” again. I totally agree about the ideal of science as the prime method to extract objective truth. But the devil is with the human minds that easily infest “science.” Science doesn’t care. The scientist is the fearless competent individual who pursues his quest wherever it leads. The sadness in my life experience, and validated by innumerable examples, is that there are very few scientists – who are priceless wherever they are – but the pool is polluted by many who have their agenda and prejudicially claim to pursue the path that they have designated to “reveal and support” their needs. The claims about the purity of scientific pursuit provide no hint that human personalities must be involved. There is the small print.

    Any example I randomly select will start a quarrel, but for the sake of one, it was presented as science that the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster did not release hazardous amounts into the atmosphere. That “scientific” report was very widely circulated. But the sensors for detecting radiation were not in place till, as I recall, three days after the event. They called it science. Because of the battles of my medical career I have a chapter in Release From Pain just on the abuse of statistics and so-called science:

    Again and again, I honor science within the practice of its definition.


  4. Eliyahu says:

    Dr G, according to my inside info on 3-Mile Island –from a scientist– civil defense and/or Federal and Pennsylvania state officials were seriously considering an evacuation of population within a radius of some 200 miles from the site. That includes not only Harrisburg [state capital of Penna] but Philadelphia, maybe Trenton, etc. Apparently, some radioactive material was released. Whether the amount was “hazardous” I don’t know. But it’s the kind of thing where authorities have an interest in withholding alarming info and creating a fog of “everything’s OK.” Chernobyl, which occurred about 8 or 9 years later, was much more out of control and the environmental problems created are still present on the ground in Ukraine & Belarus. The Soviet officials too tried the “everything’s OK” game at first.

    Both incidents prove that “science” has to be used very very carefully. I go by the Biblical adage: Don’t trust the powerful ["put not thy faith in princes" in the KJV], אל תבטחו ננדיבים.

  5. Eliyahu says:

    אל תבטחו בנדובים

  6. Eliyahu says:

    it’s early in the morning

    אל תבטחו בנדיבים

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