Thursday, December 08, 2016

Epistemic Bubbles

“There are many demographic fault lines emerging in this year’s presidential campaign, but few are deeper than the division among likely voters based on educational attainment.” (…/education-level-sharply-divides-…) Among the boldest dividing lines in this election is educational. Why would that be?

There seem to be at least several mutually inclusive possibilities for explaining it:

(1) Education is liberal indoctrination, that is, the more education one has, the more has been successfully brainwashed to accept liberal beliefs.
(2) Education is the conveyance of information and when you know certain things, you are more inclined to adopt progressive positions.
(3) Education is about the acquisition of habits of mind and skills and techniques that all one to think through problems that tend to lead to progressive positions.
(4) Progressive positions are crafted by the highly educated in part to appeal to the highly educated.
(5) The college-educated are a special interest group and their preference for progressive policies is a political move to actualize their worldview on our culture.

I claim that all five of these are true.

Let’s start with the easy ones – 2 and 3. According to classical democratic theory, a functional democracy requires a well-informed electorate. In order to make maximally effective decisions about how to proceed, you need to know what are the facts on the ground. Take college courses and you will have an expert in a given field tell you what is our best understanding about what is going on. Their information has been challenged by others in the field and that which has withstood criticism becomes the consensus position and we teach undergraduates only the most firmly established beliefs given our best evidence.

Could it be wrong? Of course. And when it is shown to be wrong, it is exciting news in the academic community and we teach both the debate and the new approach. Indeed, this is how progress is made and that progress spreads through the educated class. Possession of new information is a badge of status for the educated. To be up on the latest is to be better educated and that is a measure of self-worth.

To an extent, this is justifiable. The advances are important in better understanding situations and in adopting the most effective and just positions. If you understand the basics of thermodynamics and chemistry and understand that different substances have different specific heats, then the idea of global warming does not seem mysterious in the slightest. If you have discussed Kimberle Crenshaw’s notion of intersectionality in a classroom, then you will look at police shootings of non-whites in a way that has a nuance you would not have without it. Thought-workers do real work. We make progress. We develop better ideas and applying those better ideas lead to better ways of understanding the contemporary context.

Similarly, we not only teach what to think, but how to think. A college education requires problem solving. It requires paper-writing. Writing is thinking. If you write badly, it is because you have not learned how to carefully work through questions and how to support claims with evidence. College is hard. It is intellectual boot camp. You emerge cognitively stronger with skills of analysis that you would not have had without the experience.

Can intellectual be deceived by their own beliefs and biases? Absolutely. Indeed, the educated are more likely to fall into certain logical pitfalls because we develop an arrogance about our abilities. If I think so, it must be true – after all, I’m well-educated. There are a whole range of logical fallacies that derive from cognitive biases that all people are subject to. That is why I wrote my last post. Bill asked “t why piss on Clinton's political grave when there are more important things to worry about?” The answer is that making sure that progressives recognize their own biases is crucial to our critical evaluation of situations and necessary if progress is to be made. If we don’t do the discursive autopsy, we won’t know what killed our chances.

But what the combination of 2 and 3 will do, however, is diminish the chances of falling prey to the Dunning-Kruger effect wherein the less one knows about something, the more one thinks one knows about that very thing. College reveals to us our ignorance. We realize how hard, how intricate, how inter-related questions are and we are less likely to fall for simple, but attractive and false silver bullet claims. This notion of interconnectedness of problems and the need for structural solutions – that is the hallmark of the progressive worldview.

In this case, 2+3=4, that is, the sorts of policy prescriptions those with the background from 2 and the skills from 3 will develop will be those that appeal to others who speak the same language – that is, claim 4. We work from common concepts and through common approaches, we demand similar sorts of evidentiary support, we value certain forms of explanation. Wittgenstein introduced the concept of a language game. The idea is that there are different discourse communities whose linguistic behaviors presuppose certain background beliefs in order to give rise to the basic vocabulary.

Different language speakers will carve nature at different joints. The college-educated have been taught to speak a specific language which makes perfect sense to those in the club, but largely sounds like meaningless jargon to many outside. The way the world is divided up by the language of Higher Ed is more amenable to progressive approaches and those who are fluent in the language will be much more comfortable with potential solutions in their mother-tongue.

Here is where 1 and 5 come in. Languages are pregnant with worldview. Languages are not value-neutral (this is something egghead professors have figured out) and when we work on solutions in our language they will be biased toward the sort of worldview we espouse in which rationality and knowledge are prized, a sort of equality of worth is presumed among all people, psychological and sociological factors are in effect that are working to shape our belief-structure on the basis of political power not likely truth, and problems are interconnected puzzles that affect each other. In the college-educated worldview, black and white is mistrusted. Our bumper sticker reads “It’s more complicated than that” and every time we tried to advance a straight-forward, simple solution, someone else in the community of the educated smugly points out how it naïve and in need of complexity. We have learned to prize interdisciplinarity and a multiplicity of interpretive viewpoints. We have had it beaten into us that there are other ways of thinking about things and that the better thinkers can shift among their different perspectives to gain a deeper synthetic understanding.

This prizing of intellectual knottiness leads us to embrace multiculturalism, critiques from the perspectives of minimized voices, and a cosmopolitan stance. We have a knee-jerk global mode of being which minimizes the local and thereby the locals. We look for universal laws of nature and give prizes to literature and film that make us see the world through new lenses. If you only speak one language and do not speak it with grammatical precision, if you work at a job which is held to be inferior because it involves manual instead of cognitive labor, if you had trouble in high school and were made to feel stupid and inferior because of it, then the foundations of this worldview will diminish you as well. And you will resent the prescriptions coming from it. On the other hand, if it is a language you speak, the policy proposals will read like poetry, elegant in their complexity and confirming of your picture.

And their success or failure is an empirical matter which is determinable by economists and social scientists, physicists and climate scientists whose mathematical acumen comforts you in accepting their findings.

Higher Education has produced an epistemic bubble. In the Scholastic period, all Western intellectual works were written in Latin ensuring that scholars across the Continent could read each others work, but also ensuring that those not in the scholar’s club could not. We have done the same sort of thing now. What we saw in this election were warring linguistic communities. Language is pregnant with worldview and those who have learned to speak the academic language are much more likely to prefer certain political approaches. Those who do not speak the language have radically different preferences. The most radically subversive suggestion of the campaign? It turns out to be Sanders’ free college for everyone. Expensive? Yes. But if instituting your worldview depends on one people accepting your basic presuppositions and those are embedded in the ways of thinking and the things you know, it may be the only way – the divide may not be bridgeable, just conquerable.