Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Devil In The Details (Part 1)

Note to visitors:  This post is in three parts.  Part 1 presents a problem; the second and third parts, a response.  Two music playlists elaborate initial themes.

Have you heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect?  It is the tendency for people less knowledgable about something to be more certain about their views than those more knowledgable.  The less we know, the less aware we are of alternative perspectives, the more certain we are of our viewpoints.  Conversely, the more we know, the more aware we are of complexity and nuance, the more hesitant we become.

As William Butler Yeats put it in "The Second Coming" (1919):

     The best lack all conviction, while the worst
     Are full of passionate intensity.

The loudest voices in the room are likely not the most informed.  

Put differently, we don't know what we don't know; worse, we may not know that we don't know.  It's easier to be black and white when we neither know gray nor that there is a gray.  A simple clarity arrives when we lack the big picture, and with it a tendency toward acting out passions rather than thinking through them. (See Science Show, or Dunning-Kruger.) 

Example:  A newspaper article about global-warming skepticism cited an Indiana Tea Party organizer:

     "It's a flat-out lie," [he] said in an interview after the debate,
     adding that he had based his view on the preaching of Rush
     Limbaugh and the teaching of Scripture.  "I read my Bible,”
     [he] said.  "He made  this earth for us to utilize.”
     (New York Times, 10/21/10, A1)

In the face of this, ambition toward discussion fades.  The organizer's fundamentalist certainty here is that of a True Believer, and efforts to widen his vision will be as effective as talking back to Angry White Man radio.


Another example: The condition of those lost in love has historically been likened to madness.  When twitterpated by the beloved, we zoom in on wondrous parts while bypassing the whole.  This is another form of True Believer –– inflamed, yes; fully informed, no. (See red playlist.)

Interestingly, the True Believer in
love can pivot into a True Disbeliever, seizing on upsetting


details in the beloved and becoming disillusioned.  The star-bedazzled deflates to the star-crossed or double-crossed, idealization sours to demonization. (See green playlist.)

Here are two passages about inflamed perception.  The first and funnier one is by Euripides (480 – 406 B.C.), from his play Hippolytus:

     The desire of love bewitches
     and turns fool the heart of the
     victim.  It bewitches the mountain
     lions, the fishes of the sea, men,
     and all the creatures fed by Earth.

The quote is self-evident, and I am taken with the idea of bewitched mountain lions and amorous fish. 

The other passage is by Shakespeare, and it has more heft:

     Lovers and madmen have such seething brains,
     Such shaping fantasies, that apprehend
     More than cool reason ever comprehends.
     (Midsummer Night's Dream, Act 5, Scene 1)

Shakespeare contrasts two modes of knowledge-gathering here, apprehending and comprehending.  They are similar in that both are ways of grasping something.  But when we apprehend something, we "get it" without fully knowing why we're getting it.  Apprehension is closer to intuitive awareness, whereas comprehension acquires all the facts through intellect.

Or, if you're Shakespeare, one kind of mental knowing is shaped by fantasies, another by "cool reason."

Such "shaping" fantasies and internal mental leanings are with us always.  They may subtly steer us toward sources of satisfaction or they may lie dormant, only to be awakened by a few external cues.  In matters of love, our hearts can be quickened by a single detail: a fragrance, a look, a body type.  (See this blog, Dreaming My Star, for a discussion of how certain people and things "grab" our interest.)

That said, our world would be a dull place without a degree of lunatic love.  Up to this point, I seem to be favoring behavior based on comprehensive knowing.  But should "cool reason" govern all our affairs, we'd be soulless robots, so careful that we'd never be care-less, so tediously objective that we'd not get lost in flights of fancy.  Which would be a loss –– because art, reverie, play, children and the child-inside revive us, restore the spirit of living. (See this blog, Remember Me, for a discussion of this child-inside.)

So if over-focus on a few details skews perception, over-analysis of all the details deadens perception.  The trick is to balance foreground close-ups with openness to the big picture, to get absorbed in a few details while retaining access to the background.  We shouldn't lose the forest for the trees, but alternatively we shouldn't lose the trees for the forest, becoming so mired in the totality of flora, fauna, rock, and stream that we blind ourselves to compelling particularities.

The poet Wallace Stevens wrote "Anecdote of the Jar" in 1919.  Its first six lines strike this balance between foreground and background, and form a new creative whole:

     I placed a jar in Tennessee,
     And round it was, upon a hill.
     It made the slovenly wilderness
     Surround that hill.
     The wilderness rose up to it,
     And sprawled around, no longer wild

This is artful playing with perception.  Jar, Tennessee, hill, wilderness, from these disparate elements a creative unity emerges with all parts in play.  The smallest detail, a jar, redefines the hill and its relation to the wilderness surrounding it.  The jar makes its hill noteworthy and distinct from the enclosing wilderness.  The  once "slovenly" wilderness is tamed into a background frame to that hill. 

Here is a final example of how partial knowledge clouds meaning.  Last July, a US Department of Agriculture official, Shirley Sherrod, was pilloried as a racist and fired over the phone while returning home from work.  This, after a blogger excerpted 2 minutes and 38 seconds of video clips from a 43-minute speech by Ms. Sherrod to the NAACP, fashioning these into a falsehood.

This particular blogger was cruelly arrogant, slicing and arrogating Ms. Sherrod's personhood for his own ends.
 To say he was acting with "partial knowledge" is technically true but he wanted it that way.
Cherry-picking data useful to his task, he exploited an untruth to created discord.

Shirley Sherrod
His method informs much deceptive meaning making: a whole is taken apart, dis-integrated; selected parts are then highlighted while background context is erased; what remains is a conscienceless miscreation presented as Truth.  We are used to this.  It is the territory of political and financial spin, fibbing, cajolery, excuses, advertising.

But we are less used to outright lying –– where spin crosses over from fudging into fiction, as happened with Ms. Sherrod.  Her speech was disassembled, then reassembled into a persuasive dissemblance.

Sadly, there is more.  Where were Ms. Sherrod's defenders?  People who should have responded with fact-gathering and thoughtful deliberation failed to do so.  Ms. Sherrod's USDA employers, as well as the White House and the NAACP, essentially cried, "Kill the witch!" –– themselves acting on the basis of insufficient information.  Why?  Not because they were intentional discord-sowers or True Believers, but because they were fearful.  In a charged political season, with an Administration under siege from truth-shifters, their response was peremptory and rushed, more a rush to judgment than a judgment of the charge.  Make the bad press go away, make Ms. Sherrod go away. (See Shirley Sherrod for more on this affair, in which Fox News ran true to form, while the White House, the USDA, and NAACP regressed into pantomime actors.)

Now when we stop evaluating information for its veracity, we are at the mercy of that information.  As Plato (c.428–348 B.C.) asserted:

     False words are not only evil in themselves,
     but they infect the soul with evil.

When we take in foolishness, we are prone to spread foolishness, as when political pundits virally channel identical catch-all phrases.  There is wisdom in being thoughtful about what gets inside our heads and about what our next words are.  Especially when disinformation is flatly peddled as truth.  To wit: that the United States is sliding into socialism, that President Obama's birth certificate is fake, that he's actually a Kenyan national (and a Muslim to boot), that Saddam's WMD's really were there, that the science behind global warming and evolution is insufficient, that welfare should be eliminated since its recipients are only going to spend the money on lotteries and beer anyway, that the government health plan is going to set up "death panels" for old people.

(AAAGH!)  (Sounds of head thumping against wall.)

I am struck by this slide of meaning-making into rank foolishness.  We are used to spin, but not such outright falsity and slander, or the fact that facts don't matter, or the receptivity of so many people to being lied to.  There is so much fakery and posturing going on, such a sulphurous smell in the air, that it brings out the biblical in me.
It would be easy enough, if condescending, to blame people for believing poisoned meanings, for not being more analytical.  But not everyone is versed in social-science research, or has a facility for parsing polls, clever one-liners and Headline News.  Plus, there is a natural tendency to admire the admirable, to be impressed by models of leadership.  It starts early, with Barbie and (in my era) Superman. And this admiration is heightened when people are afraid and thus susceptible to the certainties of prophets.  Anxiety cripples thought and judgment on a good day, and in hard times it is understandable that people may turn to those with an Answer.

So we shouldn't blame the casualties of plutocratic shenanigans when they respond to siren calls of "Lower Taxes!" and "Create Jobs!"  Nor should we criticize those who are afraid, hooked by fear-mongering about death panels and socialism.  But I would like to smite the falsifiers.  The thing is, smiteful as I am, I have only words at my disposal.  And since today's widespread corruption of meaning seems so huge, I've undertaken an outsized response of my own, using words.  I have constructed a Theology of Meaning to provide a framework for at least thinking about meaning.  (I realize this is vaultingly ambitious.)

It is not your customary theology, it has no gods, devils, rules, punishments.  But it does describe four descending modes of meaning making: creative, everyday, blinkered, and manipulative.  The Theology is pictorial, with each mode assigned a metaphoric region of mind: Heaven (creative), Earth (everyday), Hell Minor (three subtypes of blinkered), Hell Major (manipulative).  My hope is that this Theology may provide a reference-menu for distinguishing these modes in real life, a kind of semantic translator. 

Not all information is equally valid, after all.  Incoming data, including our own thoughts, may be spun every which way.  That piece of breaking news, that voice ranting or whispering in your ear, that thought emerging in mind, does it have reliable substance?  When we hear, see, read, think about something, is what we take in value-free?

Of course not.  I am always shaping what I put out, as are you when you take it in.  This blog post itself has been edited and pre-chewed before your eyes ever ingested it.  And some of that editing is unknown even to me, the writer.  When wearing glasses, I am seldom aware of the frames.  And you'll have your own glasses, your filters –– which will be distinct to you but not necessarily conscious.

In brief, I hope my Theology may be a tool with which to address an ancient human concern, here expressed by Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677):  

     He who would distinguish the true from the false
     must have an adequate idea of what is true and false.

(This post is continued in Devil In The Details [Part 2].)


Galen Johnson said...

Wow! A Theology of Meaning that includes Yeats, Euripides, Shakespeare, Wallace Stevens, Plato, and Spinoza - I'm all in. Thanks for this very smart and also informative piece. I'm glad to have a name for that Dunning-Kruger effect. Your thinking here will help me survive with more equanimity this mid-year election cycle and next Tuesday's election night predicted right wing triumphalism. I like "sounds of head thumping against wall." Funny. I am reminded that at his trial Socrates defined wisdom as "knowing that one does not know." But I'm also thinking why go to all this theological work on heaven and hell without dishing out some punishments. That's the fun part! Anxiously awaiting Part Two of "Devil in the Details."

Galen Johnson said...

ps I also meant to add that over at the University we are puzzled that knowing some science - about global warming, for example - is now being called "elitism." It turns out that at least 20 of the Republican candidates currently running for the US Senate are either climate change deniers or climate change skeptics. How and when did all this happen? Our most recent former President liked going around calling himself a C student. (It turns out, BTW, that this wasn't true and his grades were better than those of John Kerry.) It makes one remember with fondness a conservative voice like William F. Buckley. I didn't think of him too fondly at the time but he was obviously a smart and a thoughtful voice on the right. I didn't see this ideological "anti-science" coming. Sorry this isn't funnier.

Anonymous said...

Kit --

I'm proud to call you my cousin, prouder even than I was before reading this. You have a real talent for ferreting out the noteworthy, while not belittling what is not. I will pass this along to my firneds who think as I do about most things, and hope that they will ponder what you have said here, and will say in Parts 2 and 3; I can't wait to read them.


Kit said...

Thanks, Penny, for such a warm and thoughtful response.

Anonymous said...

Deal me in. I've built my career as a scholar around the effort to see things from many points of view and to become aware of the implicit bias that we all have when we first attack a problem.
Erik Midelfort

Kit said...

I’d like to thank Dr. Midelfort for his comment here. I’m writing this eighteen months after this post was originally written, during a time of enormous political campaign gibberish (connected to the 2012 Republican presidential candidates). And all the bias and spin continues in grand fashion.

Comments are appreciated: