Tuesday, 28 February 2012

On the Intrinsic Value of Knowin' Shit

Give this article about Rick Santorum's anti-academic stance a read, and then come back here so we can laugh at him together.



Still, there's a serious problem underlying this story. Some people - too many people - have a problem with academic achievement and intellectual success. I suppose the reasons can vary (jealousy, inferiority complexes, fear that the devil himself done taught the course, etc.), but the end result is always the same. People who've put in the hard work to know more, to understand more, to have better minds, are given flak by those who didn't (at least, not to the same extent) for no better reason than that there's something supposedly uncool about knowing things.

As an educator, this is a professional problem for me. I need kids to value what I'm teaching them, so that they actually learn it. As a skeptic, this is an ideological problem for me. I need people generally to accept that some ideas are worth more than others, and that some may be outright wrong. As a person who aims (however successfully) for intellectualism, it's a personal problem for me. I don't need people mocking me and giving me shit for trying to improve my mind. That last one's not a huge deal for me, I'm big and tough, I can take it. But think of the children! If kids, not as tough as a grown-up legal adult like me, are getting mocked for it, then it's going to make them less likely to appreciate their own education and drift away from the skeptical ideal, and perhaps even start them on attacking others' intellectual success.

Diagram A
To be clear, I'm not talking about formal education alone, but the whole improvement of the mind. I do consider myself more knowledgeable than most people on things like civil society and socio-economic inequality because of my varsity studies. But I also know plenty about dinosaurs, just because I grew up in the '90s (see diagram A). In fact, I'm pretty sure that most of my knowledge of biology comes not from the approx. 2 years I had to do it in school, but from the hours and hours I willingly poured into books and magazines about dinosaurs (the smarter of which were cleverly designed to teach me about more general concepts in biology, disguised as dino-awesomeness.) Similarly, I learned more about history from the kind of books and documentaries that Asterix and Indiana Jones got me excited about than from my actual history lessons (except, of course, for the year or so that Mrs Frith taught us). And I've taught myself more about espionage, aviation and astronomy for gaming purposes than any "serious" purpose.

So knowledge can come from all sorts of sources, and provided they're good sources, you can learn a lot without entering academia. Willingness to learn is the main thing that's required, and that's exactly what Santorum's kind of anti-intellectualism destroys. And formal tertiary education makes a good target for him, because of two main wossnames that tertiary education institutions offer that you can't really get anywhere else:
1. Intensive, specialist training in a narrow field, up to a very advanced level.
B. A shiny, impressive symbol of the value of higher learning.

The second wossname's importance should be clear. The first is a bit more complicated. Thing is, it doesn't matter how much I read up on dinosaurs or airplanes, I'll still almost certainly not be at the same level as a paleontology PhD or aeronautical engineering professor. I might know my brontosaurus from my apatosaurus, and I might be able to do barrel rolls in a 747, but can I explain the evolutionary pressures that led to their long tails, or design a new tail to make it roll faster and also more silently? There's always something unknown, even at the peak of any field of study, but we need experts and specialists of the highest degree to answer the hardest questions and to teach everyone else.

There's a reason universities have a hierarchical pecking order: At the bottom, 1st years may be smart, but have yet to prove they can do anything with those smarts. They haven't put in the hard graft to learn as much as more senior students. At the top, professors are far from infallible, but have earned their place in the food chain, because they almost certainly know more than you about their field. And that didn't just come to them from nowhere, they invested years and years in dedicated study. The 10 or so years you'll likely spend earning a PhD is not at all equivalent to 10 years of happening to pick things up as and when they happen to catch your interest. If you undermine the credibility of all professors in one go, as Santorum has attempted to, you undermine the entire system of distinguishing between better and worse ideas.

Now what the hell was I talking about...

Oh yes.

The accusation of "intellectual snobbery" is not a thing I consider valid. If a person is wrong and you can prove it, then you call them "wrong" and prove it. But to say, "You know a lot of stuff that I don't, and/or appreciate the pursuit of understanding more than I" and mean it as an insult is just mind-bogglingly stupid. You normally only hear it from those on the defensive, those who have no real arguments to give. I've had it from religious zealots (mostly in relation to evolution, but one strange time it was about lunar probes). I've heard it from anti-vaxxers who claim their intuitions and feelings are worth more than tested knowledge (to be clear, real intuition is a product of learned knowledge). I've even heard it in the SA Skeptics group on Facebook, which is pretty shocking, considering skeptics are supposed to value big brains, not the opposite. That's like going to a massive concert and complaining about the noise.

Some might argue that being snooty about wrong ideas is a fair cause for the use of accusations like intellectual snobbery, but I think it's an inaccurate use of words, since "wrong" would still be a better, simpler and easier-to-prove accusation. How do you prove a vague and subjective thing like snootiness? Oh, and the thing about inaccurate uses of words? Yeah, that's also a thing that gets me accused of snobbery. Usialy buY pPeepls hoorite LyKL DzZz. (I exaggerate, but not by much.)

What can be done to counter such anti-intellectualism? A few quick, practical thoughts:

1. Take pride in your brain. You don't have to rub it in people's faces, but modesty is a form of dishonesty, and they sort of rhyme too.

2. If you don't understand someone, tell them and ask for clarification. Even qualified, experienced teachers can find it hard to be sure when their audience is following them, and that's half of their core function. There's no shame in not knowing something, but there's plenty of shame in hiding from your own ignorance.

3. If someone doesn't understand you, explain it to them. Use different words, don't just say the same thing over and over. Before adding new concepts, break up the current ones so that everyone can agree what it is that makes them up. Take things one step at a time. There's no honour in mocking someone for not knowing something, but plenty of it in teaching them.

4. Accept that nobody knows everything, everybody makes mistakes, but that knowing more is a goal we should all strive for and help each other towards.

Did I miss anything?


  1. Perhaps approaching what you're talking about but not quite, I saw this cool razor.

    "What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence." Hitchens' Razor. Christopher Hitchens. A Razor seemingly eponymously and posthumously named after him.

  2. It certainly helps.

    There was also a sports analogy that I forgot to put in above, which I think I heard on the SGU. It's something along the lines of, nobody (over the age of 8) expects to be a top professional athlete from a week's training. Even a year or two of training won't be enough. To be the best at your sport, you have to put in years and years and decades of dedicated training. And yet somehow some people expect intellectual pursuits to be easy and instant, with everyone basically equally. (The only place the analogy falls apart is that sport doesn't matter.)