A companion blog, The Metacognition Project, has been created to focus specifically on metacognition and related consciousness processes. Newest essay on TMP: Goals and Problems, part two

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

It’s The Ignorance, Stupid

Here is one for you: How uninformed can people be allowed to be in a free society? How misguided? How ignorant? How stupid?  Before you knee-jerk the answer that people have the right to be as uninformed as they wish, listen up:

There are many places where ignorance is not allowed.  Just try to play sandlot football with 17 to 23 year olds in Jacksboro, Texas without a reasonable grasp of the game!  Or try going fishing on a group charter and fail to learn or otherwise ignore the rules of etiquette.  Go to a sports bar and, while watching a basketball game, loudly proclaim that a player should be put in the penalty box for moving before the snap.

Are the sailors on a submarine allowed to be ignorant of functions in their areas of responsibility?  Imagine being on a shooting range with someone who knows and cares nothing about gun safety.   Is it OK to put rat poison next to the condiments in a restaurant?  Is it OK to lie about the bridge being out just around the blind curve?

This is not a solutions essay; it is about hair-pulling, screaming, fit-having exasperation.  Really, just how stupid can people be allowed to be, and its corollary, how much dishonesty (an important ingredient in ‘stupid soup’) can be mixed with ‘free speech’ before it kills you?

I know that this opens a can of worms, even invites whole new species of worms that have never been captured and put in cans.  But as I said this essay is not about solutions; it is about anger and fear.

A specific example, the one that got my blood up:  I often read the writings of climate change deniers, supply side economists and general purveyors of the so-called conservative set of mind; they are, while not the primary source of our troubles, the main proponents of our staying in trouble. 

I recently ran across a thing called, “There IS a problem with global warming... it stopped in 1998, written by a smarmy character named Bob Carter.  Now, I have no serious problem with smarmy or sarcasm (actually I do), but the ignorance or dishonesty, most likely a combination of both, is intolerable: he cannot play on my team, must leave the sports bar and is not to be allowed in the kitchen.  I can’t think of another way to deal with this.

I went to the original Temperature Anomalies data and ran the numbers.  Mr. Carter was simply wrong, intentionally or otherwise wrong.  The data clearly show that global temperature has risen approximately .2º C every 10 years since 1980.  Carter’s piece was written in 2006, but one still hears the same arguments on rightwing radio every day (if you listen everyday).  There are a number of sources for the summarized data and they are the same as the averages that I calculated from the anomaly raw data.

More than that, the data show a trend of increasing rates of global average temperature increase in both atmospheric and ocean temperature over the whole range of time that reasonably accurate global records have be collected, from 1880 to the present.

This is not a ‘he said, she said’ argument.  Usually when the media report a “disagreement” on such issues the matter is left with: ‘Mr. Keye says that temperatures have increased while Mr. Carter claims that global temperature stopped increasing in 1998 and the climate change supporters have no explanation.’

Here are some of his words, “Consider the simple fact, drawn from the official temperature records of the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, that for the years 1998-2005 global average temperature did not increase (there was actually a slight decrease, though not at a rate that differs significantly from zero).” 

That sounds authoritative, but what was Carter actually ‘drawing on’?  1998 had the greatest deviation to that date from the standard base comparison period (the global temperature averaged for the years 1951 to 1980).  The years following 1998 have slightly lower deviations, but still consistently higher than the any of the years before 1998.  This comparing of single data points is, well, pointless. 


These are the increases that I calculated; global average temperature increases in degrees Celsius from the standard of ‘0’ increase of 1951-1980.  The 2001-2010 value has been reported as 0.61 in another source.  The average value from 2001 to 2005, data available to Mr. Carter, was 0.45, significantly higher than, 0.38, the average for the previous five years (which included 1998) [1].

Here are the increases over the 1951-1980 zero set point for the 10 hottest years since 1880 up to 2005 (there have been 3 years hotter than 1998 since 2005):

º C

It is that the five hottest years on record after 1998 are 2001 to 2005 that Mr. Carter is calling a cooling trend – though to his credit he does point to its insignificance as cooling.  It is almost impossible to believe that someone could be so ignorant or even intuitively challenged that he could make such a claim with honesty.  But let us not be too critical of Mr. Carter and assume that he is just plain stump stupid and not a dishonest slimeball.

But this is not an essay on global climate change or even on the arguments surrounding it; it is about uninformed, ignorant, stupid and dishonest, and just how much of them we can tolerate in a society that seems to make ignorance a viable personal choice protected by law.  The same kinds of arguments and deceptions, based in ignorance, could be drawn from the economy, election malfeasance, political machinations, corporate corruption and more.

I am sick to death (not rhetorical since I am old and am pushed toward death by every new stress!) of the extent of the failure of public understanding for issues that are clearly settled [2].  No one with the capacity to read Mr. Carter’s piece should be accepting of it.  They should know enough to, first, suspect its disingenuousness and then be able to test its presentments.

I know, I know, that is asking too much of the average, overly busy, hard working, blah, blah, blah citizen.  But that is bullshit.  We get what we demand.  When I was teaching, mid school, high school, college, it didn’t matter: I got the result that I demanded.  I simply refused to accept that any student was incapable of learning what I had to teach and refused to accept even the thought that what I wanted them to learn wasn’t very important for them to know.  This was not done 25% of the time and relaxed at other times; it was done 100% of the time in every single interaction – and the students came like puppies to bacon, even the ones that didn’t believe that they could do it, because they could feel that I believe in them and they liked the feeling.  It is my experience that people like becoming competent and knowledgeable [3].

This doesn’t mean that people will agree on all things, but it does mean that it is possible for most people to agree on beginning with the same basic facts.  Humans are not made to be a stupid animal; our shtick is knowing what is going on.

If you are in a boat with 20 other people, maximum “safe” capacity, anyone claiming that they, and you, are standing on dry land would be considered crazy.  They would not be allowed to be part of any decision making process; if, say, some swimmer came to your boat and asked for a place on board, the ‘dry lander’ argument that there was plenty of room would be seen for the insanity that it was.  There are times when ignorance and also insanity just aren’t allowed.  No matter how the deliberations progressed every one would be expected to begin by acknowledging that they were in a boat at or near capacity.

Should we demand any less of the regular folks around us in our political and economic life?  Obviously, all human failing can’t be outlawed, but human communities have always set standards for the responsibilities of individuals.  With the withering of community we have been left with no enforceable (by social pressure) codes for what a person needs to know to be an effective participant in society.

No, you may not have your own opinion of the carcinogenic qualities of tobacco smoke, not if you are going to live in a community of others.  And no, you can’t decide on what is correct science without addressing the issue in the rules of science just as you may not use a baseball bat in a board game. 

And yes, far too many people are painfully ignorant of how to work the most basic skepticism useful for survival, much less the details and facts of our economic and political situation.  Of course, it is mostly a matter of ‘garbage in garbage out.’  The vast majority is not willfully uninformed, but they are uninformed and that’s what matters. 

It is time to fight back.  You can’t expect that others will do what you will not do.  Challenge the Bob Carters, they are just hacks being paid to twist the facts into a form that suits a political and economic interest.  And don’t let a friend drive (or vote) ignorant, tell them what you know because you have done the work to know something worth telling.  Even be in their face if necessary, and ready for the consequences.

Ignorant and stupid must be made unacceptable; in a pickup game of football or in the making of national decisions that determine the quality of our lives.  And I don’t think this needs be parsed too closely, you know, the ‘people defend their attitudes when challenged’ stuff.  Just do it, challenge and inform from a position of knowledge. You can’t expect that others will do what you will not do.  Repeat yourself if you think it important.

[1] Here is an example from another kind of data collection that will help to make clear Mr. Carter’s disingenuousness.  Each year in the spring I start riding my road bike on a timed loop recording each day’s time and average speed.  The times get better and better as I get into shape, but they don’t improve evenly from ride to ride.  I will always post a time on an especially good day that I will not better for a week, even two.  It in no way means that I am not getting faster by not bettering that unusually good time the next time out; my times following that day will be improvements on the average for the precious week and averaged together will show a pattern of consistent change.  That is what is happening with the 1998 temperature measurement and Mr. Carter either knows it and is lying or is willfully uninformed, neither of which should be acceptable.

[2] Clearly settled doesn’t mean universally accepted or happy about.  It is clearly settled that leopards will attack children let to wander from the village.  People in the village can argue about it all day long without changing the behavior of leopards.  We see this with the climate change “arguments”; the military, insurance and other affected institutions are all making plans for global warming and other consequences even as they are often the supporters of climate change deniers.

[3] I realize that not accepting lack of capacity and disinterest is, even if effective as a teaching tool, a rigid position and that I am arguing against rigidity in favor of a fluidity in understanding, adapting to realities.  It is, however, also an empirical position based on the reality of student success in overcoming self-generated inhibitions to learning – they just needed to be believed in.  Of course, it didn’t work with everyone, but it worked better than anything else.


Michael Dawson said...

Imagine if your recommendations were the basis for educational policy and practice. Then, we might stand a chance of starting to pierce the veil of the system.

As it is, we have the opposite, an underfunded system for teaching students rote crapola and how to take phony make-work tests and, at the top of the system, build meaningless college resumes demonstrating one's talents at social conformity.

James Keye said...

I found working within the educational system very unsatisfying. I hate to say it, but education is shot through with incompetence, and in such a way that it is magnified rather than compensated for. But it is what fundamentalists want; fundamentalism can only survive among poorly educated and weak minded people (religious, economic, Marxist, Randian, all of them)

This is going to be one hell decade or two. It is all rising to a head like a canker sore.