Sunday, 12 March 2017

Defending the Enlightenment with the Knowledge Illusion: Or, Why our desire for parsimony ensures we know diddly

What do we know? Photo by Linda Tanner CC BY 2.0
There are many statements about new knowledge and how, if you cannot explain something in so many words or less, then you do not understand the thing at hand. Or when senior executives want complex issues reduced to dot points to reduce their reading time.  Here I begin a critical examination of the opinion essay entitled "The Enlightenment's legacy is under siege. Defend it." by Damon Linker from The Week.

It would appear that our understanding of things, based on the academic desire for parsimony in developing new knowledge, has created an extreme that is ripe for the plucking by those who only think they know. If you are asking "Please explain?", then allow me to do so. But if you want my answer in so many words or less, then just go off and live your life as you please. It won't bother me.

What I want to do here is to not only critically examine Linker's essay, but to cross-examine the piece by superimposing a review, appearing in the April 2017 edition of Psychology Today, of the book The Knowledge Illusion, which is due for release soon. Obviously I cannot have read the book, but I will draw on the information provided in the review which touches on some key issues I wish to explore in the near future.

But first, let us begin with "Occams' Razor". Occam's Razor refers to the principle of parsimony in scientific research. In effect, if you are looking at two competing hypotheses, then the simplest is deemed the most likely. But we might also consider the hypotheses on a spectrum, with Occam's Razor on one extreme, and a Sherlock Holmes-style balance of probabilities on the other. Tania Lombrozo explains this far better than me. But apparently, Occam's Razor + Sherlock Holmes = Clever Kid.

Eyeball razor blade scene from Luis Buñuel's 1929 film Un Chien Andalou
When I read Linker's essay, I see Occam's Razor in action (a term which, incidentally, gives me the image of Luis Buñuel's eyeball razor blade in Un Chien Andalou). As I have not read Linker's other work, I can only examine the evidence presented, but, if I am to believe what is written about one of his major works, The Religious Test: Why We Must Question the Beliefs of Our Leaders, then he is not simply all for science and against everything else.

Nevertheless, Linker divides society into those for the Enlightenment, in a liberal arts or liberal democratic sense, and those who rejected Enlightenment thinking and have now come back to instigate Brexit, Trump, and here in Australia we rolled over the dead horse and flogged the other side of that other red-headed clown

No middle ground and a belief that "you're either with us or against us". Parsimonious, easy to put into dot point format, but oversimplified and wrong.

It may well be a case of heuristics, where the rule of thumb in Australia remains Labor = unionist, Liberal = silver-tail, and Greens = professional protestor who looks forward to state-led socialism. Of course, this is sometimes true but too simplistic to be useful in developing policy.

It is the same with Enlightenment versus counter-Enlightenment thinking. In The Knowledge Illusion, Sloman and Fernbach argue that the Dunning-Kruger effect is running rife in politics. Put simply, the effect explains "how difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments".

And so it is with Linker's essay. Not Linker, but the people "out there" he is writing about. If we look at the issues of globalisation, free trade, immigration, and so on, it is not the theory that has been disproven, but the way it has been done. Here are two of my favourite anti-globalisation cartoons:


The cartoon on the left shows the worst kind of tourist. People who go to other cultures like they would to a zoo. And on the right shows the worst kind of trade, where multinationals drive out choice by driving efficiencies.

None of this is new. The Greek and Roman Empires did the same, be it democracy or administration, as did the Mongols, the Ottomans, the British and so on. But in the grand scheme of things, it is a misnomer to equate globalisation with Americanisation, or to think that the American Empire will somehow outlive history. 
Time crumbles things; everything grows old under the power of Time and is forgotten through the lapse of Time (Aristotle's Physics, 221a).
I doubt the momentum of globalisation will be easily reversed. Nationalism cannot be the solution to all future problems. Brexit will not create jobs for underemployed Britons, Trump will not help the US economy by removing the ten or so million illegal workers who do all the dirty work without ever claiming social security benefits or receiving a tax refund.

Yet Linker draws on Heidegger and Nazis and tries to put Rousseau back in his illiberal box. I notice too that Linker has written a book entitled Theocons, so I suspect he is clinging to a New Right view of the world. Dare I say Orientalist.

So what is my point? The division of people into Enlightenment and counter-Enlightenment camps is problematic because it relies on a two-dimensional divide. It also hides behind a thick veil of the Dunning-Kruger effect based on cultural competence. 

Which is why I say that you cannot just review one article and forget about bringing other things in for the sake of parsimony. The world is far more complex, and complexity is best fought with complexity. The graph below indicates that the less you know, the more competent you think you are, and the more likely that you have an opinion on climate change based on the principle of parsimony but you had to look up the meaning of parsimony.
Indeed, Gary Drevitch's review (Psychology Today, April 2017: 44-5) of The Knowledge Illusion uses climate change as one of the major examples of confident incompetence presently in vogue. So is it possible that Linker's view is not that of an "indifferent spectator"?

Adam Smith, the Father of Capitalism, used the concept of the "indifferent spectator" in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) to arrive at the conclusion that our "social psychology is a better guide to moral action than is reason". I suspect that Linker is not indifferent at all but also doesn't know that is the case.

And surely Adam Smith, one of the leading lights of the Scottish Enlightenment, is using counter-Enlightenment thinking by arguing for a social psychology over reason in matters of morality? Linker has no answer to this problem.

I see this same hardheadedness in the I Fucking Love Science crew I regularly see on Facebook. Sure, science is great, but please don't pretend that science has all the answers or that, if you looked hard enough, you couldn't find a photograph of a relative who received blood-letting as a medical treatment. You may fucking love science but the knowledge illusion is still very real.

How do we overcome this? I think we need to revisit the principle of parsimony. I don't think it helps with complex problems. And, like reviewing one thing at a time for an orderly review, it does not illuminate biases or enable a triangulation or cross-examination of the issues at hand.

This has been an interesting activity. Linker points to many areas I am under-read in, and Psychology Today is proving to be, pardon the pun, an enlightening magazine. But complexity needs complexity, and binary solutions to systemic problems are not the answer, either in practice, or in our thinking.


Creative Commons License Except where indicated otherwise, Le Flâneur Politique by Michael de Percy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.5 Australia License. Based on a work at politicalscience.com.au. Background image ©Depositphotos.com/ @redshinestudio