Saturday, September 17, 2005

Sometimes You Just Don't Know


Intolerance to ambiguity, cognitive rigidity, decreased cognitive complexity, authoritarianism, negative attitudes towards help seeking, low self-esteem and dogmatism are just a few of the attributes that this study (follow-up here) finds correlated with a particular ideological mindset, which, if Lakoff is correct is due to a particular style of childrearing and, if Ducat is correct, gets primarily expressed as femiphobia.

Does this also make a person more likely to assume s/he knows everything? An expert on everything? Someone with no awareness of one's own lack of knowledge and training? Perhaps. See these examples of know-it-alls, ranging from science and math, through journalism to politics:

Outside the Box or Around The Bend:
Many of the more sincere pseudoscience and "alternative" medicine supporters continually exhort those of us who are more skeptical to be "more open-minded", saying that we need to "think outside the box". I submit that there is a fine line between "thinking outside the box" and "going around the bend".

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Too often, people coming into a field that is new to them will see rules and procedures that appear clumsy or overly restrictive and want to eliminate them. They feel that their newcomer status allows them to "think outside the box" and are usually frustrated when people who have been in the field longer insist that they adhere to the same clunky, burdensome rules and procedures. If they stay in the field long enough, they almost always come to discover why those rules and procedures are the way they are.

One of the more burdensome and clunky rules that science has had to put up with for the past two centuries or more is the rule that hypotheses are not "fact" (or theory) until they have been successfully tested. This rule has stymied thousands (if not millions) of would-be scientists who are so convinced of their ideas that they feel that testing them is a pointless waste of time and effort.

For these expansive thinkers, this is especially irksome because their new ideas are so obviously correct that anyone who understands them should see their truth immediately. The demands for data and testing seem, to them, merely a distraction - a way for the entrenched old fossils in science to mask their inability to understand. If people would only be more "open-minded" - if they would only "think outside the box" - they would immediately comprehend the beauty and truth of it all.

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So, all you mavericks out there who feel that your lack of education and experience in a field gives you a unique ability to see what those who have labored long and hard cannot, remember these two "cautionary tales". And try to keep an open mind about why the people who have been in the field for years and years may not be receptive to your startling insights. When they brush you off or ignore your input, try to think outside the box of "conspiracy and stubborness" and consider a truly novel idea:

You might be wrong.
I Don't Know
Of course, the Lake Wobegon Effect is no surprise to anyone who has taught freshmen or non-majors, dealt with incompetent (but invariably "experienced") teachers or administrators, argued with intelligent design "experts", or read a newspaper in the last five years. The hardest thing for many people to learn, especially in a subject that they've never seriously encountered before, is that they don't know what's going on, that their opinions are not facts, that their intuition is not proof. This is especially frustrating in math and CS theory classes, where the students have the tools to check whether their answers are correct, if only they'd think to try them. It's almost impossible to actually learn anything if you don't realize that you have something to learn. The first step, as they say, is to admit that you have a problem.
The (Educated) Reader
I’ve learned a great deal, but not what I expected to learn. It should have been the perfect place to begin a discussion of the tradeoffs made between quality and profits, but what was put forward as a forum to hold the newspaper accountable became something else. All the editors really wanted, I’m convinced, was a feel-good focus group with an important-sounding title. Particularly when there’s only one newspaper in town, readers have little clout.

While I am not a journalist, I am a consumer of journalism and I care deeply about newspapers. Good newspapers help create open and constructive dialogue, and this is integral to the democratic process. Perhaps because of that, I find it incredible that the press won’t discuss what is arguably the central journalistic issue of our time with those who have the most at stake — we, the people.
The Net Knows More Than You: An Open Letter to the People of CBS News

People of CBS News, the Net knows more than you. The chances are fairly high that a given producer at CBS would not know enough southern history to grasp what Senator Trent Lott was actually saying when he praised Strom Thurmond’s 1948 campaign for president. The chances of the blogosphere not knowing this background are zero.

How Bush Blew It
It's a standing joke among the president's top aides: who gets to deliver the bad news? Warm and hearty in public, Bush can be cold and snappish in private, and aides sometimes cringe before the displeasure of the president of the United States, or, as he is known in West Wing jargon, POTUS. The bad news on this early morning, Tuesday, Aug. 30, some 24 hours after Hurricane Katrina had ripped through New Orleans, was that the president would have to cut short his five-week vacation by a couple of days and return to Washington. The president's chief of staff, Andrew Card; his deputy chief of staff, Joe Hagin; his counselor, Dan Bartlett, and his spokesman, Scott McClellan, held a conference call to discuss the question of the president's early return and the delicate task of telling him. Hagin, it was decided, as senior aide on the ground, would do the deed.

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How this could be—how the president of the United States could have even less "situational awareness," as they say in the military, than the average American about the worst natural disaster in a century—is one of the more perplexing and troubling chapters in a story that, despite moments of heroism and acts of great generosity, ranks as a national disgrace.

President George W. Bush has always trusted his gut. He prides himself in ignoring the distracting chatter, the caterwauling of the media elites, the Washington political buzz machine. He has boasted that he doesn't read the papers. His doggedness is often admirable. It is easy for presidents to overreact to the noise around them.

But it is not clear what President Bush does read or watch, aside from the occasional biography and an hour or two of ESPN here and there. Bush can be petulant about dissent; he equates disagreement with disloyalty. After five years in office, he is surrounded largely by people who agree with him. Bush can ask tough questions, but it's mostly a one-way street. Most presidents keep a devil's advocate around. Lyndon Johnson had George Ball on Vietnam; President Ronald Reagan and Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, grudgingly listened to the arguments of Budget Director Richard Darman, who told them what they didn't wish to hear: that they would have to raise taxes. When Hurricane Katrina struck, it appears there was no one to tell President Bush the plain truth: that the state and local governments had been overwhelmed, that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was not up to the job and that the military, the only institution with the resources to cope, couldn't act without a declaration from the president overriding all other authority.
Living Too Much in the Bubble
In addition, former aides say there has always been enormous pressure on White House officials to take only the most vital decisions to Bush and let the bureaucracy deal with everything else. Bush does not appear to tap sources deep inside his government for information, the way his father or Bill Clinton did, preferring to get reports through channels. A highly screened information chain is fine when everything is going well, but in a crisis it can hinder. Louisiana officials say it took hours for Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco to reach Bush (although when she did, he talked to her soothingly, according to White House officials). "His inner circle takes pride in being able to tell him 'everything is under control,' when in this case it was not," said a former aide. "The whole idea that you have to only burden him with things 'that rise to his level' bit them this time."

A related factor, aides and outside allies concede, is what many of them see as the President's increasing isolation. Bush's bubble has grown more hermetic in the second term, they say, with fewer people willing or able to bring him bad news--or tell him when he's wrong. Bush has never been adroit about this. A youngish aide who is a Bush favorite described the perils of correcting the boss. "The first time I told him he was wrong, he started yelling at me," the aide recalled about a session during the first term. "Then I showed him where he was wrong, and he said, 'All right. I understand. Good job.' He patted me on the shoulder. I went and had dry heaves in the bathroom."

------snip-------

The result is a kind of echo chamber in which good news can prevail over bad--even when there is a surfeit of evidence to the contrary. For example, a source tells TIME that four days after Katrina struck, Bush himself briefed his father and former President Clinton in a way that left too rosy an impression of the progress made. "It bore no resemblance to what was actually happening," said someone familiar with the presentation.
Group-think, emotional insecurity, lack of societal feedback (please click through the links above and read the whole articles, so you understand what, for instance, the "lack of societal feedback" means). Put them all together and you get crackpots everywhere: in the classroom, in the boardroom, in the Oval Office. And nobody tells them they are wrong. So how can they know?

And even if someone tells them, is their emotional insecurity going to allow them to accept it? See, for instance this Creationist's inability to accept he does not know even one little bit of biology (yet he published an article on it - how arrogant, on top of ignorant). Many Right-wing bloggers behave the same way (see Powerline for the best examples).

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