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Is there a new geek anti-intellectualism?
June 7, 2011 8:24 PM   Subscribe

Is there a new geek anti-intellectualism? by Larry Sanger of Wikipedia fame. [via]
You don’t really care about knowledge; it’s not a priority. For you, the books containing knowledge, the classics and old-fashioned scholarship summing up the best of our knowledge, the people and institutions whose purpose is to pass on knowledge–all are hopelessly antiquated. Even your own knowledge, the contents of your mind, can be outsourced to databases built by collaborative digital communities, and the more the better. After all, academics are boring. A new world is coming, and you are in the vanguard. In this world, the people who have and who value individual knowledge, especially theoretical and factual knowledge, are objects of your derision.
posted by destrius (157 comments total) 51 users marked this as a favorite

 
Yes.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 8:28 PM on June 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


I know nothing.
posted by shoesfullofdust at 8:29 PM on June 7, 2011


I've met more than a few people under 25 who feel this way. I haven't met anyone over 35 who really thinks this way, or at least who is willing to express it out loud. Those early-20s people, however, were quite vocal about their worldview and how they felt that learning things was stupid and striving for intellectual understanding or enjoying deep literary experiences was a waste of time.
posted by hippybear at 8:29 PM on June 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


Lets wait and ask the Voynix.
posted by Godspeed.You!Black.Emperor.Penguin at 8:32 PM on June 7, 2011 [6 favorites]


Interesting take, but I think it actually gives too much credence to this particular brand of geek he seems to be aiming at. For instance:

What you respect are those who have created stuff that many people find useful today.

If only that part were actually true. This particular brand of geek doesn't seem to respect anything useful.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 8:32 PM on June 7, 2011


The article reaches the conclusion of "maybe", and I'd agree with that. My vague idea of the situation is that attitudes towards intellectual pursuits are staying the same (maybe degrading a little bit) but that more and more people are becoming tech-obsessed and "geeky". Heavy on the scare quotes there. I'd say it's the culmination of a bunch of different factors, one of which is probably increased anti-intellectualism, but another of which may be the broadening of the circle of people who are considered to be geeky.
posted by codacorolla at 8:36 PM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


I suppose it is true, but only in the sense that intellectualism has looked a lot like memorizing state capitals, loving lit-crit, being fluent in Latin, quoting Derrida sans irony, and going into debt for letters behind your name. Slavish worship of book lists written when my parents were young containing authors who were dead when my grandparents were young; the New Testament has only a few additions, for the sake of multiculturalism. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to be snubbed at the faculty cocktail party.

That's what intellectualism looked like for a long, long time. Good riddance, then. Wonder if we'll pick anything decent out of the rubble when we rebuild.
posted by adipocere at 8:37 PM on June 7, 2011 [20 favorites]


Anti-erudition is not the same exact thing as anti-intellectual, but I'll acknowledge that there's some overlap.
posted by BrotherCaine at 8:38 PM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm pretty sure this article is somewhat influenced by his experiences with Wikipedia.
posted by destrius at 8:38 PM on June 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


Experts are a tricky business. Do we give the homeopathy experts veto power over the wikipedia article on homeopathy?
posted by Pyry at 8:39 PM on June 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


Kids today, man.
posted by The World Famous at 8:39 PM on June 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


And who is to blame, Mr. Wikipedia?
posted by Sys Rq at 8:40 PM on June 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


That's what intellectualism looked like for a long, long time. Good riddance, then. Wonder if we'll pick anything decent out of the rubble when we rebuild.

Holy shit dude. I think you may be mistaking reality for a Rodney Dangerfield movie.
posted by codacorolla at 8:40 PM on June 7, 2011 [46 favorites]


Whole lotta strawmen in that argument.
posted by pts at 8:44 PM on June 7, 2011 [5 favorites]


New geek anti-intellectualism, or young people - and young boys especially, young, bright mechanistically-minded boys who have probably been marginalised in many areas of their meatspace lives - thinking they know and own the world?

I respectfully submit this phenomenon is about as new as cuneiform.
posted by smoke at 8:44 PM on June 7, 2011 [20 favorites]


Well, I've become less and less interested in learning 'facts' that are easily google-able. When I was in high school, I used to memorize stuff like country names, the list of presidents, etc, but now who really cares? It's literally useless knowledge when you can find the answer in 10 seconds on your phone.

I'm now far more interested in how things are related to each other.
posted by empath at 8:45 PM on June 7, 2011 [16 favorites]


Godspeed.You!Black.Emperor.Penguin: "Lets wait and ask the Voynix"

Sweet, now I'm going to go reread those books for the 8th straight time.
posted by boo_radley at 8:45 PM on June 7, 2011


(err, elementary school. I was already bored with memorizing stuff by high school).
posted by empath at 8:45 PM on June 7, 2011


Is there a new jock anti-athleticism?
posted by baf at 8:46 PM on June 7, 2011 [7 favorites]


empath: there is also the issue of what to memorize. My parents, for example, know British history in ridiculous detail and virtually nothing about post confederation Canadian history (aside from what they lived through), because at the time when they went to school British history was what you memorized.

so yes, I agree.
posted by selenized at 8:49 PM on June 7, 2011


Tldr
posted by nathancaswell at 8:49 PM on June 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


This is a pretty bizarre, disjointed article.

On the other hand, the Epic Win!/Fail! TV Tropes worshiping Topless Robot side of catchphrase geekiness does some sorta anti-intellectual, or anti things which are long and old.

I suppose it is true, but only in the sense that intellectualism has looked a lot like memorizing state capitals, loving lit-crit, being fluent in Latin, quoting Derrida sans irony.

This is part of the problem. Everything has to be douched in irony or hyperbole. I can't explain why I like Dante's Inferno. It's 'despite being old and a book, Dante's vision of Hell still contains some good grade-A Nightmare Fuel'.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 8:52 PM on June 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


er, couched in irony. Not douched in irony.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 8:52 PM on June 7, 2011 [32 favorites]


Knowing stuff is so 20th century.
posted by jeremy b at 8:53 PM on June 7, 2011


Being douched in irony leaves you with that not-so-fresh feeling.
posted by hippybear at 8:55 PM on June 7, 2011 [8 favorites]


Books are an outmoded medium because they involve a single person speaking from authority. In the future, information will be developed and propagated collaboratively, something like what we already do with the combination of Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Wikipedia, and various other websites.

One doesn't have to go far back down the chain of knowledge to reach a quite important question, which is: where do these collaborators acquire the information that they subsequently develop and propagate? Instead of a single person speaking from authority, we now have multiple persons speaking from multiple authorities, and pooling that authority into a single authority, which is now, apparently, Wikipedia.

If I am vaguely interested in a subject, I will check the Wiki on it, sure (though more often than not I will peruse my own modest library of reference works, which cover the "core fields" of what I believe will continue to be lasting and useful interests). My interest will wax or wane accordingly. If it wanes, well, no harm done. That's a minute or two of my life spent usefully, even so.

If it waxes, I will likely check a few of the linked references on the page, or see if I can find a more substantive article somewhere. If it is still fascinating to me, it's possible that a whole book will be the next acquisition. Perhaps even multiple books. If, after all that, I still care about it, then it's probably something I'm going to care about for a good while, and for the next period of my life I will accumulate pieces of subject-related knowledge whenever they present themselves. The desire for knowledge of a given subject has now become a passion. One passes through phases in their lives where they are passionate about Greek mythology, or World War II, or the history of science, or whatever. Passion for personal enrichment is the same as any other passion: it stays steady, it grows into an obsession, or it disintegrates. So I'll either remember some of the things or none of them, or make notes as a compromise, and I can go back and refresh the knowledge using the resources I have, or scrap the lot of it in a mental and physical housecleaning.

The thing is, anybody with any true (and, importantly, lasting) motivation towards knowledge - that is, a passion - of any kind will not ever rely on any single source for the definitive version of that knowledge. Vague curiosity, or necessity, may be satisfied by a "collaborative digital community", but a passion never will.

Therefore, my conclusion, from my personal authority, is that [those who deride] "the people who have and who value individual knowledge, especially theoretical and factual knowledge" are devoid of passion. An individual without passion is an individual without the insight, without the knowledge of self, to know what makes them happy beyond superficialities. One satisfied with superficialities is one who has allowed themselves to be broken by the world. One who has allowed oneself to be broken by the world is a coward, and hollow. All knowledge is self-knowledge, and if you disdain any knowledge, you disdain yourself.
posted by tumid dahlia at 8:56 PM on June 7, 2011 [46 favorites]


Wow. This is the kind of paranoid stuff I had imagined Larry Sanger might say (i.e. the cute cartoon version of him in my head.) On one hand, I can kind of concede, or at least sympathize with, some of his points in a general sense (wasn't there recently a MeFi thread were people were talking about how experts aren't respected as much anymore?) But I can't help reading that article in the light of Wikipedia bitterness.
posted by MrFTBN at 8:56 PM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you strip out the part about college being a waste of time, his provocative restatement of geek anti-intellectualism looks a lot like the things the scientists and engineers used to say to us fuzzy-haired academic majors when I was in college. So certainly not new to me, and it wasn't like academ-hating was new when I first encountered it either.
posted by immlass at 8:57 PM on June 7, 2011


I'll save this to read after I get to old geek intellectualism.
posted by Pants McCracky at 8:57 PM on June 7, 2011


My kid is a researchin' and fact checkin' fiend.
posted by Ardiril at 8:58 PM on June 7, 2011


Mr. Sanger should find some new people to hang out with, his friends sound like jerks. I don't know anyone who scoffs at books the way he's describing.
posted by chaff at 9:00 PM on June 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


What's ironic, I guess, is that he doesn't seem to know much about theories of elementary education (though has a strong opinion on them), nor about modes of discerning truth (I mean, this: "1. Experts do not deserve any special role in declaring what is known. Knowledge is now democratically determined, as it should be." That's a totally respectable and few-hundred-years-old theory of truth that's particularly prevalent in the English-speaking world.). I mean, lecturing at small children and making them memorize lists of things is not a particularly effective mode of pedagogy, but having children do integrated projects where they discover things for themselves and use math and English and so on across the curriculum ... those things they both remember and understand.

On the one hand he's got some decent points about not delving deeply into things because our attention spans are twitterized; on the other hand MEMORIZING FACTS IS NOT DELVING DEEPLY.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:01 PM on June 7, 2011 [5 favorites]


I'm sorry, but I have a very strict definition of "geek." Once you drop "intellectualism" from "geeks," they are merely "socially incompetent assholes."
posted by Joey Michaels at 9:03 PM on June 7, 2011 [48 favorites]


Geek anti-intellectualism is in full force.

Anecdote: I spent the entire afternoon arguing with people on reddit about putting clothes on to answer the door.
posted by hellojed at 9:04 PM on June 7, 2011 [9 favorites]


I think part of the problem here is the over-application of the term "geek."
posted by The World Famous at 9:07 PM on June 7, 2011 [14 favorites]


Run all that through autotune and it sounds surprisingly like the Cultural Revolution slogans. Current ways are bad, this new way is better - don't let anyone with "authority" tell you different. Intellectuals are corrupted!!1!
posted by porpoise at 9:08 PM on June 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Larry Sanger is clearly a rationalist philosopher to the very core. In that respect he is a creature of the previous millenium. We are now a bi-winning civilization - adapt or die.
posted by mek at 9:08 PM on June 7, 2011


on the other hand MEMORIZING FACTS IS NOT DELVING DEEPLY.

I'd agree with this. However....

There's a base of knowledge which is handy to have in one's brain without requiring a research tool. Things like the multiplication tables or major dates in history or what nationalities various major authors are and what they wrote... I don't think it's necessary to know who every president in the US is in what order by memory, but it's handy to know things like Ben Franklin and Alexander Hamilton were not presidents. There is some very basic science knowledge which is also useful to carry around in memory.

Just memorizing long lists of facts isn't really that helpful in life in general. Although I'd have to say, there are poems I memorized which I still carry with me and which give depth and texture to my daily life that I feel I would be poorer not knowing.

So, yeah, memorizing is not deep, but it can provide breadth and context which would be unavailable without taking the time to commit the stuff to memory.
posted by hippybear at 9:08 PM on June 7, 2011 [17 favorites]


check out this article by guy who lost wikipedia, he prob has some depressingly awesome ideas re other stuff
#lookatthisfuckingressentiment
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 9:16 PM on June 7, 2011


That was interesting until it got into straw men and weird presentations of ambiguous statements as determinative.

I think there is a strain of geek anti-intellectualism, but I don't think that it's fair to characterize a lot of what he cites as geek anti-intellectualism.
posted by klangklangston at 9:18 PM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


res sentiment? is that what native americans feel about where they live?
posted by hippybear at 9:19 PM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


"I like money."
posted by fairmettle at 9:19 PM on June 7, 2011


"There's a base of knowledge which is handy to have in one's brain without requiring a research tool."

Yes. However, if you click through to his essay on project-based learning in elementary school (which is what it's called, even though he doesn't call it that), that's not exactly what he's talking about, and he clearly has no idea how project-based learning works. Facts that you acquire, understand, and use will tend to lodge themselves in your memory anyway. We can manage to teach children the dates of major events in history without handing them a list to memorize with no context.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 9:20 PM on June 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's literally useless knowledge when you can find the answer in 10 seconds on your phone.

So what happens if they take the phones away?
posted by hermitosis at 9:24 PM on June 7, 2011 [8 favorites]


In my experience, geek and anti-intellectual go together like matter and antimatter. I hadn't heard anywhere else that being 'geek' was getting so cool that defining oneself into the clan means the traditional meaning has to be tossed away to buy membership for the deliberately ignorant.

Either that ... ooooooooooorrr ... it's more sour grapes from Sanger because WP alternative isn't fairing so well.
posted by Twang at 9:27 PM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


So what happens if they take the phones away?

From my cold, dead hands.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:28 PM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


empath: “Well, I've become less and less interested in learning 'facts' that are easily google-able. When I was in high school, I used to memorize stuff like country names, the list of presidents, etc, but now who really cares? It's literally useless knowledge when you can find the answer in 10 seconds on your phone. I'm now far more interested in how things are related to each other.”

I've had that experience, too; it matters less and less to me the specific dates of historical events or even the names of authors or musicians I like. They're all right there, after all.

But this also disturbs me, because I notice this: the ability to remember and retain facts seems to be connected to the ability to rationally consider data and weight alternatives. So I wonder sometimes if my ability to think is getting a bit stunted, since my mind hardly ever does the healthy work of trying to remember things.
posted by koeselitz at 9:29 PM on June 7, 2011 [10 favorites]


er, couched in irony. Not douched in irony.

I didn't even blink when I read that. That's a perfectly cromulent turn of phrase, imo.
posted by empath at 9:29 PM on June 7, 2011 [13 favorites]


I think there is a strain of internet-based geek anti-intellectualism, or I guess I'd call it community blind spots, but I think it relates more to what Paul Ford had to say about the web being a customer service medium (I've been thinking a lot about that article lately, and I'm not nearly as sanguine about it as he appears to be) and what's happening as geekdom has been coalescing into a consumer culture driven by consumer undercurrents.

I'm not exactly sure what I mean by this, yet, but I'm hoping someone else has been thinking along similar lines and can run with it a little.
posted by furiousthought at 9:29 PM on June 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


I always thought the original definition of geek involved biting the heads off chickens. Now THAT'S anti intellecualism. As for me, you can have my collection of hard back tomes of useless ancient lore and philosophy when you pry them from my cold dead fingers
posted by Redhush at 9:33 PM on June 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


The way I figure it, we're starting to use our brains increasingly like indexes. You can get the basics of a wide variety of topics and learn them enough that re-learning them is effortless; you just have to look them up. But there's still a lot of learning to get to that point; you have to know the scope of the water cycle, or 17th century Russian history, or the feminist movement, or anything else in order to look up the individual parts of it in depth and relearn what you need.

There are still a lot of concepts and philosophies that you have to learn, and school can be really helpful in getting those, but memorizing individual facts is pretty useful now.

I think one of the really cool things about making the "expert" less important and having lots of people gaining lots of knowledge from lots of places is that it's a lot easier to be more of a generalist; to have a lot of ideas pulled from different places. I think having knowledge more open like that-- where people in a variety of disciplines are able to pull easily from other places instead of locking up disciplines in University departmental silos-- can only be good.
posted by NoraReed at 9:37 PM on June 7, 2011 [7 favorites]


all i've got to say is that i don't read ancient greek or latin and do not consider myself truly educated because of that
posted by pyramid termite at 9:38 PM on June 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


I have a hard time believing that people actually are capable of carrying on an intellectually-stimulating discussion in real life that involves googling every relevant detail, fact, historic date or name. If you have to constantly google the names of authors, musicians, bands, composers, books, historic events, etc. in order to have a decent discussion about culture, you're not culturally literate. A huge - huge - part of cultural literacy and intelligent participation in society is integration of knowledge preliminary to social and cultural analysis. Fairly-detailed knowledge, internalization, and contemplation over time of the sort of thing that people apparently now think is trivial and googleable is, in my opinion, sort of the baseline prerequisite to well-formed thought about pretty much everything.

Then again, a lot of online argument could be easily explained if I consider that the people doing the arguing are doing so with only a recent google's worth of knowledge and analysis.
posted by The World Famous at 9:44 PM on June 7, 2011 [41 favorites]


But this also disturbs me, because I notice this: the ability to remember and retain facts seems to be connected to the ability to rationally consider data and weight alternatives.

When people ask me how I seemingly know so much random bullshit off the top of my head, I often explain that I don't have huge lists of facts memorized. I have a lot of ideas about how the world works and I keep track of how things are related to each other, usually in support of those ideas, and I often kind of work backwards to recreate knowledge out of related concepts if I need to know something I man not have specifically memorized. I never specifically learned, for example, when exactly the Crimean War was, but I know enough about the general course of European history to place it around the 1850s without ever having specifically remembered that fact.

Organizing my brain this way also makes it super easy for me to google for stuff when I don't know it. I'm continuously baffled by how hard it is for co-workers, for example, to look up stuff that takes me 10 seconds to find on google. It's like if they weren't specifically trained how to use something or told they need to memorize something, they don't even know where to start.
posted by empath at 9:46 PM on June 7, 2011 [24 favorites]


er, couched in irony. Not douched in irony.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 8:52 PM on June 7 [6 favorites +] [!]


Is there a word for when your typo is better than what you originally intended to write?
posted by Ndwright at 9:46 PM on June 7, 2011 [5 favorites]


You can't teach curiosity.
posted by LogicalDash at 9:51 PM on June 7, 2011 [6 favorites]


Is there a word for when your typo is better than what you originally intended to write?

Irony?
posted by eugenen at 9:52 PM on June 7, 2011 [7 favorites]


When I was in high school, I used to memorize stuff like country names, the list of presidents, etc, but now who really cares? It's literally useless knowledge when you can find the answer in 10 seconds on your phone.

Reminds me of a friend tripping on acid getting all concerned that he couldn't remember the Prime Minister's name. So I told him it was Brian Mulroney (1980s acid trips were always the weirdest) at which point he had this euphoric A-HA! moment.

"Why would I worry about wasting my brain energy on stuff that everybody else knows? I'm not losing my mind. I'm finding it."

Last I heard, he's entirely sane. Works in the film biz. Makes BIG money.
posted by philip-random at 9:53 PM on June 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


Last I heard, he's entirely sane. Works in the film biz. Makes BIG money.

Impossible.
posted by The World Famous at 9:53 PM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


I had to basically abandon his essay as insightful when he doubted there is a bubble in the cost of college education.
posted by maxwelton at 9:54 PM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Socrates: I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing is unfortunately like painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of speeches. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you want to know anything and put a question to one of them, the speaker always gives one unvarying answer. And when they have been once written down they are tumbled about anywhere among those who may or may not understand them, and know not to whom they should reply, to whom not: and, if they are maltreated or abused, they have no parent to protect them; and they cannot protect or defend themselves.
— Plato, Phaedrus


It seems to me that Socrates was in many ways quite right about the dangers of writing in Plato's Phaedrus. Writing kills memory by taking away the need to exercise it. We can talk glowingly about how nowadays we don't need to exercise it, but my observation (which may be subjective, I grant) is that memory is an ability which must be practiced to improve. In that sense, when we enthuse about how the internet takes away the need to memorize pointless facts, it's the same as if we were to enthuse about the fact that the automobile means we never have to walk or run anywhere again, and can therefore stop wasting our time exercising at all.
posted by koeselitz at 9:54 PM on June 7, 2011 [21 favorites]


I have a hard time believing that people actually are capable of carrying on an intellectually-stimulating discussion in real life that involves googling every relevant detail, fact, historic date or name. If you have to constantly google the names of authors, musicians, bands, composers, books, historic events, etc. in order to have a decent discussion about culture, you're not culturally literate. A huge - huge - part of cultural literacy and intelligent participation in society is integration of knowledge preliminary to social and cultural analysis. Fairly-detailed knowledge, internalization, and contemplation over time of the sort of thing that people apparently now think is trivial and googleable is, in my opinion, sort of the baseline prerequisite to well-formed thought about pretty much everything.

Right, but having the information available means that if you can hyperspecialize in whatever thing interests you and fill your brain with that information, and not be completely lost at sea if someone wants to talk to you about something you've never heard of before. Every movie, every book, every song, instantly available to you. Or if you need to do something you've literally never had to do before, you can learn the basics of it right away and get started. There's no reason to really learn how to do something just in case it comes up. You just need to learn how to learn how to do things in general.
posted by empath at 9:54 PM on June 7, 2011


Yes, I've seen quite a bit of what Sanger points out. It comes from many sources which just currently happen to be coming to the fore right now. Yes, much of it is more "anti-expert" than "anti-intellectual." Here's one major section:

1. It's really hard to understand xyz, so if I spend the time needed to become an expert, I can lord it over everyone who doesn't understand xyz. (Preferrably xyz involves a bunch of required math courses.)

2. Hey "Expert," it turns out that there are simple ways to understand xyz, and now everyone can gain deep understanding from spending a brief time on the XYZ website. Ha ha, the unwashed masses knock you off your pedestal, since your expertise was an example of Artificial Scarcity. The internet is here, and today little kids can do what once only the top intellectuals could do.
posted by billb at 9:56 PM on June 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


The Internet is a prosthesis for the brain.
posted by Sebmojo at 9:56 PM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


The first thing that came to mind when I read this was Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson's claim that the scientific method - consisting of forming hypotheses, modeling and testing them - is now obsolete. Supposedly. In the age of petabytes of data, we only need to find correlations in the data, there's no need to actual translate that into a framework of understanding. It seems like a very good example of what Sanger is talking about, and is closely related to the popularity of cybernetic models among geeks: systems that are adaptive and contain feedback cycles. In this model, the goal of human knowledge is replaced with the system's functional fitness, in much the same way that an animal has no knowledge of the ecosystem it is adapted for.

An obvious example: Amazon's customer reviews. The traditional role of a retailer to know about the product it sells, which implies expert knowledge, is replaced with an automated feedback mechanism of distributed customer opinions summed together by an algorithm. This creates a second-order problem of whether a review is good or bad, and again the solution is not knowledge, but more feedback mechanisms: "Was this review helpful to you?"

Of course, they have an incentive to hype these systems and attack alternative solutions, because they are paid to build and maintain them. Which is not to say that they don't have their uses. I also think it's obvious why technology built with those aims can never be revolutionary - a system like that aims to adapt to the world around it, not to critically question it.

To the extent that we see our place in the world as a participant in these feedback systems, we will also never ask critical questions.
posted by AlsoMike at 9:58 PM on June 7, 2011 [15 favorites]


his doctoral thesis concerned Epistemic Circularity: An Essay on the Problem of Meta-Justification

I know most of those words, so I'm going to go ahead and assume this is relevant here.
posted by staggernation at 9:59 PM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


The Internet is a prosthesis for the brain.

Sort of. The Internet is like a giant library that you can hang out in all the time. Having a conversation in the library is great if you know where to look and how to find what you're looking for. But it gets better and better the more information you already know about each topic. Empath can figure out when the Crimean War was not because he has access to a brain prosthesis, but because his prior use of the massive library that is the Internet has helped him to learn a whole bunch of other facts that frame the question - facts that he does not need to look up because he has learned them.
posted by The World Famous at 10:04 PM on June 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


I don't know if he's addressing the death of knowledge or the death of critical thinking. I'm pretty sure he means critical thinking.

Saying that knowledge generation can (or is to some geeks) a democratic process is quite silly. General acceptance of knowledge is a democratic process. The generation of knowledge; you know, in the depths of the knowledge mines on Your Favorite University Campus, still happens in a very self-driven manner. We, in academia, put the new knowledge out there through journals and, after a semi-democratic review process, accepted by people within the community it is relevant to. Or it isn't, and they try to repudiate it via new knowledge.

Beyond this (glacially) tumultuous environment, knowledge isn't created in a very large amount (but it is still there, on hobby sites and other shadowy outfits :P). Opinions are generated in vast torrents, philosophies on the internet have a half life akin to anti-matter, and so on, but actual novel knowledge is kind of hard to come by.

So what I'm trying to say is... it doesn't matter what I say on here. Regardless of which hipster cartel controls Wikipedia this year or what nefarious right wing cabal is dictating Digg hits, the neo-monks of academia will continue forward. With or without our democratic approval.
posted by Slackermagee at 10:06 PM on June 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Total aside:
Dude, I work in a university; some days, I live a Rodney Dangerfield movie, with just a hint of PCU. People dress like they're in costume for their jobs*. I see whiteboards used for recreations of famous battles — which would make sense if I worked in history — as some kind of point of relevance to IT. Technology-adverse profs screamed when one of our services did away with faxing in information a couple years ago. My eyes have seen the horrors of a library exhibit on post-modernism which I never, ever saw a student walk by. I have to compose polite replies to people who send emails about the destruction of a feature on campus being akin to rape. There are sculptures here, prominently displayed, that have a vague resemblance to Delia Deetz's "art" in Beetle Juice. Point is: people are not particularly creative. Sometimes I think that caricature is an easy substitute for identity, which is about as nice as I can be when I want to pick up someone by the corduroy lapels, shake them, and yell, "Really? REALLY? You want to be That Guy? The stereotype?"

I will admit that the students walking around in faceless morph suits the other day was amusing, if corporate-sponsored.

* Ask me about my Unix guy sometime.
Intellectualism has been less about insightful free-thinking and more about persistently completing a checklist for a while. If Google and Wikipedia yank the rug out from under that, maybe we can get back to something a little more vibrant and fluid. Why are we encouraging kids to take on loads of debt to obtain degrees in fields which they will most likely not work? We've done a fairly good job at detaching intellectualism from fields of endeavor or even personal enrichment. Yeah, I think the practice needs a bath, at least, if we want to see what's under the grime of accumulated years.

Take physics classes. Most teachers will let you bring in the basic equations on an index card. They do not care if you have memorized the equations. What they care about is your ability to build new equations out of the basics and appropriately apply them. Memorization is, at best, a necessary but not glamorous step when you end up actually working with the facts in question. Otherwise, you have simply absorbed them as a signifier of education. Read poetry because you like that poem and you like that poet, not because it was assigned in a course you have to take to graduate.

I love knowledge and information, but damned if we do not find the most soul-deadening, joy-quenching ways of introducing it to people.

Are we in danger of throwing out the good with the bad? No doubt. Still, we need a bit of hootin' and hollerin' before the problem in general is widely acknowledged. So goes every swing of the pendulum.
posted by adipocere at 10:06 PM on June 7, 2011 [11 favorites]


Aha, an analogy: pocket calculators in the 1970s.

Once upon a time the tech students had to take a course on slide rule operation (or perhaps feverishly study little pamphlets and practice late into the night.) The top geeks of the time had expensive wood-ivory rules ...in long leather scabbards slapping their thighs. If you wanted to be part of this 'old boys network' or perhaps 'young MIT/Caltech hotshot network,' well, there was a barrier to entry.

Then pocket calculators wiped out slide rules. Little kids could do cube roots instantly. "Log table" became something Abe Lincoln ate from as a child.

So, what happens to our intellectual society if many "slide rules" suddenly bite the dust during the same few years? We end up with a generation who watched it occur. We end up with a cohort who assumes that all tough learning tasks are inherently simple. They realize that many, or perhaps all "experts" had been harming society: had been preserving a learning barrier or bottleneck to maintain their false expertise.
posted by billb at 10:10 PM on June 7, 2011 [8 favorites]


In being educated, we learn facts to reach understanding. Empath is now letting some of the facts drop away, because he/she has the understanding, and knows where a fact should be and can easily recreate the fact, by either deduction, or look-up (which is amazingly easy these days). Without having previously seen some of the facts, and reached the understanding, we don't even know that facts are out there.

When we are merely students, someone else sets the questions, and sometimes it's enough to just track down the answer. That's a far cry from seeking understanding on our own.

What's cool and confusing these days is that in addition to the previously devised ways of reaching understanding, there is the brand new computing power plus the "Information Superhighway" (how long has it been since you've heard the Intertubes called that?). We know it's different, and we know it's faster, we're just not sure how to use it to reach understanding.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:20 PM on June 7, 2011


Without having previously seen some of the facts, and reached the understanding, we don't even know that facts are out there.

Remembering what facts there are to know about things, rather than remembering facts about things. Or as someone said above, remembering the index instead of the data. It's just more efficient.
posted by empath at 10:28 PM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


The thing that humans are best at is getting really, REALLY good at stuff. I mean, lifetime's worth of work good.

We're also good at, generally speaking, all picking different shit so that everything gets done.

Intellectualism in the extreme is the one and ONLY thing that created the machines that allow these new anti-intellectuals to be anti-intellectuals in the first place.

A failure to understand this will be fully equal to an utter failure to carry the torch that got us all here.
posted by TheRedArmy at 10:29 PM on June 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Counterpoint to a bit of the rah-rah: Sarah Palin doesn't need to know who Paul Revere was, what he did, or why he was important in order to use him to make a cheap political point. While the internet has made it trivial to look up and prove that she's wrong, people that believe her will not take that step and will actively argue against you if you do.
posted by klangklangston at 10:32 PM on June 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


Pocket calculators are a perfect analogy, but I disagree as to what they demonstrate.

Doing a cube root on a calculator need have nothing to do with understanding a cube root. You have to understand the calculator, but once do, you can blindly perform a cube root.

Just because I can push 'Play' on a CD player, I don't think I'm a good musician. I'm just getting a machine to mechanically repeat something.

I had a few students in my last Stats class who thought that learning formulas and how to read computer output was enough. That's performing without understanding. What I found interesting is that I had more students who wanted to compute things by hand, even after I begged them to start using the computer for homework. They said they better understood what was going on that way.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:35 PM on June 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


I see what you did there.

"Geeks are anti-intellectual."
If I agree, then it's true.
If I disagree, then I'm anti-intellectual, so it's true.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 10:45 PM on June 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


It seems to me that Socrates was in many ways quite right about the dangers of writing in Plato's Phaedrus. Writing kills memory by taking away the need to exercise it. We can talk glowingly about how nowadays we don't need to exercise it, but my observation (which may be subjective, I grant) is that memory is an ability which must be practiced to improve.

I agree with what you are saying (loves me some Phaedrus) but I disagree on the practical effect. Wikipedia is the death of expertise in some ways, and writing was the death of memory, insofar as both were democratized. Much like I no longer need trust an expert (since I can crossreference what they are saying via Wiki), I no longer need to obsessively memorize epic poetry like The Illiad because I can just write it down. What is killed, in both situations, is not the intellectual-as-content-producer, but intellectual-as-content-regurgitator. Homer need not wander from town to town and demonstrate his incredible memorization skills in rehearsals because he can publish. Experts need not be repeatedly consulted because they can contribute to Wikipedia and go about their day. Their core functionality (information-gatherer, poetry-producer) remains, but part of their original duties is assigned to a technological appendage. Excellent memory is no longer an asset because its functionality is duplicated by a technological invention. This is unfortunate if you are good at memorization, but fortunate if you are not, as you need not rely as much on those who are.

This is clearly bad for some (as the memory and speaking aspect of poet-ing was a source of prestige and income, and ditto some aspects of technological expertise), but not inherently so. You don't have to go about repeating yourself all day every day, but that only sucks if you're paid by the hour, amirite? The negative implications are consequences of capitalism moreso than the technological progress itself. But too bad, so sad; that's the way our society is structured. Socrates was right but here we are 2500 years later and we survived, so far.
posted by mek at 10:59 PM on June 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think its offensive to label these people as "geeks". We are truly offended and would like an apology. Don't try to contact us now as we will be at the Sci-Fi Club meetup.
posted by hal_c_on at 11:26 PM on June 7, 2011


Experts are a tricky business. Do we give the homeopathy experts veto power over the wikipedia article on homeopathy?
On Citzendium, the Wikipedia replacement Larry Sanger created, the answer is yes, sadly.
posted by tommorris at 11:36 PM on June 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


hal_c_on: "Don't try to contact us now as we will be at the Sci-Fi Club meetup."

Feh. The true geeks love SF and look down on mere skiffy.
posted by jiawen at 11:38 PM on June 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


If geeks have become fashionable and anti-intellectual, then the only course left is to embrace the path of the nerd. Let them have geekdom if it amuses then so much. Long live the nerds.
posted by talitha_kumi at 11:41 PM on June 7, 2011 [3 favorites]




If geeks have become fashionable and anti-intellectual, then the only course left is to embrace the path of the nerd. Let them have geekdom if it amuses then so much. Long live the nerds.


I think this might be the key to the big split. I'm geeky - I like Fringe, and Doctor Who, and Neil and Joss and semi-obscure videogames and old sci-fi. But I'm not that nerdy. I can't program, I can't hack, and my intellectual curiosity is limited to books and websites. A true nerd would look down on me.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 12:35 AM on June 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


In this world, the people who have and who value individual knowledge, especially theoretical and factual knowledge, are objects of your derision.

That seems fair enough, since this sort of anti-intellectual is certainly the object of mine. Let's see who wins in the long run: the knowledgeable or the smugly ignorant. Let's just say I'm not terribly worried about the outcome.
posted by Decani at 12:51 AM on June 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


empath: Well, I've become less and less interested in learning 'facts' that are easily google-able. When I was in high school, I used to memorize stuff like country names, the list of presidents, etc, but now who really cares? It's literally useless knowledge when you can find the answer in 10 seconds on your phone. I'm now far more interested in how things are related to each other.
At a conference a couple of months ago, I had the misfortune to be stuck at a particularly vacuous keynote by some guy from archive.org. He was celebrating the death of the book. With the future, yet-to-be-invented e-reader, he was saying, we'd all be networked. The isolation of the book-reading experience would be replaced by the utopian community of e-readers. We'd all ascend triumphantly into a posthuman future, defined by relationships, not identities. He had an extremely impressive PowerPoint; sleek imagery; bleeding edge pop culture references; nicely timed jokes. He had it all worked out. And I was thinking, all you'd need to do was go up to the front, turn off the power button on his PowerBook, yank the cord out of the wall, and his techno-utopia would go away. What could he possibly present with then?

I think you can generalize from this. How viable, in the long term, are the power grids and networks on which our digital selves—our digital memories—rely? How's that techno-utopia going to look, post-oil? As we digitize and dematerialize more and more of our culture, how do we know we're not consigning it to a space that won't be accessible to those without our considerable advantages in non-renewable energy sources? Might what we think of as an expansion of the human mind actually be the start of a new digital dark age?
posted by Sonny Jim at 1:19 AM on June 8, 2011 [5 favorites]


Why do I only ever hear about this guy when he's bitching about something?
posted by ryanrs at 1:29 AM on June 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


I always get a kick out of complaints on memorization and "being forced to read books" when they're spoken, but even more when they're written.

That language you're speaking/writing? Those nouns, verbs, adjectives and so forth that you're stringing together into mutually-agreed upon grammatical guidelines in order to express your thoughts to another human being? Yeah. You memorized those.

The paper/screen you're writing on in order to widen your audience for your anti-memorization and anti-literature opinions? Guess what... that's writing. And your target audience must be, at a very minimum, literate. As in "able to read".
posted by fraula at 2:10 AM on June 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


hurf durf ...something... something.
posted by adamvasco at 2:16 AM on June 8, 2011


I believe a point has been overlooked.

Data does not equal knowledge and knowledge does not equal wisdom. The Internet is a perfect repository for data, some of which is converted into knowledge, but it takes experience plus creativity plus intellectual prowess plus ? to convert that knowledge into wisdom. And many times it does not happen at all (hence our many mistakes).

As long as there are human brains around to ponder and convert data into wisdom, we'll be OK, no matter what the 'geeks' say or think.

TL;DR - It's OK we'll work it out!
posted by Duug at 2:28 AM on June 8, 2011 [7 favorites]


Books are an outmoded medium because they involve a single person speaking from authority. In the future, information will be developed and propagated collaboratively, something like what we already do with the combination of Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Wikipedia, and various other websites.

I've only just skimmed the article, but he does have some good points. For instance this passage above where he isolates a current obsession with social media this and collaborative production that, which only really works if you take a completely ahistorical view of how knowledge is developed. There are very few books which are the work of a single individual, as most are incorporating and developing the ideas of those who have gone before them, standing on the shoulders of giants and all that (not to mention the influence of the author's circle of friends, teachers, adversaries, etc.)

Overall, when it comes to the internet and the things or changes it enables, there is this stunning lack of contextual and historical understanding of its significance in our general discourse. I see this year after year when teaching students about the introduction of the printing press, or photography, or radio, and so on - specifically there's this assumption that technology just does stuff and it always has and could only happen that way, rather than being wrapped up in complex social, political, economic, and cultural formations that end up affecting our understanding of what these things are and how they came to be like that. These aren't things you can just google as the need arises.

TL;DR - read moar history! (but forget facts - as Empath notes it's the relation between things that matter)
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 3:37 AM on June 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


Couldn't he have just tweeted "Respect mai authoriteh!" in latin and saved us all a lot of time?
posted by srboisvert at 3:40 AM on June 8, 2011


Spend a few hours on reddit - it's so true
posted by the noob at 4:11 AM on June 8, 2011


As we digitize and dematerialize more and more of our culture, how do we know we're not consigning it to a space that won't be accessible to those without our considerable advantages in non-renewable energy sources?

I had an idea for a story that was about a civilization that lost all its knowledge and history because everything was stored on an obsolete format. I'm sure I'm not the only one who's had this idea. In fact, the story probably exists. Let me Google it.
posted by Summer at 4:59 AM on June 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think there is a distrust of academics and experts, in part because of the realization that they're not all that smart necessarily, and because with todays world you can research quickly and at least give yourself the feeling (if not the actuality) of being knowledgeable on a subject pretty quickly
posted by delmoi at 5:34 AM on June 8, 2011


1. It's really hard to understand xyz, so if I spend the time needed to become an expert, I can lord it over everyone who doesn't understand xyz. (Preferrably xyz involves a bunch of required math courses.)

Then the mathematicians end up resenting this sentiment, because they have to teach these required math courses to people who just want to take them so they can be experts in xyz.

(IAAM)
posted by madcaptenor at 5:36 AM on June 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


What I found interesting is that I had more students who wanted to compute things by hand, even after I begged them to start using the computer for homework. They said they better understood what was going on that way.

I do a lot of computations by hand for this exact reason. It forces me to pay attention to what I'm doing. Also, computation is boring, so eventually I start to find shortcuts so I don't have to do as much work, and that gives some insight into the structure of a problem.

(I also went through a phase where I believed that I could digest mathematics written in French better than I could digest mathematics written in English. If it was written in English I tended to read too quickly; my French is good enough that I can read without looking things up but not good enough that I can just skim.)
posted by madcaptenor at 5:39 AM on June 8, 2011


What is striking to me about this discussion is how little information there is actually available online. Yes, there are fantastically detailed pages on each character in each Star Wars movie. But a little while back I was feeling nostalgic and tried to look up a place I had lived in a developing country. Other than a blurry, low-res satellite image on Google Earth, there was nothing.

Ditto for detailed local information on the physical landscape of the place I live now, other than a few articles and studies. The digital knowledgebase is good for what it covers (like Pixar movies, or all the archives of our emails that the NSA keeps), and ridiculously poor for many other things. To actually know something, in many cases you will quickly exhaust the digital information and have to move on to books, journals, archival materials, talking to people, and (shocking though the idea may be) go out and generate some knowledge first hand.

tl;dr: Anyone who says that they can instantly answer any question they have on their phone just isn't asking interesting questions.
posted by Forktine at 5:43 AM on June 8, 2011 [19 favorites]


Is there a new anti-intellectualism? I mean one that is advocated by Internet geeks and some of the digerati.

Eschewed by dweebs, embraced by dorks; beloved of knuckleheads, bane of poindexters; doofuses are ambivalent about it, but twerps will go on and on. What of the cretin? What of eggheads? Whither dips, drips, and losers? How do nitwits feel about anti-intellectualism? Tell me, brain, goober, propeller head. Speak to me of truth.
posted by shakespeherian at 5:44 AM on June 8, 2011 [11 favorites]


If people want to learn more about what modern cognitive psychology thinks about the relationship between facts, skills, and knowledge, I would highly recommend Dan Willingham's writing and videos. His book "Why Don't Students Like School" is a good summary.
I can see what empath and noragreen are saying about using our brain like an index, but I think hippybear's point that this index is made possible by facts is a critical one. Our brain is remarkably flexible, but there are still constraints. One of those constraints is that any knowledge of relationships, or context, etc, is made possible by a rich knowledge of facts. As others have noted, memorizing these facts is probably not particularly effective. But knowledge is made out of facts. Skills are made possible by having facts accessible quickly.

Is it bad here to admit that sometimes I care more about what MeFi says about an article than the article itself? I don't always read the link, and I didn't here, but the way the discussion is going does remind me of some of my students, and of some of the stuff in Wired about how colleges are totally antiquated, and we don't need majors, or disciplinary expertise anymore, so why don't we have a department of water?

And I find these arguments lacking in the same way. Yes, you can google something, yes, you can read wikipedia for any bit of knowledge. But if you don't have the right context (the right set of facts already in your head), your googling will be ineffective, and wikipedia won't make any sense.
posted by cogpsychprof at 5:48 AM on June 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


Our brain is remarkably flexible, but there are still constraints. One of those constraints is that any knowledge of relationships, or context, etc, is made possible by a rich knowledge of facts.

This is both true and a rather pointless observation. I don't think anybody is seriously arguing that one doesn't need to know anything, only that the value of knowing lots of facts about things is much diminished.
posted by empath at 5:53 AM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


In regards to a lot of the previous comments, including the slide rule analogy, I recall my Audio Production I class. The professor insisted that we must spend an entire semester using reel to reel and a twelve channel.

I saw it as a waste of time until my Audio Post class. "Jack" had spent upwards of two hours trying to find the best spot on the waveform in ProTools to make the splice and he was failing miserably. Kept getting a click. He handed me the headphones.

I had it on the first shot. The calculator is most beneficial to those who understood certain things about the slide rule. If I have a bunch of physics formulas and a calculator, I'm not going to accomplish shit. If I've been exposed to many facets of physics, I'm going to get things "on the first cut", so to speak.

A current example of this... I'm noticing that guys like me are in high demand in the IT world, when ten years ago, I had barely an above average knowledge of PCs. Why? Because I can navigate and utilize Windows' Registry. Some of the newer folk will try to do something, find no such option exists, and they're stuck. The old boys like me have it taken care of in 5 minutes.

To be fair, I still don't understand PDAs and this CrossFire SLI thing, even though I just put it in two builds in the last week... And I hate anything that even feels "web-based."
posted by Bathtub Bobsled at 6:03 AM on June 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


This is both true and a rather pointless observation. I don't think anybody is seriously arguing that one doesn't need to know anything, only that the value of knowing lots of facts about things is much diminished.

Welcome to cognitive science.




Hamburger!@
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 6:07 AM on June 8, 2011


Books are an outmoded medium because they involve a single person speaking from authority.

Anyone who believes this is remarkably ignorant of the nature of books.
posted by octobersurprise at 6:12 AM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Books are an outmoded medium because they involve a single person speaking from authority.

According to who?
posted by benito.strauss at 6:15 AM on June 8, 2011


Well this is getting to be fun
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 6:18 AM on June 8, 2011


Sorry if I implied that you said we don't need to know anything (I may have sloppily waved my hands at Wired, some of my students, and you).
I think we are disagreeing about how much the value of knowing facts is diminished. Clearly there is a spectrum, but I think we have swung too far away from learning facts, in part encouraged by the existence of all these immediately accessible facts on the internet. If the internet is our brain prosthesis, we should realize where it best "hooks up" and where it doesn't; how the internet facilitates thinking and how it undermines thinking. I think there are many examples of both.
posted by cogpsychprof at 6:20 AM on June 8, 2011


It's kind of hard see people who edit Wikipedia as people who don't care about knowledge, they are after all trying to collect and sift through knowledge and edit an encyclopedia. What's different about Wikipedia is that we don't get The Article written by The Expert. We get articles written by groups of people trying to decide which experts are more reliable, openly arguing with each other about it, and presenting multiple points of view.

The internet presents us with multiple sources for anything we search for, and we have to make sense of that. Google News gives us not The Article in The Paper, but multiple articles from multiple papers and news sources who don't always agree about what the facts are. We have to decide which sources are more reliable, who seems to be trying to get their facts straight or have better information.

Something is lost here, but I don't think it's a loss of respect for people who do research, discover or create things. or have depths of knowledge about something. What's lost is the idea that we, as lay consumers of knowledge, can ignore the messiness of research, the competing theories, the arguments, conflicting findings, experimental results and reports. We can't simply rely on The Book by The Expert, or what it says in The Paper, we have to learn to evaluate the validity of competing claims by competing experts, or people who claim to be experts.

I don't think this is a bad thing.
posted by nangar at 6:23 AM on June 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


madcaptenor: As for my students who wanted to compute things by hand, I should have noted that they were mostly biology and chemistry majors. You and I (math people) might do computations because we admire the beauty, and understanding how the computation works is part of our job. These students don't care so much about that, but did think that, in some cases, the computer can interfere with learning. They really impressed me.

Bathtub Bobsled: That's what I'm going for. Grind through at least one example the old way, and then you get the automated way much better. I hope it worked as well for my students.
posted by benito.strauss at 6:26 AM on June 8, 2011


Is there a new jock anti-athleticism?

I know this is kind of a snarky one-off joke, but I do see parallels to the premise of the article in the athletic world...or at least the gym-going demographic in the U.S.; a lot of guys aren't interested in being fit, they're interested in being muscular. Who's more desirable, the guy with big beefy arms at the bar or the skinny dude who's cutting back on on alcohol because he has a race coming up?
posted by psoas at 6:26 AM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's kind of hard see people who edit Wikipedia as people who don't care about knowledge

Not at all. It's pretty easy to see a significant fraction of wikipedia editors as more interested in controlling the wikipedia canon than in the actual knowledge. See: edit wars, NPOV issues, the need to lock controversial articles, notability guidelines and deletion threats, etc. Sure, there are plenty of people who contribute because they like adding to knowledge about stuff they know, whether it's obscure characters in Star Wars or academic knowledge of some sort (science/history/geography/etc.), but all it takes is reading some talk pages to get disillusioned about the noble calling of wikipedians.

Sanger may be and probably is too cynical and bitter because of his resentment, but it's not like he's totally unjustified in his complaints, either.
posted by immlass at 6:33 AM on June 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


The internet presents us with multiple sources for anything we search for, and we have to make sense of that. Google News gives us not The Article in The Paper, but multiple articles from multiple papers and news sources who don't always agree about what the facts are. We have to decide which sources are more reliable, who seems to be trying to get their facts straight or have better information.

I agree with this, in the sense that accessing information through Google (and other search engines) introduces an additional layer of knowledge processing for the average reader. Instead of simply absorbing "the truth" from the editor of whichever book or newspaper we happen to be reading, we have to instead engage more fully with the multitude of souces available in order to sift out the nuggets of information we actually want to know from the array of patchy, unreliable, scarce, downright wrong, misleading or biased sources.

This is a large part of why people like link aggregators (such as our own favourite "best of the web") It does some of the work of that engagement with sources for us, because whichever delightful member assembled the fpp has already done part of the work of selecting and sorting through primary sources in order to highlight the interesting/useful/funny/pertinent ones. And the community that comes along with the comment threads is in itself a fantastic knowledge resource, because (when we're not arguing about cat declawing) different commenters are able to bring different aspects of their own expertise to the subject, resulting in something much greater than any one of us could have managed alone.
posted by talitha_kumi at 6:38 AM on June 8, 2011


I once had a history prof who never tested us on dates, but did test us on the ORDER of historical events -- like what order did the following occur in: the foundation of the Chinese Communist Party, the May 4th movement and the Treaty of Versailles. If you could put these in the correct order, it meant that you really understood the history.

I'm actually somewhat good at remembering dates, but I don't ever try to. my favorite word when writing is "circa" - and I go back and double check when necessary (and when telling history, I'm all "and then this guy did this, and the king was all like this...")

When I have been shocked at historical ignorance, it's not when someone doesn't know a name or a date, it's when they don't know their centuries. All adults - not just those with higher education - should know the basic sketch of history, things like that the Roman Empire was about 2000 years ago, that the high middle ages were about 1000-1300 ad/ce, that the Reformation began in about 1500, or that colonial period proceeded industrialization (in circa 1700-1900) which also led to further colonialism... (at least for the euro-centric side of things). Then when someone says "there were witch-trials throughout the 1500s and 1600s" you aren't thinking "how medieval of them" but "I wonder how much post-Reformation religious tension played a part in the witch-craze".

I don't know how non-historians conceive of time, but for me it's this big, ripping and curving ribbon, some parts of which are more in focus for me than others. It's not about facts, but movements and knock-on effects. It's not a coincidence that the Reformation proceeded the 30 years war, or that the French Revolution followed the American, which itself followed the British Civil War and Glorious Revolution. (And I'm no Whig, though Apple clearly is Whiggish, since the iPod spellcheck keeps trying to change "which" to Whig).

tl;dr -- history is people doing stuff in a particular order, spaced out across time and space. Unless you are the Doctor.
posted by jb at 6:48 AM on June 8, 2011 [14 favorites]


After watching bits and pieces of the recent Palin / Paul Revere nitwittery, complete with Wiki edit war and NPR apologists, I'd have to say that something like the process he is describing is going on in American society, but he needs to get out and around.

It's not just geeks. It's not even a new thing among geeks. The same sort of thoughtless anti-authoritarianism leads to the half-witted libertarian / individualist philosophy that is endemic in geek culture.

I don't know how new it is, anti-intellectualism has been a central feature of reactionary politics since there was dirt. And reactionary politics are on the rise around the world.

Sanger seems to be confusing some of his position with the totally out of control inflation of education prices (which is similar to the inflation of medical care pricing.) It is no longer any sort of a deal and it it very easy to acquire education debt that completely cancels out any enhanced earnings from that education.

The internet has made it very easy to be smugly and shallowly misinformed with less time and energy than ever before. But the internet is also becoming more and more a source of completely misleading bullshit invested with bogus authority. Just look at the climate denialists for a perfect example of how the internet has debased knowledge and understanding.

Sanger's point could be that anti-intellectualism has now spread into geek culture, if he could recognize for a moment that geeks are not the central motive force of society.

As far as Google News goes, it pretty much turned to shit about a year ago when they got all defensive when Rupert Murdoch threatened to sue the shit out of aggregators. Google changed the news ranking algorithm to a random sampling of the same stuff. Of course, since it's the internet, nobody remembers that it used to be different.
posted by warbaby at 6:50 AM on June 8, 2011 [7 favorites]


sigh. I was hoping at some point that we could talk about epistemology, but let's get back to the known unknowns or whatever.

And get back to learning, or we done with that?
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 6:51 AM on June 8, 2011


Books are an outmoded medium because they involve a single person speaking from authority. In the future, information will be developed and propagated collaboratively, something like what we already do with the combination of Twitter, Facebook, blogs, Wikipedia, and various other websites.

You know, as much these things get cited as the triumph over new media over old, a shocking amount of what happens on those blogs is derivative of old media, with a handful of old media sources cited at that.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:52 AM on June 8, 2011


Metafilter: douched in irony.
posted by rahnefan at 7:51 AM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


So, what happens to our intellectual society if many "slide rules" suddenly bite the dust during the same few years?

Well, we'd better hope some of us out there still understand what a "slide rule" is intended to do, because in essence, all that the people who rely on tools like slide rules or calculators are doing is free-loading on extent knowledge as encoded for them in a logical machine. There's really nothing inherent to the implementation of any particular logical machine that can definitively tell you what the functional requirements of that logical machine are meant to be or should be--that is, what function the machine is intended to perform--so even having a good grasp of how logical machines work is not enough to make up for not thoroughly understanding what a particular logical machine is supposed to be doing. But that's an aside.

Personally, I sometimes think we've started developing some weird cultural dysfunction that makes us tend to confuse our models of reality for the real-world itself, and in extreme cases, leads us to actively deny the independent existence of reality outside the formal systems we use to approximate the workings of reality. So for example, understanding addition is reduced to knowing how to carry out an addition operation, and the demonstrated ability to reliably carry out addition operations when tested is taken as sufficient proof of understanding. But to my mind, actual understanding goes a lot deeper than that, and analysis informed by understanding can reveal features of an idea that purely formal analysis never could expect by accident. When we reduce our understanding of any idea to some purely algorithmic expression or rote formal operation (or even to a mechanical process like punching values and operators into a calculator interface) we risk falling into unreflective, "cargo cult" style magical thinking and ritualized behavior. This "geek anti-intellectual" phenomena probably contributes to that trend.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:52 AM on June 8, 2011 [5 favorites]


"...that purely formal analysis never could expect except by accident."
posted by saulgoodman at 7:54 AM on June 8, 2011


In the age of petabytes of data, we only need to find correlations in the data, there's no need to actual translate that into a framework of understanding

Just look at Watson, for example.
posted by empath at 8:00 AM on June 8, 2011


> only that the value of knowing lots of facts about things is much diminished.

Hah! You just keep telling yourself that while I take your jobs!

Professional know-it-all here. I'm well-known amongst my wide circle of friends for problem-solving and knowing a lot of things. In fact, Terry Gilliam told me, "You know too many things." (No, really!)

Now, the Internet is really handy to learn new facts and check old ones but the fact is that I use my stash of knowledge even more these days.

Take the real world example of Reye's Syndrome in kids. This is a fact - but this is a fact you need to know if you have a sick kid. All the Google in the world won't help if you never even think that giving your kid aspirin might be bad.

People, both real people you encounter and people on TV, radio and the internet, say all sorts of shit that is simply not true. You can't possibly Google as you go - you have to already know these facts.

I have memorized a bunch of physical constants and conversion factors (almost all from or to metric) - perhaps a page of them at most. I constantly use these for fast "back of the envelope" calculations in my head - "Can the three of us pick up this stone? Well, its volume is very roughly 30 liters and stone's density is very roughly 5, so it's very roughly 200kg, we need a hoist."

Even knowing seemingly dry, reference-book facts like populations conceal a lot of hidden information. I've always had a rough idea of the sizes of the top ten cities, which was fascinating because it becomes clear pretty fast that there's something like a "soft cap" on the size of third-world cities at around 20 million - probably because they become so unlivable that people start to leave. I'm not saying this is a hard rule, but that it looked in the 80s as if Mexico City e.g. would be around 40 million now, and that did not happen, and in fact the population of the Federal District, the equivalent of "downtown Mexico City," has stayed close to constant in the last 35 years or so.

But the main reason to learn these facts is that they're a lot of fun and they entertain you as you go through life! Let me tell you that I never looked at a pigeon the same once I discovered that they're rock doves and evolved nesting on cliffs - or that yesterday I was in a swamp full of ferns and thought, "This is something like the world of 300 million years ago," (what the Victorians called the "age of ferns").
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:23 AM on June 8, 2011 [5 favorites]


The Internet is like a giant library that you can hang out in all the time.

Actually, the internet is more like a giant, continual, never-ending open-market culture festival in some dusty, hot field in the middle of nowhere, sort of like Bonnaroo or Coachella. You've got the anti-intellectuals on the soapboxes over here; you've got the tech-geeks plugged into their devices and machines over here; you've got the loudmouth politicians and pundits and their happy-to-be-cultist followers in big silos with glass windows, yammering 24/7 on JumboTron screens with closed captioning and instant downloads and live-streaming over here; you've got some sections that look like libraries but are actually more like bricks-and-mortar bookstores, where you have to go through a long line to get to bored cashiers who ask you if you're part of the InformationFest Frequent Buyers program and you say no and they ask you if you'd like to join today and you say no again and you pay through the teeth to get the information you think you want and that information turns out to be not really what you were looking for anyway; you've got the rubbing-their-hands-together advertisers and the hawkers of lifestyle and the gossip-mongers and the celebrity-watchers and the who's up-who's down score-keepers circulating everywhere; you've got about 90% of the males, straight and gay alike, over in the massive porn tent doing what men do when they watch porn; you've got some hopelessly corrupted-by-opinion-and-bias (mis)information hanging out over here in the Wikipedia section; and the real information of any value is hidden over in some corner at the far reaches of the festival behind a stage underneath tarps and lumber and a bunch of other unused crap where nobody knows where to find it, or it's buried in the ground somewhere and you need the equivalent of an information Geiger counter to get to it, or it's off lying scattered in the dry creek bed being crawled over by desert rats and scorpions and tarantulas and totally unseen by the festival attendees five miles away.
posted by blucevalo at 8:25 AM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


> we risk falling into unreflective, "cargo cult" style magical thinking and ritualized behavior.

I've always loved that "cargo cult" metaphor, but I really think that there are and have always been two types of people, a small minority who cares about how a slide rule works and the vast majority who do everything technical through cargo cult thinking, and the percentages stay remarkably constant over the generations.

I guarantee you that even a century from now, if you strand your 18-year-old math geek on a desert island with monkey butlers to deal with his survival needs and enough notebooks, you'll come back and find he's made trig and log tables just out of boredom (and a slide rule, because that's simply those tables hard-coded into a ruler form).
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 8:36 AM on June 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


Even knowing seemingly dry, reference-book facts like populations conceal a lot of hidden information. I've always had a rough idea of the sizes of the top ten cities, which was fascinating because it becomes clear pretty fast that there's something like a "soft cap" on the size of third-world cities at around 20 million - probably because they become so unlivable that people start to leave.

See, I don't know the numbers, but I do know that city populations, like many other things, follow a power law curve.

Is it more useful to know the populations of the top 20 cities, something that is easily searchable, or more useful (and interesting!) to know the relationship between city populations and many other phenomena.

They're both facts, but I would suggest that 'lists' are about the list efficient things one can remember and the most useful to 'outsource' to wikipedia.
posted by empath at 8:45 AM on June 8, 2011


1. "Anti-intellectualism" among the young is only to be expected - when I was in my late teens and early twenties I did not have much mastery of the facts I'd learned, any way to theorize about them or enough theory to identify things I wanted to know but didn't. I felt threatened, honestly, by people who knew more than I did. I had few models for acquiring in-depth knowledge and no sense of how to distinguish reliable information from iffy.

2. Anti-intellectualism, like reality TV, has an edge because it's cheap. On one hand, folks who are realistically worried about affording college, paying back debt and finding employment will naturally be drawn to anything that runs down sustained study. On the other (and more evil!) hand, lots of folks who have already acquired wealth and power (and who went to good colleges and whose children will go to good colleges) will run down knowledge, books, libraries and sustained study because those things cost money and require some social infrastructure. If we can, for example, replace tedious humanities stuff (and "luxuries" like gifted classes, arts, etc) with practical vocational training, think how much cheaper it will be!

3. Anti-intellectualism is a political problem because if you don't know much history or much economics, you can't organize as effectively, especially against a sophisticated enemy. You can bet that political elites are going to have actual experts in their flavor of economic theory, for example - people who have studied the classics and contemporary work, people who have spent a lot of time on the math, people who can argue and write - and we'll be hanging around with a bunch of people whose most sophisticated intellectual experience comes from reading excerpts from Derek Jensen.

4. Anti-intellectualism is also a political/social problem because if your group doesn't have access to a body of knowledge, you're always in rediscovery - "oh, wait, there actually were women scientists in the past! Oh, wait, popular organizing did lead to effective social programs!" You never have strong, sustained access to knowledge so that you can build a theory of why there were women scientists and how there can be more, etc etc.

I wonder a lot about the role of movement intellectuals - is it possible to have a few people in your group/movement/community who keep the knowledge and share it as needed? This does of course create a gatekeeper situation - if I'm the only one in my collective who has any understanding of how past collectives have risen and fallen, the group is dependent on whatever spin I want to use. But at least someone has some in-depth automatic knowledge.
posted by Frowner at 9:11 AM on June 8, 2011 [7 favorites]


Why do I only ever hear about this guy when he's bitching about something?

Squeaky spiels breach the peace.
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:21 AM on June 8, 2011


delmoi: you can research quickly and at least give yourself the feeling (if not the actuality) of being knowledgeable on a subject pretty quickly

Forktine: Anyone who says that they can instantly answer any question they have on their phone just isn't asking interesting questions

These two closely-related insights define one of the biggest real problems here (a point that comes up again and again in these discussions, e.g., in Sven Birkerts' complaint about a previously discussed death-of-the-expert article). The "feeling of being knowledgeable" comes much more cheaply than the Socratic insight into our own deep ignorance — because you have to learn how much there is that you don't know. Google and Wikipedia and the Internet in general are great at giving anyone the feeling of knowledge, no matter how truly ignorant they are — they lead us toward the conviction that we're just soaking in information, while they're much worse at bringing us up against the boundaries of our understanding (which is one of the core points of real education, the kind you usually don't get in school).
posted by RogerB at 9:27 AM on June 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


"They're both facts, but I would suggest that 'lists' are about the list efficient things one can remember and the most useful to 'outsource' to wikipedia."

Unfortunately, we outsource our list knowledge to Cracked and other linkbait blogs.
posted by klangklangston at 9:31 AM on June 8, 2011


Did you ever have an exam in college or grad school where you were permitted to have access to any book or resource you wanted to bring to the exam simply because, in the time provided for taking the exam, the only way to do well would be to already know the material well enough to analyze the exam question or questions and the only way to effectively use unlimited resources in answering the exam question would be to already have mastered all of those resources in the context of the class? I had lots of those exams. The internet is like that. Intelligent discourse of any kind is an open book test where the only way you'll do well is if you already know the material well enough for the open book to actually help you.
posted by The World Famous at 9:43 AM on June 8, 2011 [7 favorites]


I've always loved that "cargo cult" metaphor, but I really think that there are and have always been two types of people, a small minority who cares about how a slide rule works and the vast majority who do everything technical through cargo cult thinking, and the percentages stay remarkably constant over the generations.

This reminds me of the "mappers vs. packers" distinction, part of a larger conceptual framework called Reciprocality, explained here. (These "geek anti-intellectuals" strike me as packers who have decided they don't even need their "knowledge packets.")
posted by Crabby Appleton at 9:49 AM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


(I'm too busy right now laying out microelectronics for the military-industrial complex too read this thread. Let me know the conclusion you all come to.)
posted by newdaddy at 10:07 AM on June 8, 2011


Three things:

1. What is killed, in both situations, is not the intellectual-as-content-producer, but intellectual-as-content-regurgitator.

This, I have no issue with. I've long believed that the principal goal of education should not be imposition of facts and information but the development of the skills and aptitude that make ongoing self-education possible. Like it's better to teach a man to fish than to just give him a fish, we need to teach our kids how to learn, and to be passionate about it for the whole of their lives.

2. Let's see who wins in the long run: the knowledgeable or the smugly ignorant. Let's just say I'm not terribly worried about the outcome.

This kind of scares me. Not because I don't wish it to be so, but because my mostly self-taught grasp of history tells me that the proudly, smugly, evangelically ignorant have left many an intellectual corpse in their wake, not to mention burned a bunch of libraries.

3. A quote from a friend: "Ignore is the root of ignorant. So yeah, ignore your problems and they'll surely go away, taking you with them ... and me, unfortunately, if I'm unlucky enough to be in the vicinity when the toilet gets flushed."
posted by philip-random at 10:09 AM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Google and Wikipedia and the Internet in general are great at giving anyone the feeling of knowledge, no matter how truly ignorant they are

Whether people have the feeling of knowledge or not is irrelevant. The question is whether the knowledge is available and whether and how quickly they can find it. You're focusing too much on the isolated individual.

Yes, aggressive ignorance is a problem and will always be a problem, but I think what people are labeling as anti-intellectualism is just a more efficient kind of knowledge gathering that takes advantage of new technology.

Is it ignorant to not have logarithm tables memorized? Is it ignorant to not memorize epic poetry instead of reading it from books? Technology changes, and the trend has long been to store and index knowledge rather than memorize it.
posted by empath at 10:41 AM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sure, I've known that city populations usually follow a power curve since the 70s :-P and it's absolutely true that yes, it's most important to get that high-level picture.

But in fact, your "high level picture" has somewhat misled you here, because looking at populations of cities does seem to back up my impression that there's been a serious compression away from a power curve occurring here - there seem to be far too many cities in the 10 to 20 million range and nowhere near enough in the 3 to 10 million range, and that ratio becomes even worse if you pick other ranges, say 6-12-24+, where we have 1 city greater than 24 million, 18 cities between 12 and 24, and 18(!) cities between 6 and 12!

Of course, if I really wanted to "prove" anything I'd draw graphs or run some tools over the numbers, but it's nice to be able to process the numeric data a little in your head and make informed guesses as to what's happening (which seems to be "only the Japanese have the level of organization to be able to sustain a city much beyond 20 million people").

I didn't used to be able to do that but simply knowing the numbers and following them a little and thinking about it is very revelatory. You can take that part of your brain you'd be spending on sports statistics and spend it on something like that, and I think you'll be a better citizen for it...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 10:50 AM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Whether people have the feeling of knowledge or not is irrelevant. The question is whether the knowledge is available

But your tacit assumption here that the word "knowledge" refers to a store of discrete instrumentalized facts — what Paulo Freire called the "banking" model of education — is exactly what's under discussion here.
posted by RogerB at 10:57 AM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


The question is whether the knowledge is available and whether and how quickly they can find it.

I'm not sure that's necessarily the case. Synthesis, analysis, understanding, and the ability to use information and knowledge are far more important than mere access and quick availability. You don't hire a lawyer because of how good his or her Westlaw subscription is or choose a doctor based on how good they are at quickly finding information in medical journals. And, in the very recent age before access to such a huge volume of electronic information, you did not choose those professionals based on how many details they had memorized but based on their analytical, application, and synthesis skills honed over years of practice.
posted by The World Famous at 11:03 AM on June 8, 2011 [4 favorites]


> you did not choose those professionals based on how many details they had memorized but based on their analytical, application, and synthesis skills honed over years of practice.

I'd say that the consequent memory of huge quantities of details would be an inevitable result of all of that!
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 12:05 PM on June 8, 2011


I'd say that the consequent memory of huge quantities of details would be an inevitable result of all of that!

No, actually. It's the ability to develop strategy and to choose and execute an effective course of action that defines an effective professional in the legal, medical, and other fields. The memory of huge quantities of details is, at most, what gets you in the door.
posted by The World Famous at 12:15 PM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: I was hoping at some point that we could talk about epistemology.
posted by benito.strauss at 1:10 PM on June 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


I just have to smugly chime in that I enjoyed this quote in the article:

Clay Shirky’s reaction in the Britannica Blog, where he opined, “no one reads War and Peace. It’s too long, and not so interesting,”

...because I just proved that Shirky guy wrong, as of this past Sunday when I finished "War and Peace." The whole thing. Long? Yes. Interesting? Yes.

I get that many schools unwittingly turn the reading of classics into drudgery, and that sucks. But that doesn't mean they're valueless or irrelevant, and I stand firm in my belief that anyone who skips them all categorically, is living too shallow a life.

(And reading "War and Peace" needn't mean one is some over-intellectual elitist snob. I saw "Thor," and I watch "Real Housewives of New York" too.)
posted by dnash at 1:49 PM on June 8, 2011


> No, actually. It's the ability to develop strategy and to choose and execute an effective course of action that defines an effective professional in the legal, medical, and other fields. The memory of huge quantities of details is, at most, what gets you in the door.

No, the memory and the understanding of huge quantities of details, integrated into "the ability to develop strategy and to choose and execute an effective course of action" is what really defines an effective professional. I've known a lot of successful professionals over years and they all have a huge fund of facts, cases and case studies, and downright anecdotes - conversely, those professionals who have only the "big picture" tend to in fact be bogus, in my rather lengthy experience.

It's a two-legged stool ;-) - you can't be a real expert without both having a lot of knowledge and being able to effectively use that knowledge. Knowing how to search for that knowledge is just not the same.

Another way to think about it is that the only way you're going to become a real expert in your field is if you're really interested in your field, and if you're really interested in your field then you necessarily will learn as many facts about your field as possible.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 3:22 PM on June 8, 2011


And just to reinforce, facts or even knowledge without problem solving skills is even more useless than the other way around. You have to have both!
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 3:25 PM on June 8, 2011


Right, that's what I meant when I said "The memory of huge quantities of details is, at most, what gets you in the door."
posted by The World Famous at 3:26 PM on June 8, 2011


> Right, that's what I meant when I said "The memory of huge quantities of details is, at most, what gets you in the door."

Really? I thought " It's the ability to develop strategy and to choose and execute an effective course of action that defines an effective professional in the legal, medical, and other fields. The memory of huge quantities of details is, at most, what gets you in the door." meant that memory of facts is less important than strategy etc.?
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 3:30 PM on June 8, 2011


The memory of facts, details, rules, etc. is, indeed, less important than the ability to gather and synthesize that information in order to use it effectively.
posted by The World Famous at 3:34 PM on June 8, 2011


And a final point is that there's no real way to study "the ability to develop strategy and to choose and execute an effective course of action" whereas you can study facts, and even knowledge and techniques.

I think of "the ability to develop strategy and to choose and execute an effective course of action" as an emergent behaviour from having studied a lot of facts, techniques and knowledge in your field, and of course a heck of a lot of applied work too (but there again you spend a lot of time on specific "facts" when you're actually working and much less time developing strategy...)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 3:34 PM on June 8, 2011


And a final point is that there's no real way to study "the ability to develop strategy and to choose and execute an effective course of action" whereas you can study facts, and even knowledge and techniques.

Nonsense. I went into six figures of student loan debt studying precisely that. They don't teach you the law in law school, you know.
posted by The World Famous at 3:35 PM on June 8, 2011


> The memory of facts, details, rules, etc. is, indeed, less important than the ability to gather and synthesize that information in order to use it effectively.

I believe both are equally important.

I can point to people at the top of their fields who have both. Can you point to one expert by any reasonable definition who has in practice little knowledge of facts?

> Nonsense. I went into six figures of student loan debt studying precisely that. They don't teach you the law in law school, you know.

My guess is that there are at least 1000 legal cases that you have read about and can talk about knowledgeably. Am I right?

I have a pretty decent knowledge of how law school goes and very little of this is study of abstract legal principles and a lot of it is case studies. Case studies are facts. They are specific legal cases that happened in the past, that you learn and study and that you end up remembering. You learn how to argue by manipulating specific facts, specific case studies and laws, and you remember these cases, and parts of these cases, and you use the techniques that you learned. You don't remember each detail of everything, but you do end up remembering a shitload of facts, because it's these case studies that you base your theory of how to do law on.


Let's take an area where expertise has been very effectively studied - and that's prodigies in games like Go and chess. It seems like some individuals have a very high natural talent for these games and can immediately play a top-level game - and certainly, you'd think that since these are just games of pure reasoning, if you were smart you could just "get" the game and then be unbeatable.

But a series of researchers starting with de Groot in the 40s blew a hole in this idea. In fact, it seems as if you need to have played or studied about 50,000 games before you become a top-flight player in almost any game. Kids who seemed to appear from nothing had actually spent a long time being obsessed with the game and studying the literature.

More, there didn't seem to be any general mental skills that went with being a good player - top chess players weren't particularly good at memorizing random pieces placed on a chess board for example, but could memorize positions take from a real game in a flash, and had a huge library in their head of games they had studied in detail or played.

So the takeaway is that "the memory of facts, details, rules" is essential even in such apparently abstract pursuits as board games.

Or take martial arts - as a metaphor. Physical conditioning vs. skill, which wins? The answer is that you need to be strong in both to be at the top of your field, and that the top competitors are inevitably both in awesome physical condition and have an excess of skill.

Specifics vs. generality, knowledge vs. information processing, experiment vs. theory, these are yin and yang and it is not correct to say that one is more important than the other but that both are necessary.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 4:12 PM on June 8, 2011 [2 favorites]


er, 100 legal cases. :-D A 0 slipped in there.
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 4:13 PM on June 8, 2011


Can you point to one expert by any reasonable definition who has in practice little knowledge of facts?

That's moving well beyond my assertion, isn't it? Knowledge of details, facts, etc. is a qualification for entry in the field, I said.

My guess is that there are at least 1000 legal cases that you have read about and can talk about knowledgeably. Am I right?

No, you're not right (regardless of whether the number is 100 or 1000). Law school teaches you how to research, identify, read and analyze the cases, not to memorize the cases. The law is constantly changing and almost none of the cases I studied in law school are good law anymore. I'm pretty sure I can count on one hand the number of cases I studied in law school that I've cited in a brief.

You learn how to argue by manipulating specific facts, specific case studies and laws, and you remember these cases, and parts of these cases, and you use the techniques that you learned.

You learn how to argue by analyzing specific case studies and laws, but what you use in your practice is the technique that you learned - not the specific cases you studied. To the extent that there is a baseline level of knowledge about specific statutes and important precedent, it is, as I said before, merely the prerequisite that gets you in the door of the profession.

You don't remember each detail of everything, but you do end up remembering a shitload of facts, because it's these case studies that you base your theory of how to do law on.

Sure, I remember the facts of Palsgraf and Hadley v. Baxendale. But again, my knowledge of those facts is pretty close to irrelevant to my ability to do my job. As I said above, you don't hire a lawyer because he or she knows all the facts from the cases they studied in law school or because they have a really good Westlaw subscription. Moreover, the reason I remember those facts isn't because I base my theory on them but because they were merely the vehicle for teaching the analytical skills that form the actual basis for my profession.

So the takeaway is that "the memory of facts, details, rules" is essential even in such apparently abstract pursuits as board games.

Yes. Which is what I've been saying: The memory of huge quantities of details is, at most, what gets you in the door.

Specifics vs. generality, knowledge vs. information processing, experiment vs. theory, these are yin and yang and it is not correct to say that one is more important than the other but that both are necessary.

Can we compromise and agree that one is a prerequisite for the other?
posted by The World Famous at 4:30 PM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


Metafilter: I just have to smugly chime in
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 4:47 PM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


> Yes. Which is what I've been saying: The memory of huge quantities of details is, at most, what gets you in the door.

And what I'm saying that that's at least what gets you in the door and a lot more besides! That knowledge and problem solving are complimentary, neither can be said to be more important.

It might be that the law is different, I'm thinking. In most of the fields I know - computer programming, music, mathematics and the sciences - you spend a lot of time learning things in one area, but you cannot make progress until you don't have to look things up any more.

To be a truly professional musician (and a lot of "great" musicians weren't professional, but we're talking about the category of professional) you have a simply huge encyclopedia of "facts", pieces of music and specific techniques like chords, rhythm patterns and scales, that you have just memorized.

When I start working on writing a computer program, I have the reference in front of me all the time, but my progress rate will be literally ten times faster later in the development when I have memorized a great deal of the interfaces that I'm using. In fact, I can't even see the subtle errors I'm making early on till I can put down the books and the searching and understand the code - because I've learned the material, not because I've improved some abstract "problem solution skills".

There are also numerous techniques that were taught to me as "facts" with proofs - algorithms! And things that are factually "anti-patterns" - techniques that are known to be bad.

These days I'm writing C++ again, which is notoriously a very hard-to-master language. You have to know a lot about the language to master it, and that means accumulating a large number of little facts, even trivia, as well as learning general techniques.

The masters almost memorize the damned language spec :-/ I'm not so dedicated and I find it dull, and I don't get quite their level of results, but I know an awful lot.

(My trivia question for you today is: how can you cause a C++ compiler to stop compiling a file, and read input from the keyboard, which it then compiles as C++ code? *)


> Can we compromise and agree that one is a prerequisite for the other?

Absolutely.

(* - Answer is upside down: "uıpʇs/ʌǝp/" ǝpnןɔuı#)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 5:52 PM on June 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


An elaborate command line switch?

/Just kidding. I haven't used C++, obviously. Or wait-- is that right? Huh.
posted by saulgoodman at 6:19 PM on June 8, 2011


Took me a second to notice your obscured code at the end there, lupus. Excuse my ignorance but basically, it's a switch, right? Is it included in a project config file, or in an actual command line switch?
posted by saulgoodman at 6:23 PM on June 8, 2011


heh, no.

You're actually including a "file" - except that "file" is the device "/dev/stdin" - the console. Devilish!

You can get the same effect on windows by #include "CON:"
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 9:13 PM on June 8, 2011


The cargo cults worked their mojo pretty well:
I doubt there's a dearth of stuff in the South Seas these days.
You geeks all lack faith.
posted by eegphalanges at 1:57 AM on June 9, 2011


Is there a word for when your typo is better than what you originally intended to write?

A Righto.
posted by Hickeystudio at 5:23 AM on June 9, 2011


ah ha. sneaky.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:09 AM on June 9, 2011


To make new things we have to deconstruct old things. We need to learn how the old things were made to know how to deconstruct them. Academia is subject to this as well.
posted by codybaldwin at 9:49 PM on June 11, 2011


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