“A stupid man’s report of what a clever man says can never be accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand.”
– Bertrand Russell
The next obvious question from the last post about doing stupid things is, I think, ‘Why?’ Why do we continue to wound ourselves with stupid, self-inflicted behaviors?
Being one of those curious people, I prepared myself to go down the rabbit hole.
Then, in yet another early morning state of sleeplessness, there I was. Down the rabbit hole. Juggling various bright shiny things from my teaching and learning past, such as
“Raw Data must be filtered to become useable Information,” and
“Wisdom is Knowledge applied.”
As I was trying to fit these and other various shiny bon mots together, I began to recall such additional tidbits as the following:
Data, the fairly raw stuff we are inundated with, only become useful Information if we properly apply the right filter(s);
Filters, while designed to reduce unwanted noise, must also by their very nature reduce some useful content; and
Pure Information, on its own, is not very useful until it is organized.
Organized Information we can then call Knowledge.
Well, that worked great didn’t it? And, of course, these Opinions are an exact representation of the Truth, aren’t they?
For those of us who know better than to stop there, we realize that these Opinions are Not Exactly True, because of two important things are invariably forgotten:
First, we can’t have access to all News Reports. The Availability Heuristic limits what is available for us to organize; and
Second, what we process is strongly directed by our Confirmation Bias. That is, we emphasize information that further adds validity to our preexisting values, beliefs, and hypotheses, our World View.
In other words, if your news filter is either Rush Limbaugh or Joe Scarborough you are going to land on two entirely different, yet incomplete, ‘truths.’
In seeking a simpler (and possibly more obscure) context to test this idea, the following came to mind as we had just relocated. In investigating a new grocery store we discover there is an overwhelming amount of stuff (data) in unknown places. We filter what we see to decide what’s available. We organize that and mentally compare it to what we need (The List), and process that, along with any substitutions, to conclude (understand) what we will purchase. Getting home, we (or actually, she) put the selections into action (practice, i.e., cook) and then we (or at least I) reach the ultimate wisdom, which is EATING!
I must admit, there also is a subtle visual joke that appeared in the sketches above. Unintentionally, I might add.
It is based on recognizing that every time you apply a filter you remove not only unwanted noise, but some desirable information as well. The filtered information becomes the data for the next filter, and so on. That sketch looks like this,
While we believe we are improving the usability of the resulting information, we have to be careful. Every time we apply some sort of filter the quality of the information goes down, a bit or a lot. If we are applying our own filters (as above), we can usually judge when the information becomes less reliable, less useful.
However, if we are letting other people apply their own filters and we are at the end of the ‘filtering’ line, we cannot judge if the result is completely useful or not. We can end up with unmitigated garbage. This sketch then looks more like this,
Here, rather than Wisdom being reached with effort at the top of a hill, the quality decreases downhill and the result (“…..”) becomes nothing more than marginally informed OPINION! (Thus the visual joke above: Events spiraling “downwards” to OPINIONS). A Cognitive Death Spiral.
Bertrand Russell was right. This filtering inadvertently becomes the unconscious translation of what one hears into something one can understand.
Now that we’ve identified the ‘filtering’ minefield, can we carefully cross it?
Another scenario came to mind, one that addresses the aforementioned question of ‘Why?’ It is how we approach Education, the process whereby we are intentionally developed into thinking organisms, and its overall (and hopefully continuing) part in our lives.
Consider a slight modification to the second sketch above (Data >> Wisdom) and recognize that the filters along our path in education are teachers and textbooks (or teachers in absentia). The sketch now looks like this,
I think we could all agree that this sketch represents what we think the mission and goal of an education system is and an individual’s takeaway from it. An upward and continuous climb to reach Wisdom.
But it doesn’t work that way in reality for a number of reasons and actual practices that have a lot to do with the answer to our question of, ‘Why?’
I think there are two parts to this. The first is Getting to Knowledge, and the second is the effort in Getting to Wisdom.
Getting to Knowledge
Schooling, as we’ve all experienced it, exposes us to new Information (thanks to teachers who help filter out most of what’s not important), which we then wrestle with in learning how to organize it. Often the amount of information and the organization process is challenging enough that the way many of us respond is through memorization. Flash cards. Drills. Repeat.
Because there’s a test coming. While a test should be a means of getting useful feedback along the way to Knowledge and Wisdom, it often becomes the end goal of demonstrating what’s been successfully acquired.
Thus arises the problem of teaching to standardized tests. These tests, while nobly conceived, risk simply reinforcing playback as the proof of Knowledge (and progress), and thus significantly influence establishing Knowledge itself as the end goal.
Their perception of Knowledge (and by inference the Purpose of Education) was to identify what the teacher said was important, to memorize it, and then play back what the teacher wanted. And stop when they hit that wall, the Thick Red Line. They didn’t reach Understanding, and/or probably showed little sign of trying, and/or simply gave up. As a consequence, in trying to deliver what the teacher wanted, they often resorted to plagiarism from classmates, from published sources, or cut-and-paste from the Internet. The objective had simply slipped backwards to become the homework assignment turned in or the right Information delivered on the test.
Because of the way the human mind works, new Information doesn’t quickly move from short-term memory to long-term memory and can be quickly overwritten by later activity (or distractions, or, more often the case, by activities that are important to our World View).
I’d call this process Understanding Erosion, where one loses the skills to organize Information into Knowledge and simply relies on the available but incomplete Information as the Truth (Fundamental Principle 6). The ultimate destination is the Information Trap.
What is disturbing is that this acquired ignorance, this loss of skills, is so commonplace that it has skipped over simply being taken for granted, to becoming ignored. The ultimate self-fulfilling fallacy.
This Information Trap will return a bit later.
Side Bar: Moving On
One of the underlying issues is in the semantics of ‘Why Education?’
Granted, we claim education is required for everyone to reach his or her full potential, and an educated public is necessary for the proper if not best operation of a democracy.
But, if the truth were told, here it is:
While everyone is entitled to the best education they can obtain, not everyone is suited or well prepared for a college education.
Some are not gifted (that’s due to DNA, their nature);
Some are gifted (DNA) but not motivated (some DNA, but more family or cultural environment, their nurture);
Some are not gifted (DNA) but are motivated (DNA and environment); and
Some are both gifted and motivated.
As we will see in a later post, it is not Nature OR Nurture; it is actually Nature AND Nurture.
Bottom line is that everyone should have the opportunity to pursue a college education at the best institution suited to optimize his or her progress ascending up the education path (Malcolm Gladwell cites an excellent example of this in his book David and Goliath).
Now, moving on to better things takes getting past the Thick Red Line, past the Knowledge “Wall.”
Getting to Wisdom
There is an old story that demonstrates a key insight. A young girl is watching her mother preparing food for Thanksgiving dinner, and asks,
“Why are you cutting off the end of the ham?”
“Because I learned that from my mother, your grandmother, so we’ve always done it that way.”
“Why did she do that?”
“I don’t remember. We’ll have to ask her later today when we’re at her house.”
Later, at the meal, the little girl asks grandmother why she cuts off the end of the ham.
“I learned it from my mother, your great-grandmother.”
“Why did she do it?”
“I’ve forgotten. Maybe it is written on her recipe card.”
Great Grandmother locates the faded recipe card and, with the little girl, reads through it.
“Oh, look at this. In parenthesis she’s written,
‘(Cut off butt end of ham so it fits into pot.)’ “
This, humorously, illustrates a key characteristic of human behavior:
At some time, someone put Data and Information together to reach Knowledge, and an Understanding of ‘Why we should do Something,’ and then put it into Practice;
They instructed someone in the next generation, but Understanding Erosion began to occur, although they still understood ‘What to Practice;’
Eventually, after a number of generations, Understanding Erosion was complete and all that remained was the Knowledge of ‘What to Practice;’
And when asked, ‘Why Are You Doing That,’ the reply became simply,
‘Because We’ve Always Done It That Way.’
It’s easy to see this repeated in the rituals and liturgies that we practice as nations, organizations, religions (especially), families, and individuals.
A fresh but important insight about this ascent from Knowledge up to Wisdom is to realize that, due to human nature, it is not a hike uphill on solid ground. It’s more like climbing Up the Down Escalator.
As a consequence, man eventually took to writing down his Wisdom, hoping that it would not be lost. This, of course entailed discovering writing as well as paper to write stuff on. But that, in reality, did not eliminate Understanding Erosion, it just slowed it down.
We still lose stuff, especially Understanding and Wisdom. Or we forget where we put it. Or that it’s there. Or how to find it. Or fail to nurture it if we do know where it is.
It takes Continuous Learning, a conscious effort to ascend this descending escalator. Stop or relax, and you slowly move backwards, without knowing it. It is not for nothing that one of my favorite quotes is from George Santayana, “Those who are ignorant of history are condemned to repeat it.” A little heavy, but accurate.
Historians have long remarked that the arc of human civilization has been one of very slow developments over a long period, increasing more rapidly up to the Industrial Revolution, and then increasing very rapidly since then.
Another insight: moving up this Down Escalator isn’t a consistent climb. It is getting steeper with time. Not only is new stuff being developed faster, Information is available more quickly and it is it is getting more complex. Thus, it takes more effort to keep up and to maintain Wisdom, much less to make progress.
This is one of the reasons certain professions are required to undergo continuing education.
So, Why Do We Do Stupid Stuff?
When we inadvertently or intentionally fail to put our Knowledge and Understanding into Practice, we succumb to Understanding Erosion and slide down to the Place of Little Effort where we only rely on what little and incomplete Information and Knowledge we have.
Earlier we referred to this as the Information Trap. Without due diligence, it will be occupied only with filtered, incomplete information (Fundamental Principle 6) obtained through the Availability Heuristic, and organized conveniently by our Confirmation Bias into a stronger World View, incomplete as it will be.
In the Place of Little Effort, we feel quite comfortable and justified in quickly and emotionally reacting to events and crises. To heck with the Gap between Something Happening and Mystery Solved. To heck with the effort to press through to better Understanding and Wisdom.
And then We Do Stupid Stuff.
The Final Insight
Back to one of our earlier sketches.
It puts heavy emphasis on inanimate, inactive things such as Data, Information, and Knowledge, and less on achieving Understanding, and Wisdom.
What should receive heavier and earlier emphasis is openly developing more of the dynamic and active behaviors, that is, reliable Filters, Organizing skills, Processing, and Practice. These are the catalysts that move us Up the Down Escalator,
If one can understand these as behaviors, the critical skills and objectives of an education, it becomes much easier to understand why a broad Liberal Arts curriculum is not only essential, it is foundational. History, Languages, Art, Music, Philosophy are all included and essential. Not just the study of What Happened; it is the study of Why Did It Happen, What Conditions and Forces Were Present, Why Did People Do What They Did, and What Do We Learn From This. It is the intentional study of their Filters, Organization, Processing, and Practices. And of their Outcomes, good or bad.
“Those who are ignorant of history are condemned to repeat it.” George Santayana
Emphasis on developing these behaviors and skills is not just a responsibility of an education system, it should be an emphasis of every parent, family, clan, tribe, organization, and nation so that individuals can more readily reach their best potential, so that families, clans, tribes, organizations, and nations can also.
The Self-Fulfilling Fallacy
So, the answer to our question of ‘Why do we do stupid stuff?’ is, ironically, Education. Exactly what we decided we needed to prevent doing Stupid stuff. Yet another self-fulfilling fallacy.
Fortunately, I think there is a small core of people who, if they didn’t “get it” during high school or college, awoke a few years later and are trying, albeit quietly, to put things together later in life and continue to move up the down escalator. There’s just too few of us, and we are too quiet and not visible enough.