Friday, August 28, 2009

The Economy Of Unreason

Caption: A telescope used for Moon viewing at the Japanese Gardens at The Arboretum, in Seattle, Washington.

Image credit: Cujo359

It's hard to describe the cognitive dissonance that followed reading these two articles this morning. The first is from Dana Hunter at En Tequila Es Verdad:

Learning is one of those endeavors without end. If you stop at a taste, you may believe you've been sated - I know people like that, people who nibbled at knowledge and then wandered away in favor of something easier. Maybe it's because they were force-fed rather than allowed to develop an appetite. Perhaps they came to believe learning was too hard, or they weren't good at it, or some other bollocks. If they're lucky, later in life, they'll get a second chance at the buffet and realize they've been starving all along. Maybe they'll realize how much they need to know.

Maybe they'll wander down to Ballard Locks and see a man with a telescope.

Wait a second, you say - a telescope at boat locks? In broad daylight? That's one of the things I love the most about this city, the incongruity of enlightenment, lodged in the most unexpected places. My friend and I headed down to watch the boats travel between Lake Union and Puget Sound, and stumbled into an astronomy lesson. A gentleman had his telescope set up on the lawn across from the visitor's center, pointed at the sun. He had a passel of people there waiting for their chance to have a close look. And while they sat and stared in awe at solar prominences and the mottled texture of the sun's surface (yes, it really does look like an orange peel), he gave a little lesson on our nearest star. All for free.

Need to Know

We humans have a need to learn. It is wired into us. Our minds are like machines that are ready-made to make guesses about how our universe works. When those machines lack quality fuel, like a good education and an intellectually stimulating environment, they often make inferences that are, shall we say, gravely mistaken. As psychologist and skeptic Michael Shermer explains:

Why do people see faces in nature, interpret window stains as human figures, hear voices in random sounds generated by electronic devices or find conspiracies in the daily news? A proximate cause is the priming effect, in which our brain and senses are prepared to interpret stimuli according to an expected model. UFOlogists see a face on Mars. Religionists see the Virgin Mary on the side of a building. Paranormalists hear dead people speaking to them through a radio receiver. Conspiracy theorists think 9/11 was an inside job by the Bush administration. Is there a deeper ultimate cause for why people believe such weird things? There is. I call it “patternicity,” or the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise.

Traditionally, scientists have treated patternicity as an error in cognition. A type I error, or a false positive, is believing something is real when it is not (finding a nonexistent pattern). A type II error, or a false negative, is not believing something is real when it is (not recognizing a real pattern — call it “apatternicity”). In my 2000 book How We Believe, I argue that our brains are belief engines: evolved patternrecognition machines that connect the dots and create meaning out of the patterns that we think we see in nature. Sometimes A really is connected to B; sometimes it is not. When it is, we have learned something valuable about the environment from which we can make predictions that aid in survival and reproduction. We are the descendants of those most successful at finding patterns. This process is called association learning and it is fundamental to all animal behavior, from the humble worm C. elegans to H. sapiens.

Unfortunately, we did not evolve a Baloney Detection Network in the brain to distinguish between true and false patterns. We have no error-detection governor to modulate the pattern-recognition engine. (Thus, the need for science with its self-correcting mechanisms of replication and peer review.)


What turns an inference into a mistaken belief is lack of knowledge, coupled with a lack of willingness to try to expand that knowledge through learning and reason. The many mistaken beliefs in our culture, creationism, 9/11 denialism, birthers, and so on, are a product of these lacks. As a society, we seem to be becoming more ignorant and unreasoning, even as our knowledge increases. Why this is has at least as much to do with our lack of interest in education and learning as it does to anything.

Which brings us to the other article, which was on National Public Radio, about one more gift left to us by the Bush Administration. It concerns the end of the Public Broadcasting System's (PBS) series Reading Rainbow:

The show's run is ending, [WNED manager John] Grant explains, because no one — not the station, not PBS, not the Corporation for Public Broadcasting — will put up the several hundred thousand dollars needed to renew the show's broadcast rights.

Grant says the funding crunch is partially to blame, but the decision to end Reading Rainbow can also be traced to a shift in the philosophy of educational television programming. The change started with the Department of Education under the Bush administration, he explains, which wanted to see a much heavier focus on the basic tools of reading — like phonics and spelling.

Grant says that PBS, CPB and the Department of Education put significant funding toward programming that would teach kids how to read — but that's not what Reading Rainbow was trying to do.

"Reading Rainbow taught kids why to read," Grant says. "You know, the love of reading — [the show] encouraged kids to pick up a book and to read."

'Reading Rainbow' Reaches Its Final Chapter

In a country that seems to be drowning in ignorance, no one can find a few $100k to keep a show on the air that teaches children why learning and reading is important. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. The Bush Administration, after all, had no use for science when it didn't fit in with their propaganda. George W. Bush bragged about never reading newspapers. If there was ever an Administration less interested in intellectual endeavors, I haven't had the misfortune to live under it.

Learning to be a skeptical, smart, observer of the world is a difficult thing. It requires acquiring an education, which requires considerable effort. That effort is often at the expense of doing other things that might be more fun, like going to movies, playing video games, or just hanging around with friends. As Dana wrote, it's an effort that has to continue for the rest of a person's life. For anyone who doesn't find that effort intrinsically fun, there needs to be some inspiration. That doesn't come from something as prosaic as wanting to earn a living when you're a child. Helping children realize that reading and learning can lead to interesting experiences can help provide that inspiration.

With our population seemingly becoming more ignorant by the day, it's a shame that we place so little value on inspiring our children to be more interested in learning. The money spent on Reading Rainbow wouldn't put a new coat of paint on an F-22. Yet we can't manage to find the means.

Maybe someone can take the money they saved on Reading Rainbow and add a few more explosions to the next Masterpiece Theatre. In a few years, that's what their audience will be looking for.


george.w said...

I loved the part about teaching kids why to read. If we do that, we hardly even need to teach them how.

Just having watched Idiocracy, I shudder at the notion of cancelling Reading Rainbow.

"The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir." ~Carl Saga

Cujo359 said...

The question I've heard more than any other regarding education is "Why do I have to learn this?". I've written about that before, and I think how we answer that question is just as important as how (potentially) good we make that education. "Just shut up and learn" isn't a good answer to anyone with a mind of his own, no matter what his age.

Children don't know squat about the world. That's why we send them to school. It's only much later that many of them learn why they were sent there in the first place. In the meantime, more would succeed if they had some idea why, and if they thought it could be fun.