Internet Epistemology

Where do we find reliable information?  I’m asking this question on an internet-based medium, which itself is ironic.  While spending time with some younger people, it’s become clear that the web is their source of truth.  You find purveyors of information that you trust, and you accept their YouTube channels as representing correct data.  This can be a disorienting experience for an old doubter like me.  One of the reasons for studying for a Ph.D., apart from the vain hope of finding a career in higher education, is to hone critical thinking skills.  When I went through the process, that involved reading lots and lots of print material, assessing it, and weighing it against alternative views, also in print format.  You learn who really makes sense and you judge which publishers have good information more frequently.  As you navigate, you do so critically, questioning where they get their information.

Now, I’m not one of those people who think the younger generation is wrong (in fact, there are YouTube educational videos about just that).  The situation does, however, leave me wondering about how to fact-check when you don’t know the publisher.  It may be an older person’s problem, but it’s essentially the same dilemma behind self-publishing—the reason you trust a self-published book depends on the author alone.  Is s/he persuasive?  Did s/he document the sources of her/his information?  Are those sources good ones?  The young people I know seem quite adept at filtering out obviously biased information.  Many YouTube personalities footnote their presentations with links to sources (many of them online), and after an hour of watching I’m left questioning what’s really real at all.

You see, many of these internet personalities have sponsors.  Sponsors bring money, and money biases anyone’s angle toward the truth.  In fact, many of these YouTube sources call out the lobbying groups that influence public opinion for political ends.  Only someone completely naive—no matter their generation—would not acknowledge that government runs on money provided by corporations with interests to be protected.  There have been reliable sources, even from the days of print, that prove beyond any reasonable doubt just how corrupt governments tend to be.  But who has time to fact-check the government when the rest of the information we receive is suspect?  Those of us with training in advanced critical thinking aren’t immune from biased information.  It’s just that there’s so much data on the web that my head’s spinning.  I think I need to go read a book.

Monster Smash

MnfsttnMnstrsIt’s the time of year when young men’s minds turn to monsters. Well, at least this middle-aged man’s does. Seeing a book by Karl P. N. Shuker entitled A Manifestation of Monsters, I was intrigued. I had some Amazon points burning a hole in my internet, so I took a chance on it. The fact is good books on monsters are hard to find and Shuker is listed as “Doctor” and that sometimes stands for something. Subtitled Examining the (Un)usual Suspects, the book is a curious Mischwesen of folklore, actual animals, and cryptozoology. The latter should be no surprise as Shuker is a noted cryptozoologist. Compiled from many of his previously published articles, the book contains some fascinating accounts of extinct creatures and some improbable accounts of modern monsters.

Since Banned Book Week is a time to explore challenged ideas, why not read about some cryptids? They are anti-establishment monsters. Banned creatures. As is usual with monsters, there’s little rhyme or reason to the arrangement. Unlike many in the field of cryptozoology, Shuker is skeptical of outlandish claims, and has actual training as a zoologist. What stood out to me as I read accounts of unusual creatures is that some people report seeing the oddest things, and that other people are driven to hoax all kinds of monsters. It is clear that the human mind is programmed to believe in the possibility of the improbable. Critical thinking, as anyone with advanced training knows, is hard work. Belief can be a far simpler matter. We crave a world with the exotic, and potentially dangerous. Shuker’s piece on the mythical chupacabra demonstrates that nicely.

While I’m pondering things that are banned, I consider how some who use critical faculties well like to disparage others. This, of course, is not in the best interest of science. We haven’t discovered everything yet. We think that because of the internet we’ve gone about as far as we can go in hive-mind mentality. Never mind that bees and ants beat us to it. People, many of them very intelligent, continue to see things they can’t explain. Others say that any living creature larger than a breadbox has already been discovered. I tend to think the world is a pretty big place and that people prefer to huddle together in cities for a reason. The mountain gorilla, for example, was discovered just in 1902. Now that the season for monsters is upon us, I like to imagine what else might be wandering around unseen by human eyes. And I hope banned ideas may continue to thrive in the forests of our minds.

Doubting Dawkins

A recent Guardian introspective on Richard Dawkins reminded me of the dangers of idolatry. Dawkins, an internationally known intellectual pugilist, the article by Carole Cadwalladr intimates, is as human as the next guy when you can catch him off the stage. Ironically, it is evolved primate behavior to adore the alpha male, but, at the same time, to prevent abuse of power and to get away with what you can behind said alpha male’s back. We are worshipping creatures, at least when it suits our best interests. Anyone who’s been intellectually slapped down (something yours truly has experienced multiple times) knows that it is an unpleasant experience that one doesn’t willfully seek out. We try to keep out of the way of those who assert themselves, preferring the safer route of just doing what we’re told and apologizing for something we know isn’t really our fault. It’s only human.

Evolution

The media have provided us with ever more expansive ways to build our “experts” into gods. Dawkins, a biologist, has become one of the go-to experts on religion. The media don’t seem to realize that hundreds of us have the same level of qualifications as Dr. Dawkins, but in the subject of religion. Many of us are not biased. And yet, when a “rational” response to religion is required, a biologist is our man of the hour. Granted, few academics enter the field in search of fame. Most of us are simply curious and have the necessary patience and drive to conduct careful research to try to get to the bottom of things. We may not like what we discover along the way, but that is the price one pays for becoming an expert. Those who are lucky end up in teaching positions where they can bend the minds of future generations. Those who are outspoken get to become academic idols.

I have no animosity toward Richard Dawkins or his work. I’ve read a few of his books and I find myself agreeing with much of what he says. Still, a trained academic should know better than to “follow the leader” all the time. (Some schools, note, are better at teaching independent thought than are others!) The academic life is one of doubt and constant testing. Once you’ve learned to think in this critical way, you can’t turn back the clock. One of the things that those of us who’ve studied religion know well is that all deities must be examined with suspicion. Especially those who are undoubtedly human and who only came to where they are by the accidents of evolution. I’m no biologist, but I inherently challenge any academic idol. I’m only human, after all.

Real Life Zombies

In recent months Binghamton University has been on my mind. Binghamton has a number of videos available on YouTube which I find to be entertaining and even, sometimes, very funny. I like Bing’s style. Even though I catch myself laughing once in a while, I know that Binghamton takes higher education seriously. I watched a recent, 17 minute talk on a vital topic. It is located here, and I would recommend that you watch it too. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Back? Okay. The situation raised here is one that makes me shudder. Few things are as debilitating and vulnerable as an uneducated populace. Both religious and political forces have made great efforts to prevent certain orthodoxies from being challenged by what they term, as an obvious swear-word, “higher education.” The fact is, folks, higher education is nothing more than an attempt to get people—often young people—to learn how to think critically. That last word is a stumbling block sometimes. Any number of people will suppose that critical thinking is the same as criticism. It isn’t. Critical thought is the ability to approach a problem—any problem—rationally. To respond with the best that our minds have taught us to do, rather than with knee-jerk reactions. Yes, emotion and jerking knees have important places in the world, but they only work well if they are accompanied by the ability to think critically.

The video makes it pretty clear that the ability to think is rapidly eroding in our culture. Perhaps not quite zombie apocalypse, but not comfortably far from it. The death of Borders was blamed on its inability to get into the electronics markets by various pundits. I disagree. Borders fell victim to a culture that has lost the joy of challenging reading. We like spoon-feeding (otherwise much of the internet is difficult to explain). In order to exercise our brains, we have to use them to read hard things. Like my high school coach used to say, if you don’t use your muscles they’ll atrophy. Looking at my mid-section, I can see that his words were true. What Coach didn’t warn us about, though, is that the same holds true for the mind. The unchallenged intellect is a dull one. This is a threat far more insidious than any Communism, or liberalism ever was. It is the dummification of America. We are a nation that loves zombies. We are also a nation in danger of becoming them as well. Fight the zombie apocalypse—read a book. And like that baseball bat you use to swing at the undead, the harder it is, the better.

They don't write them like that anymore

They don’t write them like that anymore

Come Sail Away

A profound sadness accompanied my reading of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. I mentioned this study when it was highlighted in the Chronicle of Higher Education a couple months back, and have just finished reading it. My sadness stems from having been told from my earliest years that I was a natural teacher, but having fallen victim to statistics. Higher education, Arum and Roksa assert, no longer considers undergraduate education to be its highest priority. This is statistically borne out. Often it is because colleges and universities no longer have the will or incentive to retain committed educators. Concerned parents sometimes ask me what’s wrong with the system. Truth is, I worked hard on my teaching only to be forced out—I simply don’t know. A large part of it, I believe, is that in the 1970’s the US government instituted changes in higher education policy to advantage freer market forces (i.e., capitalism). Our educational institutions have been on the decline ever since.

Not being a sociologist, I can’t assess all the data presented in Academically Adrift, but the portrait painted is a disheartening one. Middle class and working class people pay enormous amounts to send their kids to college. The majority of students do not learn much in the way of critical thinking when they are there. It became clear, however, that one thing higher education does not erase is class distinctions. The findings seem to indicate that, if anything, college deepens the rift. Those colonists who long ago fled the tyranny of the crown replicated their own version of a caste system in their new nation. I have not been the only one to notice that those of us who grew up in very humble circumstances just don’t stand a chance of earning credibility in academia’s elitist eyes. Our only hope is education—precisely what many college students are not getting for their parents’ money.

My critique of higher education is accompanied by just a small morsel of hope. I cherish every school I’ve had the privilege to teach in, save one. In each classroom I found some students who were eager to learn, some of whom would become friends. Education is pointless if it doesn’t make life better for people. We could be starving dogs growling for the same bone (just like capitalists) living in a junk yard or a desert. Education alone holds the promise of lifting us out from our bestial predilections. With its Midas touch, however, the free market has transformed higher education into a money-making venture eviscerated of its very soul. Unless our society can learn once again to support education for its own sake—the sake of improving our lives instead of improving the bottom line for the top one percent—we will find ourselves back in our caves scratching the fleas from our unwashed bodies. Of course, at least the one-percenters will have plenty of cronies standing in line to scratch their noble backs even then.

Adrift

We all have the gift of critical thinking to thank for the world of relative comfort in which we live. That doesn’t mean we always appreciate the source of the gift; in fact, America has had a long history of anti-intellectualism, a distrust of those educated “European style.” Nevertheless, universities in the United States far outnumber those in most nations. Overall they represent a tiny fraction of our culture and workforce, however, and when any institution become elite trouble will follow. I just read a review of Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Arum and Roksa, sociologists, have done a study of university outcomes in the United States and the results are failing. More specifically, a large proportion of students emerge from college having learned little and heavily in debt for their effort. Having just learned of the book, I haven’t had the chance to read it yet, but Kevin Carey, in his review, notes that the disparity breaks along the lines of privilege.

Those students who enter college from well-to-do backgrounds, having attended fine schools, learn a great deal and are very unlikely to end up unemployed. The other group, by far the larger of the two, is comprised of students from schools mediocre or worse, hails from somewhat humble financial circumstances, and will like find unemployment at the end of four years with little true education. There can be no excuse of ignorance, for universities have known of this for many years. In the words of Carey, “Academe was so slow to produce this research because it told the world things that those in academe would rather the world didn’t know.” Some of us emerged from higher education in profound debt, but even with good study skills, lack of connection equals great uncertainty. Classism is alive and well in America, but unfortunately universities have been quietly playing a supporting role.

The truly sad part is that many people already assume the worst about higher education. We like to claim education to be a great equalizer, but that will never change the fact of who your daddy is. The upper crust looks out for its own, and when it comes to the tremendous costs involved to maintain universities, the bulk of the tuition comes from those who benefit least. How long before university presidents with their pseudo-corporate salaries start asking for a federal bail-out? How many times can those who have too much cry that they can barely make ends meet? It can cost a lot to ensure your kids get the jobs they deserve. Universities have increasingly modeled themselves on corporate America, and the product has become shoddy and cheap. Perhaps those who distrust intellectualism have been right all along. Perhaps the logo outside campus should read “buyer beware.”

A rare view.

Rhetorical Criticism

An insidious force far more devastating than it’s generally given credit for being, religious rhetoric is one of the oldest tricks in the book. With all the news about Osama bin Laden’s death, one can’t help but to think of his former rhetoric laced with religious archetypes on how his personal enemies were allied with the raw forces of evil themselves. Religion often has little to go on beyond rhetoric. The high point in many religious services is the sermon, a piece of individually crafted rhetoric sometimes claiming divine authority. The average person in the pew has no experience or knowledge of how the preacher comes by his or her secret knowledge. With eternal stakes in the scales, they are taught simply to accept what is a modern word of God. Those of us with long experience at seminaries know those who teach homiletics, we’ve learned the craft, and we keep the secret within the guild. The secret is that these words are simply rhetoric.

Rhetoric aplenty

Some denominations prefer their clergy seminary-free, inspired mavericks who hear directly from God. Their rhetoric may be even more flamboyant, not having been tempered by critical study of their scriptures. If even one of these dissenters is speaking truly, then all the others are wrong. The preacher with the mightiest rhetoric gets to take all the marbles and go home the winner.

Rhetoric is not evil. Religious rhetoric, however, often tears families apart – ripping friends away from those they once loved – because we undervalue its power. Education in the humanities (and rhetoric is about as human as one can get) is underfunded and devalued. Better to teach kids how to make a quick buck. Sadly in paper after student paper among the denizens of higher education the inability to recognize, interpret, and apply rhetoric is painfully evident. These kids run whirlwinds around their instructors in technological knowledge and ability, but can they write a sentence to move or stir a teacher, let alone a crowd of accepting followers? No matter, there are those with religious rhetoric who are only too pleased to step up onto the vacant soapbox. Without the critical ability to recognize what they hear, the masses will follow.