Dr Hugh Willbourn
#9 A little knowledge is a dangerous thing
Updated: Jul 21, 2020
I have just spent nearly two weeks working on an accessible, useful piece of philosophy about the fundamental origins of our current predicament continuing my exploration in CC7 & LSS4.
As I publish I realise it is far less valuable than I would wish, because the people who would most benefit are those least likely to read it. Many people are very strongly attached to beliefs about the threats that we face, and marshal copious arguments, authorities and models to support their position. As we know, it is hard to change one’s mind after such investment.
Nonetheless I hope this provides interesting illumination in these difficult times.
In 2020, we have more graduates, more scientists, more people of all sorts more educated than ever before; we have more wealth, more technology and more access to more knowledge than ever in human history, yet we are making a mess of our societies all over the world. Our progress seems to have been somewhat lopsided.
We have indulged the long-term problems of gratuitous consumerism, amoral bankers and monumental debt; we have ongoing crises of obesity and mental health; we promote crude and costly attempts to influence our climate and are frequently overwhelmed by innumerate and emotionally naïve obsessions - most recently over transgenderism, racial tension, political polarisation and the global response to SARS-CoV-2.
Behind each of these issues is a long, sorry and sometimes tragic history. However one deep source of confusion lies beneath all of them and contributes not just to the problems, but renders problematic our many attempts to solve them.
The focus of modernity has been on knowledge, technology, creativity and economic growth. We have built silos in academia which prize specialisation, parties in politics which prize loyalty, and quangos that reward timorous orthodoxy, all of which inhibit the real, difficult growth of rounded, emotional understanding and integrity.
An ancient prophecy
Our plight was accurately prophesied more than two thousand years ago. Plato tells us of an encounter between Thamus, the King of Egypt, and Thoth, the ancient deity (or, according to Marquis Spineto, the King’s secretary) who had invented writing and presented it to Thamus as a gift. Thamus was unimpressed. He said to Thoth,
"Those who acquire [writing skills] will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on writing to bring things to their remembrance by external signs instead of on their own internal resources. What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory.
And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: they will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant.
And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society."
Today we have abundant evidence that Thamus’ prophecy was devastatingly accurate. From Tony Blair and Boris Johnson to SAGE and PHE we are bedevilled by fools with the conceit of wisdom who are a burden to society.
The world thin web
For centuries we were protected from the problematic consequences of literacy by a way of life rooted in the practical exigencies of life. Gradually literacy-based education and thinking made inroads into traditional ways of learning, and during the last century electronic communication accelerated the trend.
Let us imagine that the technology of literacy caused our house to catch fire. The fire smouldered for centuries before tongues of flame leaped up in Gutenberg. By the 20th Century the fire had gained a firm hold on the building. Then the internet arrived, like a fleet of fire-engines equipped with high-pressure hoses, and is now drenching the fire in gasoline.
We live in a newly-misshapen world. Worldwide web is a misleading name for the internet. It would be more accurate to call it the world thin web. Through it we experience an overwhelming number of edited words, sounds and pictures, filtered to pander to our prejudices. Real, physical contexts are invaded and supplanted by the single, vast yet narrow context of the internet.
Discourse on the net over-represents loud, neurotic minorities and it under-represents stability, concrete reality, ordinary, sensible people and the wealth of embodied experience. It exposes and amplifies immature emotional attachments. It disseminates simplistic, pornographic, intoxicating and conflictual ideas and images which pollute our minds. It is also prey to manipulation and censorship by the gatekeeper corporations that control posting and access on social media.
Writing renders our words permanent. The internet makes them permanently accessible, indefinitely, effortlessly, throughout the world, to anyone. We are standing on a stage watched by billions. The ever-present threat of exposure is inimical to exploratory or experimental discourse and creates an enormous pressure to conform to the dominant orthodoxy.
· Maximises polarity
· Reduces subtlety
· Protects the interests of gatekeeper corporations
· Provides support for every possible point of view
· Diminishes intellectual interaction
· Elevates appearance and statement
· Obscures intention and feeling
· Undermines authority
· Undermines authenticity
· Is the electrification of the monkey mind – an endless maze of associative thinking.
The internet is also a magnificent resource for research, commerce, travel, communication, publication and entertainment.
Above all, the internet amplifies abstraction. The written word is abstracted from its time and place of origin as soon as it is written. When published on the internet it can be read instantly all over the world. When the word is abstracted from its original context its meaning too is abstracted and it provides the basis on which to build concepts which are not tied to, nor limited by, any particular context. However it also loses the specificity of a speaker’s usage and intention. The written word no longer has its author to defend it, so it is easily misinterpreted.
That may seem unimportant, but it has both splendid and devastating consequences.
Abstraction has made possible the conceptual thinking that underpins the physical, economic and cultural achievements of Western civilisation. It has also facilitated the slow, insidious undermining of those achievements by misdirecting our thinking and diminishing, overlooking and discarding the deep experiential, emotional and narrative understanding within which our humanity is nurtured.
Let me give you a pedestrian example of the benefits, and limitations, of abstraction. Lindy Hop is a dance form created by Black Americans in Harlem, New York City in the 1920s and 30s. The originators of the dance adapted movements from the African and European dance traditions and created their own dance to the swing music of the time. They were creators. They had no teachers.
By the 1950s Lindy Hop had fallen out of fashion although still taught in a few dance studios. A revival of the dance started in the 1980s. Teachers analysed the dance and noticed that there were many sequences of movement that took six beats or eight beats. So they taught “six count” and “eight count” moves. “Six count” and “eight count” are abstractions of just one part, albeit basic, of dancing. The originators of the dance never used those terms, but modern dancers often use them to describe moves, and beginners frequently think of the dance as made up of a sequence of “six count” and “eight count” moves.
A couple who are doing moves are not yet dancing. They are still learning to dance. True dancing is a conversation with your partner and sometimes with the musicians to, and about, the music. The moves are like the words of a conversation. Just as a good conversation is much more than “saying words” so a good dance is much more than “doing moves.”
I vividly remember that when I first learned to dance lindy hop I was obsessed with learning new moves and I performed as many as I could, enthusiastically and badly. It took me several years to realise how very limited was my understanding. Like everyone else in the grip of a narrow, abstract understanding I had no idea how much I did not know.
Ø Abstractions like “eight count” help us to highlight elements and commonalities but we forget at our peril that they are always only a partial view.
Ø Abstractions do not underlie reality, they are at best an insightful imposition on top of reality.
Therapy and cognitive capture
In CC7 & LSS4 I described Cognitive Capture, the situation in which a high-level abstraction acts with hypnotic power to distort perception and reinforce the hegemony of the abstract category.
Cognitive capture is contagious. People we know to be rational and sane can fall into cognitive capture and once they are over the threshold they are trapped as confirmation bias, motivated reasoning and the Festinger effect (See CC2) all kick in.
Early in my career as a hypnotherapist I was asked by a colleague to help him with a very challenging client. She was a woman of a certain age who was very depressed and extremely anxious. She was desperate for help, but she had a preternatural ability to segue with impeccable logic and less than two sentences from any comment about anything to a rationalization of her depression and the futility of any attempts at change.
My colleague and I worked with her together and I would watch with astonishment as she ensnared him with the rationale of her misery and derailed his attempts to elicit therapeutic explorations. I would intervene to drag them out of reinforcing her depression only to find a few minutes later that I too was caught in her doom-laden world view and my colleague was rescuing me. That client was one of the best hypnotists I ever met. Not only was she firmly ensconced in her distressing cognitive capture, but she effortlessly drew in everyone around her.
High-level abstractions, whether “depression,” “diversity” or “the economy,” can provoke cognitive capture which distorts and polarises our world view and limits our contextual awareness in ways of which we mostly remain unaware.
Our understanding goes astray when we imagine abstractions to be real or to be appropriate goals for action. Those who seek to instantiate abstractions are like those dancers who brilliantly and accurately perform eight count move after eight count move and are completely, and tragically, unaware of what they are missing.
The worst abstraction: Ideology
The closer people are to practical tasks and to direct, personally felt feedback from their actions, the more likely they are to evade cognitive capture. The more heavily people are involved in abstract analysis and policy-making the more likely they are to fall into cognitive capture. The absolute nadir of abstraction is an ideology which attempts to make an abstract notion real in the physical world. Even ideals such as safety, equality, diversity and anti-racism will inevitably be perverted by the inherent distortions of ideology.
All ideologies are inadequate because:
1 They are fixed in the language of their creation
i. hence limited by the vision of their creators
ii. and outdated as the world changes
2 Ultimately they never achieve their designated goals because people with differing opinions and interests will not agree about what real, concrete situation corresponds to the abstract goal of the ideology
3 They tend to promote cognitive capture
4 Their impersonal formulations lack recognition of the significance of personal, emotional relationships and emotionally or morally sophisticated understanding
5 They divert discussion away from reality and towards ideals and policies. As Oren Lyons put it when talking about the orally transmitted Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy, “If you write the rules down, then you have to deal with the rule rather than figuring out what’s fair.”
6 The focus on abstract ideals causes people to ignore or belittle real situations and lived experience
7 People will inevitably game ideologies in the pursuit of power and personal gain.
There are of course some benefits of ideology beyond the obvious ones (to its leaders) of power, influence and wealth.
An adherent of an ideology avoids the painful and continuous challenge of having to take responsibility for their choices every day.
An ideology is a refuge in the face of the overwhelming context of the internet.
An ideology offers the comfortable delusion of a straightforward solution to existential problems.
These benefits are significant. If a person wants to free themselves it really helps to get at least a glimpse of something better.
Escape from Abstraction
About twelve years ago my qualitative research business was asked to pitch for some research by officials at the Department of the Environment who wanted to know the extent to which “sustainability thinking” was embedded in other Government departments. At the briefing meeting were two people from the Department of the Environment, one from the from the Sustainable Development Commission and a further representative from the Environment Agency. All of them were concerned with increasing “sustainability thinking.”
On the one hand this represented admirable co-operation across different public sector agencies. On the other it was a comical example of the enormous gap between abstract aspiration and practical reality. The most sustainable action would have been to cut the triplication of effort across three agencies, but such an idea was very far from the minds of our commissioners.
They were really asking us to find out if their policy of sustainability was being taken into account by other people making other policies. This policy of researching policies sounds laudable on paper. Who would not want to increase sustainability, whether on ecological or economic grounds? In practice it would largely be an exercise in generating more reports to inform creation of further protocols, committees and action plans. Real, immediate, practical action to decrease waste and increase sustainability was not on the agenda.
The challenge for all policies and abstractions is to see what they entail in observable, concrete life.
We can ask,
“What could I see in real life that is evidence, or a consequence, of this abstraction?”
“What could I video tape that would be evidence that what you say is true?”
An invaluable follow-up question is,
“If this abstraction or policy is enacted, how will people respond to it?”
Consider again an “eight count” lindy hop move. Whilst learning it can be helpful to keep count of the beats in the music and to know on which number to make each movement, but when people are really dancing, they are no longer counting.
We can think of this as going “out” of reality to the simpler world of the abstraction and then returning “back” to embodied, contextual reality.
Abstractions, such as “sustainability thinking” are useful only in so far as they inform our practical actions. They are not a well-formed goal of action. We can go “out” to think about notions of sustainability, but to act well we must come “back” to embodied, contextual reality.
For example, in the abstract, electric cars are a sustainable, emissions-free form of transport. In embodied, contextual reality their construction requires rare earths mined in dubious circumstances, the generation of electricity they use is likely to entail emissions, and the carbon cost of manufacture is exorbitant compared to the cheaper, simpler, lower-emissions option of continuing to use a well-maintained old car.
Four qualities help us to think about abstractions realistically.
Discernment is ultimately founded in developing authentic understanding for which
the only viable foundation is our self. We train ourselves by trusting ourselves repeatedly and learning from our mistakes. So after each error, we need to check both our understanding of the outside and what internal feelings and assumptions influenced us.
Discernment is not cynical but it is sceptical. The sceptic looks askance at all excessive assertions and treats the claims of Bernie Madoff and Neil Ferguson as equally implausible.
There is far more to be said about discernment than I have space for here. But note nothing written here should be taken on trust. Rather it should be explored and tested and made your own, only as and when, and insofar as, you have verified and understood it yourself.
A sense of proportion
Perhaps a sense of proportion is a sub-set of discernment, but it is such an important capacity that it deserves attention. The lockdown and ongoing attempts to control the virus or the population, for example, are sustained by the fact that most members of Governments and populations have lost their sense of proportion. It seems as if many people have failed to ask themselves some fairly standard questions, such as:
How does this new risk compare to the risks I am already taking?
What are the quality and relevance of the measurements, statistics and scientific findings I am reading?
Is my action proportionate to the risk, or reward, I am facing?
What are the opportunity costs of my actions?
Along with proportion a further important sub-set of discernment is contextualisation. Over-reaction to the Sars-CoV-2 threat ignored the effect of lockdown on the larger context of other users of healthcare services and on the economy.
At the time of writing much is made of episodes of increase in “cases” of Covid-19. From the point of view of the natural life cycle of viruses and herd immunity and the more cases the better. The virus is spreading, as viruses do, in its new host population and the members thereof are attaining natural immunity. Only the belief that more cases will lead to more death would see more cases as a bad thing.
Changing the topic away from Covid-19 for a moment, in a similar though thankfully less widespread vein, advocacy for the rights of ‘trans’ children is oblivious of the rather obvious fact that the natural, normal, teenage hormone storm is an unsuitable context within which to make irreversible body-changing decisions.
We are all guilty of focussing too much on what we do know, and too little on what we don’t know. We look back on the erroneous beliefs and misunderstandings of our ancestors yet often fail to acknowledge not only the breadth and depth of our own ignorance, but the high probability that much of what we think we do know is partial, distorted or wrong.
Abstraction fosters both misunderstanding and attachment to misunderstanding. The current unbalanced pursuit of “safety” from SARS-CoV-2 has induced and perpetuates cognitive capture, which is now also reinforced by social proof – i.e. if everyone else is doing it, it must be true.
The global panic was induced by a little knowledge: the identification of a virus that we can neither eliminate nor control. Furthermore it is futile to attempt to control it. The virus that has already done almost all the damage it will do, and is not dangerous to the vast majority of the global population. It is settling down to be a just another part of our viral environment like other coronaviruses with which we already live.
The exercise of discernment, proportion, contextualisation and humility shows clearly that the danger to our population from SARS-CoV-2 is indeed real, but it is not exceptional and mortality is very much skewed towards the elderly and those with co-morbidities. It is on a par with a middling to bad seasonal influenza. The disruptions in healthcare and the economy have already set in motion far more long-term damage, suffering and death than the virus ever could or did. It is time to forget about Covid-19 and set about remedying the disastrous impact of the over-reaction.
This last paragraph is totally unacceptable to those in the continuing grip of fear or cognitive capture. Indeed it would be denounced by many as dangerous.
We have two functional options.
Option one is to split our societies in two – one side of town for the paranoid and the other for rest of us.
Option two is to help those who are seriously and honestly frightened to review their point of view and opinions.
Option two is not at all easy, but I will throw out a few ideas in a future post, starting with looking at what Thamus might have meant by "proper instruction."
There is a third, dysfunctional, option which is for huge numbers of healthy people to continue to try to shelter from a miniscule threat and to perpetuate the destruction of our economies and societies. A little knowledge is indeed a dangerous thing.