Philosophy for Renewing Reason – 17

Philosophy for Renewing Reason – 16
Philosophy for Renewing Reason – 18

Probably the unresolved philosophical issue which is most bothering to most ordinary reflective people today is the problem posed by the so-called ‘post truth society’ in which people no longer seem interested in whether a statement or pronouncement is true.  Fake news was given apparent respectability by Donald Trump on his first day in office when he insisted that there were alternative facts, like the alternative factthat the crowd at his Inauguration was <<the largest ever>>! There seems to be no way of preventing malicious agents from using modern information technology to create a densely foggy intellectual climate in which no one can be sure about anything.

Various discussions have taken place on television about the problem of fake news,but surprisingly little light has been thrown onto the issue.  When Simon Blackburnwas questioned about the problem on BBC Newsnight his only material suggestion was that we have The Times and the BBC as reliable sources of information!

Probably the key to understanding this problem is to ask: what is fuelling the production and dissemination of fake news?  The answer in regard to production is clearly: the anonymity offered by the internet. People who put out false news should be jumped upon and branded as anti-social disruptives, who are confusing large numbers of naïve bodies and potentially causing much mental distress.  It is really important that democracies should insist that all inputs onto the internet must come with bona fide author details and identification.

In regard to the dissemination of fake news, the important questions are<<Why is fake news mistaken for genuine news?>>  and <<Why is it being peddled so much?>> .  The answer to these questions is quite serious and concerning.  It is that a form of brazenly hyped, substandard education has been operating in most advanced countries for the last thirty years. It started on a so-called ‘cognitive science’ basis, a bogus “science” arising from Pavlov’s work training dogs.  It assumes that the pupils in a class are like cameras, and that, after exposure to information,they automatically retain what they have been told.  It then seeks to maximise this by adopting bite-sized units of information and the motivational effect of sticks and carrots.

In a word, students are being expected to swallow what they have been told.  Questions are treated as being in order if there have been distractions like aircraft noise, or classroom mischief, but otherwise the expectation is that students will swallow what the teacher has said. When children are very young and the content of the curriculum consists of basic truisms, something like this method will of course be used and is not likely to cause harm.

The approach only becomes toxic when the children have acquired sufficient mental energy consciously to think and inquire, i.e. the stage of secondary education.  

At this stage it is not education. It can be variously described as ‘brainwashing’, ‘blind instruction’, ‘indoctrination’ or ‘training’, but it is not education. In a social democracy it is obviously very bad for students to be encouraged to accept whatever they are told uncritically. Swallowing information uncritically is the chief syndrome used, promoted, and maximised, by tyrannical regimes.  It is also very unwise to lead students in today’s world —with its dangerously half-baked and confused social media— to suppose that whatever they read is correct.This is not a good habit in today’s informationsphere.

Here the word ‘uncritically’ does not imply that students should, conversely, “be critical” of what they have been told.  On the contrary, the insistence of cognitive science instructors on instant acceptance can only suggest subliminally to the average student that lingering on the item is not being encouraged because there is something shady to hide (?).  What has been presented to the student deserves better than this. It deserves to be looked-at from various different angles, in different lights —to be allowed to take on a three-dimensionality and a presence, to be mulled-over and valued. Traditional teachers used to work to the maxim <<Mark, learn and inwardly digest>> thus saying in a different way that slick, superficial learning of bite-sized information is not good enough.  Bitesizing consciously risks courting the pitfall that <<a little knowledge is a dangerous thing>>.

Items are normally chosen to be incorporated into a curriculum by a committee of learned experts. They are chosen because they are particularly worthwhile. This means that they are widely agreed to beimportant, interesting, and sources of much further fascination.  But to present them superficially (to be rote-learnt with the sole aim of triggering marks in a subsequent exam) betrays the very concept of education. It misses the point of education. They were put into the curriculum to create a picture in the students’ minds which is particularly worthwhile.  But children are only going to acquire a shared valid picture of parts of today’s (and past) worlds if they are presented with the kind of teaching which trades in pictures. The bite-sizing (atomising) of information for classroom instruction is a ploy which may make instruction easier for the teacher —and less demanding, though tedious,for the learner— but it is directly sabotaging the sharingofpicture with students.

If a malicious agent from Mars had tried to sabotage Earthly Education he/she couldn’t have done better than sell us this deceptive approach, which looks at first like “education” but is actually anti-education.

Neil Postman said all this a quarter of a century ago in his book The End of Education (1995).  He explained painfully that American society had no established narrative about the enduring, classless essence of United States society: so it was hardly surprising that schools were not able to transmit the core elements of this unformulated,unarticulated culture to their students.  His book was praised at the time as being <<appealingly fresh>> (New York Times) and <<insightful, even important>> (Washington Times).  The Christian Science Monitor even went as far as to speculate that his proposals <<would bring an exciting, unifying focus to a school’s curriculum>>. Yes, but this hypothetical ‘would’ says it all.  It was only faint praise, soon forgotten… and it did not do Postman the justice he deserved either.  If he had been takenmore seriously in 1995 we might not have seen millions of dozy Americans accepting Donald Trump’s obvious fantasy assertions after his 2020 election defeat.

These dozy citizens should have been taught at school to <<read the press (and Twitter feeds) between the lines>>… in other words to subject them to searching examination looking hard for coherence with lots of commonsense and known facts. A massive electoral conspiracy of the kind Trump clearly wanted desperately to believe would have involved hundreds of people, and the likelihood that it could be kept secret was zero.  They should have looked at Trump’s past behaviour, and realised at once that what he was notoriously prone to fantasy: that things he desperately wanted to believe he often subsequently started to believe … like the largest ever attendance at a Presidential Inauguration which his spokeslady announced in 2016 the day after as analternative fact.

Incidentally it was the gurus of higher mathematics which made this syndrome of believing what you want to believe respectable in 1900.  (It has slowly diffused through society over the 120 years since then and has now become a common trait.)  David Hilbert, the most brilliant mathematician of the day, was their hero, and he pronounced that nothing would induce him to give up the paradise which Cantor has opened for us!. He was saying quite explicitly that henceforth in higher maths emotion could trump reason. He was accepting the principle that if someone found a glitch in the reasoning, he would ignore it, because the exotic idea of higher infinity was much too wonderful to lose. He seemed to have forgotten that the word ‘infinite’ means <<not finite>> and that it is a logical howler to think you can have degrees of notness.

In most sciences there are checks and balances, and logical howlers don’t get the chance to graduate to being treated as Received Wisdom. Unfortunately in higher maths the gurus act as both judge and jury on their most difficult issues, and there is no mechanism to set the record straight if they make a mistake.