Learned without Opinion…

Sometimes we are almost too confident, aren’t we? Encouraged by something we’ve just read, and recognizing it as being already on file in our internal library, we congratulate ourselves on the depth and breadth of our scope. Perhaps it’s the title of an abstruse article, and even the picture at the top of the page that helped identify it. Or… was it something online, whose excellent graphics made it memorable? And, of course, what does it matter where you saw it? You’ve remembered it; it’s yours. Anyway, you know where to find it if the details are a bit fuzzy.

So, does that mean you know it -have thought it through? Analyzed it? Understood it…? Unfortunately, the answer is too often no. It’s merely filed somewhere, should the need arise. But knowledge, and especially the wisdom that might be expected to accompany it, is often lacking.

This was brought -worrisomely- to my attention in an article in Aeon. https://aeon.co/ideas/overvaluing-confidence-we-ve-forgotten-the-power-of-humility

Drawing, in part, on an essay by the psychologist Tania Lombrozo of the University of California –https://www.edge.org/response-detail/23731– Jacob Burak, the founder of Alaxon, a digital magazine about culture, art and popular science, writes ‘The internet and digital media have created the impression of limitless knowledge at our fingertips. But, by making us lazy, they have opened up a space that ignorance can fill.’ They both argue that ‘technology enhances our illusions of wisdom. She [Lombrozo] argues that the way we access information about an issue is critical to our understanding – and the more easily we can recall an image, word or statement, the more likely we’ll think we’ve successfully learned it, and so refrain from effortful cognitive processing.’

As Lombrozo writes, ‘people rely on a variety of cues in assessing their own understanding. Many of these cues involve the way in which information is accessed. For example, if you can easily (“fluently”) call an image, word, or statement to mind, you’re more likely to think that you’ve successfully learned it and to refrain from effortful cognitive processing. Fluency is sometimes a reliable guide to understanding, but it’s also easy to fool. Just presenting a problem in a font that’s harder to read can decrease fluency and trigger more effortful processing… It seems to follow that smarter and more efficient information retrieval on the part of machines could foster dumber and less effective information processing on the part of human minds.’ And furthermore, ‘educational psychologist Marcia Linn and her collaborators have studied the “deceptive clarity” that can result from complex scientific visualizations of the kind that technology in the classroom and on-line education are making ever more readily available. Such clarity can be deceptive because the transparency and memorability of the visualization is mistaken for genuine understanding.’

I don’t know about you, but I find all of this disturbing. Humbling, even. Not that I have ever been intellectually arrogant -that requires far more than I have ever had to offer- but it does make me pause to reflect on my own knowledge base, and the reliability of the conclusions derived from it.

So, ‘Are technological advances and illusions of understanding inevitably intertwined? Fortunately not. If a change in font or a delay in access can attenuate fluency, then a host of other minor tweaks to the way information is accessed and presented can surely do the same. In educational contexts, deceptive clarity can partially be overcome by introducing what psychologist Robert Bjork calls “desirable difficulties,” such as varying the conditions under which information is presented, delaying feedback, or engaging learners in generation and critique, which help disrupt a false sense of comprehension.’

To be honest, I’m not sure I know what to think of this. Presentation seems a key factor in memory for me -I remember books by the colours or patterns of their covers, for example. Seeing a book on a shelf often helps me remember, if not its exact contents, then at least how I felt about reading it. But I suppose the point of the article is that remembering is not necessarily understanding.

And yet, the book I see on the shelf may, in some fashion, have been incorporated into my thinking -changed something inside me. I’ve read quite a few books over the years, and been surprised, on re-reading them -or later, reading about them- that what I had learned from them was something totally different from what I suppose the author had likely intended.

A good example is Nobel Prize laureate Hermann Hesse’s Magister Ludi (the Glass Bead Game), which I read in the early 1960ies. I completely misremembered the plot (and no doubt the intention of the narrative) and for some reason was convinced that the whole purpose of this story was to suggest that a young student, Knecht, who had devoted his entire life to mastering the Game, comes to realize that his ambition was meaningless in the grand scheme of things -and near the end of the rather long novel, drowns himself as a result. Anybody who has actually read Magister Ludi, blinks in disbelief if I tell them what I remember of the story: I hadn’t really understood what Hesse had been trying to say, they tell me…

But, nonetheless, the novel had quite an effect on me. Because I remembered it the way I did, I began to realize how we come to rank our beliefs -prioritize our choices compared to those around us. So, was it worthwhile to train for years, dedicate his life, and eventually succeed in becoming the Master of a Glass Bead Game, for goodness sakes? And if he did, so what? Would that really make a difference anywhere, and to anybody?

For that matter, are there other choices that might have mattered more? How would you know? Maybe any choice is essentially the same: of equal value. I thought Hesse’s point terribly profound at the time -and still do, for that matter, despite the fact he probably didn’t intend my interpretation…

Perhaps you see what I am getting at: ‘understanding’ is multifaceted. I learned something important, despite my memory distorting the actual contents of what I read. I incorporated what I remembered as deeply meaningful, somehow. Was what I learned, however unintended, useful? Was it not a type of understanding of what might have been written between the lines? And even if not, the message I obtained was an epiphany. Can that be bad?

I’m certainly not arguing with Lombrozo, or Burak -their points are definitely intriguing and thought-provoking; I just worry that they are not all-encompassing -perhaps they overlook the side-effects. The unintended consequences. Maybe knowledge -and understanding- is less about what facts we retain, and more about what we glean from the exposure.

So, did I understand the novel? Perhaps not, but what I learned from it is now a part of me -and that’s just as valuable… What author, what teacher, could hope for more?

The Feast of Difference

I don’t read many children’s books anymore -my own children have long since had children of their own- but every so often I am reminded of how important books can be for them.

Whatever you may think of political correctness and its enthusiastic exhortations for sensitivity, or its celebration of differences, there are times when it can have demonstrably beneficial consequences. Sometimes it is helpful to advertise a spade as a spade -helpful to celebrate disparity and variation. Children’s literature is one example. https://theconversation.com/why-there-need-to-be-more-autistic-characters-in-childrens-books-90054?

The article discusses the importance of the depiction of children with differences so they can see and recognize themselves in familiar situations -in this case, autism and autism spectrum disorder. ‘Fiction plays a significant role in shaping how people understand and respond to autism. And in this way, books are often used by both schools and parents to help children and young people understand more about autism.

‘But the limited and skewed portrayal of autism means it is often misrepresented rather than represented in fiction. For an autistic child or young person this can be extremely isolating and they are often unable to find a version of “themselves” in a book.’

‘Ultimately, every story – whether in life or fiction – has characters, and all characters are different. So given that autism affects more than one in 100 people, there needs to be more done to represent the outside world inside story books.’

The more I thought about autistic children seeing themselves as valid characters in books, the more I realized that the same applies to all children of difference -autistic, or with other challenges. We’re beginning to see more of this on TV and in movies now; books are merely an additional venue, a more portable and perhaps more easily referable source for a child to self-identify.

*

I had some time to kill between flights in the Sydney airport a while back. There never seem to be any seats where you can find solitude in an airport -no seats where you can simply sit and process your journey so far. Of course, an airport is not made for thinking -it is a temporary storage facility, a slowly moving conveyor belt that discourages sequestration whenever possible. Like a drain, it is designed to empty its contents.

But even in a warehouse, there are token concessions to personhood, albethey profit driven, and after what seemed an eternity of peregrination, I found myself in one of those ersatz stores that sell candies and bottled water next to the pop magazines and a derisory collection of books. It was relatively quiet in there, though, and I amused myself by thumbing through a few of the more promising titles. In this particular outlet, there seemed to be no particular order in their placement, however -although I suppose the alphabetic one by author that they chose made as much sense as anything else to the owners. But a Fiction was as likely to be shoulder to shoulder with a Biography or a History, as long as the author names were similar enough. It was quite an adventure, really -I could never figure out what to expect as I moved along the shelf, quietly mouthing my ABC’s.

Only Children’s books had their own section, and it was along the bottom row -no doubt a pragmatically commercial decision. I probably wouldn’t even have noticed, had it not been for bumping into an excited little boy with a book in his arms and a kneeling mother with a backpack.

I bent over and apologized to the child and smiled at the mother. But I don’t think the boy even noticed -he was so excited about the book.

“I’m in this book, mister,” he said to me with an enchanting Australian flavour to his voice.

“Are you?” I said, delighted both with his accent and the sparkle in his eyes.

I’ve never been very good at guessing ages, but he was very young -maybe three or four- and wearing his own version of his mother’s backpack.

She looked up at me but returned an embarrassed smile. I could see the obvious resemblance between the two of them, and yet her skin was a few shades lighter.

“Want to see…?” He said, still holding me in his gaze.

“Of course I do,” I said, and knelt down beside him so he could show me.

The book was one of those large, hard-covered children’s books that is made to be indestructible, but he had no difficulty manipulating the big, thick pages and opened it to one with a drawing of a little dark-skinned boy smiling as if somebody was tickling him. The resemblance to the little boy beside me was quite remarkable.

I turned to his mother. “Did you…?”

Her smile grew and her expression immediately warmed. “No… His aunt -my sister-in-law- is an illustrator for children’s books. We have this one at home, and Jorry saw it on the shelf here…”

We both stood up while little Jorry held the book proudly against his chest.

“He just loves the picture,” she explained. “We’re a mixed family in a white neighbourhood, and he doesn’t see drawings of aboriginal kids in books very often. But he feels special now and shows it to all his friends when they come over to visit.” She rested her eyes on my face for a moment. “It’s amazing what that picture does for him, you know…”

She immediately blushed, as if she’d said too much -disclosed too much- and then glanced at her watch. “We’ll be boarding soon, so we’d better go,” she said and touched my sleeve gently.

Jorry carefully replaced the book on the shelf and looked up at me. “It’s a good drawing of me, isn’t it?” he said in a very adult voice and grasped his mother’s waiting hand. “We have to catch a plane,” he added, turning his head away like someone who needed to help his mother to the proper gate.

We are all stories, in the process of being told, aren’t we?

 

 

The Polarization Bias

Okay, I have to admit to living an unbeknownst lie –unbeknownst to me, at any rate. Sometimes it is easy to coast, to accept help where it is offered and feel almost foolishly grateful for suggestions that foster the dependence. Advice is seductive, guidance addictive. But more importantly, it is insidious. Critical thinking -critical analysis- suggests that we process whatever information we are offered by considering its validity when compared with other sources, other viewpoints, other contexts. It is what we should do; it is not what we usually do. Time constraints, biases, laziness –they all conspire to let us float on the tide. Drift.

I suppose my awareness of the current may have started when I was casting about for a book to read. Like many of us, I have a passion for reading that is naively open to recommendations. The online Amazon book store is an almost limitless cornucopia of books. And when you click on one, a section appears just beneath your choice that says: Customers who viewed this item also viewed… And a list of similar books on similar subjects is just a click away: a topic-specific, yet unrequested bounty spilling onto the screen. And all with seemingly different approaches but eerily similar viewpoints to the book you’ve chosen. A coincidence? Or a recognition that you have a particular worldview whose advocates you are more likely to read? And buy.

At first, I was both pleased and amazed that Amazon could find so many different authors and topics that I found compelling and place them before me like a waiter with a dessert tray. So easy to choose from only what is offered –too easy… What I initially thought of as a diverse array of well-considered opinions, I began to realize was an artfully arrayed selection that fostered my already-held biases. A compass that always pointed north, no matter the coordinates.

I suspect that most of us, even offered the choice, would find no compelling reasons to change allegiance, or flirt with opinions we have been taught to mistrust. We feel uncomfortable accepting that the opposition feels the way it does on grounds that are equally persuasive for it. Rather than being open even to thought-provoking alternative ideas, we rust into positions that further restrict our ability to move.

But what if the news we so avidly ingest nowadays could be similarly sorted to our tastes and presented to us as a fair representation of what is really happening? How would we know of the manipulation? How could we become aware of the slanted viewpoint when it so closely agrees with our own –when it is what we want to hear? Confirmation bias is difficult to resist even at the best of times.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/05/12/facebook-study-polarization_n_7245192.html?utm_hp_ref=world&ir=World

I hadn’t realized that many people actually read those snippets on Facebook that purport to inform. I had thought most of them were not terribly well disguised ‘infomercials’, but perhaps that is my bias -the boreal plain to which I am unwittingly confined. But that our serving of news should be chosen for us according to our likes and dislikes is anathema. And that our meal of information should be expurgated and mashed into a small, more easily digestible aliquot of words smacks of propaganda. Control. Handling… I would like to digest unchewed information in my own way, thank you. I can deal with heartburn; I’m not good with starvation.

http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-32707014

The dilution of mainstream media and its as-yet relatively unfettered ability to pretend to present both sides of an argument is worrisome. Similarly, the accretion of our sources of information into a few huge monolithic blocks with their own interests to serve is dangerous. Especially when they presume to know what opinions will keep us quiet.

“Let every eye negotiate for itself and trust no agent,” says Claudio, in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Bravo!