Project LinX: Notes On Political Polarization And Knowitallism

Newsweek’s Frank McAndrew discusses the connection between political polarization and “the deterioration of civic discourse,” and wonders “what happens when everyone thinks they’re smarter than everyone else?”

“Intellectual humility reflects the extent to which someone is willing to at least entertain the possibility that he or she might be wrong about something. People who score high in intellectual humility tend to be more open to experience and more agreeable …”


“Duke University psychologist Mark Leary quickly recognized the potential relevance of this trait to a wide range of political and social issues and ended up conducting a series of influential studies to explore how the trait predicts our reactions to people and ideas that we disagree with.

Leary found that individuals who score on the high end of intellectual humility process information differently from those who score on the low end. For example, they’re more tolerant of ambiguity and they realize that not every problem has a single, definitive answer or outcome. When they hear a claim, they are more likely to seek out evidence and prefer two-sided, balanced arguments.

Unfortunately, most people do not score high on intellectual humility.

Leary discovered that when he asked the following question—“Think about all of the disagreements you have had in the last six months. What percentage of the time do you think that you were right?”—the average response was about 66 percent. It was rare for someone to report being correct less than 50 percent of the time.”

“America is facing an intellectual humility crisis” | Frank McAndrew | Newsweek | 5/24/2019

1) There are multiple explanations for the American tendency towards low intellectual humility, or Knowitallism, both of which bear resemblances to the Dunning–Kruger effect, “a cognitive bias in which people mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is.” As I’ve learned from experience, stupid people tend to not know just how stupid they are. McAndrew notes that “suspicion of so-called ‘experts’ and contempt for science and rationality is a long-standing American tradition.” On both points (particularly science and rationality) he’s dead-on in ways that extend to how easily we embrace junk science, science denial, and thoroughly irrational conspiracy theories. I suspect things are actually worse today than they were before the ubiquity of digital technologies that obscure culture and control as 1’s and 0’s.

2) How we think about “knowledge” is in flux. The convergence of polarized culture and fractured media remakes political discourse on an industrial scale. An internet connection provides access to staggering amounts of information, but not nearly as many tools and strategies for transforming information into knowledge. But it’s also true that mastery of a given body of knowledge now is further beyond what the average person knows about that subject than ever before. Thus, expertise may not have the same social value for the average citizen it once enjoyed. Because we’re encouraged to cling to the belief that it does, we now worship a handful of internet barons, political technocrats, financial moguls, and spiritual gurus, all of them peddling easy paths to enlightenment through virtues manufactured to serve their agendas.

3) Here’s an example of just what kind of predicament we’re in: Once upon a time a physicist could explain the theory of relativity in ways that gave the average citizen a deeper sense of how the universe works, as well as her place in it. Now, physicists know that sub-atomic levels of reality are more strange than just about anything we can understand. But because there are few minds of true depth and not enough explainers who’ve mastered the breath of multiple disciplines, weird physics is incomprehensible to the average man on the street, while for weirdos it inspires a metaphysics of idiocy in the form of conspiracy theories about the nature of reality itself.

4) It’s tempting to think of intellectual humility as a passive trait totally useless now as barbarians storm cultural gates. Indeed, there may be reasons to think so. In the 21st century, there’s no Bertrand Russell to guide us. No Friedrich Nietzsche for sure. No Susan Sontag. No Stanley Cavell. No Albert Murray. And no Richard Rorty. Minds of such scale and breadth may seem irrelevant or impossible now, but we desperately need them. Knowledge of what we don’t know and constantly questioning our beliefs as well as the assumptions that animate them is the long game that will win the culture war as well as the war against culture itself. The victory will not be for the right or the left, but for universal values such as curiosity, deliberation, tolerance, evidence-based truth, reflection, analysis, and a willingness to entertain opposing views and values.  


Where are your hammers for these nails?

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Image Source: Pixabay

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