The Compelling Story of the Smart Idiot

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by Ben Steele edited by O Society Jan 25, 2020

A year after this very popular novel came out, I read an article summarizing a study about this novel conducted by scholars at a well-known university. The study documents how the vast majority of people who buy and read this popular book believe it is not a novel, but rather an absolutely true story.

Though the book is marketed as a work of fiction, and nowhere on or in the book does the publisher or author claim the story is true. The study further reports when people who love this book are informed the story is not true, they react with either tremendous anger or enormous disappointment, or both.”

^ This ^ is Todd Walton discussing an interesting phenomenon, from Know Your Audience. And it is something he personally experiences with his own fiction writing:

“I became aware of this phenomenon—people believing fiction is true—some years before this mass delusion about a popular novel swept the nation. In those long ago days, I frequently gave public readings of my fiction; and during the mid-1980s more and more people began to experience my stories as true rather than as fiction. In response to this phenomenon, I prefaced my reading of each story by declaring the tale is not autobiographical, not inspired by supposedly true events, and is most definitely a work of fiction.

Even with this disclaimer, many people in my audiences continued to assume my stories are recollections of things that really happened to me, regardless of how preposterous the possibility.”

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People are adamant about believing his fiction is real. People also get quite upset when he tells them once again it is fiction, even though he already explains this to them before the reading. Some of them accuse the author of lying to them. And a few even leave the room in protest.

From a slightly different perspective, here is an anecdote shared by Harlan Ellison:

He told me– and he said this happened all the time, not just in isolated cases– he was approached by a little old woman during one of his personal appearances at a rodeo, and the woman said to him, dead seriously,

“Now listen to me, Hoss: when you go home tonight, I want you to tell your daddy, Ben, to get rid of that Chinee fella who cooks for you all. What you need is to get yourself a good woman in there who can cook up some decent food for you and your family.”

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So Dan said to her, very politely (because he was one of the most courteous people I’ve ever met), “Excuse me, ma’am, but my name is Dan Blocker. Hoss is just the character I play on TV. When I go home I’ll be going to my house in Los Angeles, and my wife and children will be waiting.”

And she went right on, just a bit affronted because she knew all this, what was the matter with him, did he think she was simple or something, “Yes, I know… but when you go back to the Ponderosa, you just tell your daddy Ben I said…”

For her, fantasy and reality are one and the same.

Hoss-Cartwright-Bonanza

Here’s a similarly strange phenomenon. It explains how people are able to both know and not know something simultaneously (a sub-category of cognitive blindness; related to inattentional blindnesscontextual ignorancehypocognition, and conceptual blindness). With this in mind, maybe some of the people in Walton’s various audiences do know it is fiction, even while another part of them mistakes it as real.

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This kind of dissociation is probably more common than we first suspect. The sometimes antagonsitic responses he gets could be more than mere anger at having a perception denied. He goes beyond this in challenging their dissociation, which cuts even deeper into the human psyche. People hold onto their dissociations more powerfully than maybe anything else. Maybe…

There is another factor as well. We live in a literal-minded age. Truth becomes conflated with literalism. When something feels true, many people automatically take it as literal. This is the power of religion and its stories, along with politics and its rhetoric.

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Black or White thinking: Meadow Walker SPF 1000

Yet some argue literal-mindedness increased over time, starting with the Axial Age to become a real force to be reckoned with in our post-Enlightenment age of scientism and fundamentalism. Is this what leads to the black-and-white thinking of something either being literally true or absolutely false (a blatant lie, a frivolous fantasy, etc)?

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We Are All Confident Idiots

This mindset isn’t just a source of amusing anecdotes. It has real world consequences. The most powerful stories aren’t told by fiction writers or at least not by those openly identifying as such. Rather, the greatest compelling storytellers of our age work in news media and politics. The gatekeepers have immense influence to determine what is real or not real in the public mind. This is why there is a battle right now over fake news. It’s a battle among the gatekeepers.

The Intellectual Yet Idiot

This connects to the smart idiot effect, which requires one to be well-educated in order to fall into the trap of the smart idiot effect (hence, the name). This is the reason media personalities and politicians can be so dangerous, as they are people who talk a bit about everything, while often being an expert in nothing, or at best, their expertise is narrowly constrained to a specific topic. Such as acting.

Needless to say, this ground is fertile for storytelling…Reagan-Trump.pngAnd this is why attention-grabbing politicians like Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump first became famous as media personalities; they are experts only in entertainment and egotism. Those like Reagan and Trump are storytellers who embody the stories they tell. They pretend to be something they are not and their audience-supporters take the pretense for reality.

Woo-hoo!

FTW-panda

This is seen in many areas of society but particularly in right-wing media.

Interestingly, according to research, it is most clearly evidenced among the most well informed audience members of right-wing media who simultaneously are the most misinformed. The average Fox News viewer does know more factoids than the average American (maybe no great accomplishment), but they also know more falsehoods than the average American.

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What these Fox News viewers don’t know very well is how to differentiate between what is true and not true. To be able to make this differentiation would require they not only be able to memorize factoids but to understand the larger context of knowledge and the deeper understanding of truth — the subltety and nuance according to Iain McGilchrist.

Otherwise, factoids are simply fodder to be used as repetitive talking points. And it leads to much confusion, such as a surprising percentage of conservatives who take seriously Stephen Colbert’s caricature of conservatism. Isn’t it interesting, many conservatives can’t tell the difference between supposedly authentic conservatism and a caricature of it? The election of Donald Trump, an apolitical demagogue posing as a conservative, emphasizes this point dramatically.

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Are the Trumpets a Cult? There is No Gatekeeper

It may be no accident this phenomenon manifests the strongest on the political right, at least in the United States. It could be caused by how, in the US, authoritarianism is correlated to the political right — not so in former Soviet countries, though.

So the main causal factor is probably authoritarianism in general. Yes, authoritarianism does exist within the Democratic Party, if not to the same extreme seen within the Republican Party; note, even though Democratic leaders are to the left of the far right, their policies remain in most ways well to the right of the majority of Americans, as observed over decades of diverse public polling.

The Rise of American Authoritarianism: Conservative Moral Hierarchy

Research shows authoritarians don’t mind being hypocritical, assuming these folks even comprehend what hypocrisy means. Authoritarians are good at groupthink and believing what they are told. They are literal-minded. For them, the group’s ideology and the leader’s words are identical to reality itself. Literally. One could interpret authoritarianism as an extreme variety of dissociation.

It wouldn’t be surprising if Todd Walton’s most offended audience members test higher on the authoritarian scale. Such people have a strong desire to believe in something absolutely. Self-aware use of imagination and the imaginal is not an area of talent for such folks, nor is the trait of openness upon which it depends. This is because they lack the tolerance for cognitive dissonance, a necessary component of suspension of disbelief in the enjoyment of fiction. It makes no sense to them that a story could be subjectively true while being factually false (or factually partial).

Hence, the sense of being deceived and betrayed. The fiction writer is an unworthy authority figure to the authoritarian mind. A proper authoritarian demagogue would tell his followers what they wanted to hear and would never then tell them that it was just fiction. The point of storytelling, for the authoritarian, is that it is told with utter conviction — it being irrelevant whether or not the authoritarian leader himself believes what he says, just that he pretends to believe.

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TV Tropes: Willing Suspension of Disbelief

Authoritarians aside, it should be noted that most people appear to be able to distinguish between truth and falsehood, between non-fiction and fiction. People will say they believe all kinds of things to be true. But if you give them enough of an incentive, they will admit to what they actually believe is true (priming them for rational/analytical thought would probably also help, as various studies indicate). And it turns out most people agree about a lot of things, even in politics. Dissociation has its limits, when real costs and consequences are on the line. But most storytelling, whether fictional or political, won’t effect the concrete daily life of the average person.

People want to believe stories and so will take them literally, especially when a story has no real impact. For example, believing in the literal reality that bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Christ is an attractive story for it being largely irrelevant, just a pleasant fiction to create a social bonding experience through ritual (and evidence indicates that many ancient people perceived such things metaphorically or imaginally, instead of literally; the mythical being a far different experience from the literal). Literal-minded people forget that something can have truth value without being literally true. That is what stories are about.

So, it’s possible if there had been some concrete and personal incentive for self-aware honesty (at least some of) those seemingly naive audience members would have admitted that they really did know that Todd Walton’s readings were fictional. It’s just that, under the actual circumstances with little at stake, their only incentive was their own emotional commitment in being drawn into the story. To be told it is fiction is like being told their experience is false, which would be taken as a personal attack. What they are missing, in that situation, is the willingness to separate their experience of the story from the story itself. It feels so real that they it would ruin their experience of it to imagine it not being real. That is a successful story.

By the way, this helps explain why Plato so feared the poets, the storytellers of that era. See some context for this in an earlier post of mine, On Truth and Bullshit: “Frankfurt talks about the ‘bullshit artist’. Bullshitters are always artists. And maybe artists are always bullshitters. This is because the imagination, moral or otherwise, is the playground of the bullshitter. This is because the artist, the master of imagination, is different than a craftsmen. The artist always has a bit of the trickster about him, as he plays at the boundaries of the mind.”

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For some further thoughts from Iain McGilchrist:

The Master and His Emissary

“Anything that requires indirect interpretation, which is not explicit or literal, in other words requires contextual understanding, depends on the right frontal lobe for its meaning to be conveyed or received. The right hemisphere understands from indirect contextual clues, not only from explicit statement, whereas the left hemisphere will identify by labels rather than context (e.g. identifies it must be winter because it is ‘January,’, not by looking at the trees).

“Metaphor is the crucial aspect of language whereby it retains its connectedness to the world, and by which the ‘parts’ of the world which language appears to identify retain their connectedness one to another. Literal language, by contrast, is the means whereby the mind loosens its contact with reality and becomes a self-consistent system of tokens.”

“Metaphorical understanding has a close relationship with reason, which seems paradoxical only because we have inherited an Enlightenment view of metaphor: namely, that it is either indirectly literal, and can be reduced to ‘proper’ literal language, or a purely fanciful ornament, and therefore irrelevant to meaning and rational thought, which it indeed threatens to disrupt. It is seen as a linguistic device, not as a vehicle of thought.

What the literalist view and the anti-literalist view share is ultimately metaphor can have nothing directly to do with truth. Either it is simply another way of stating literal truth or else it undermines any claim to truth. But as Lakoff and Johnson show, ‘metaphor is centrally a matter of thought, not just words’.  The loss of metaphor is a loss of cognitive content.”

13 thoughts on “The Compelling Story of the Smart Idiot

    1. You probably noticed, I edited out some of the bit about right-left brains. While I agree there certainly are anatomical/functional differences in our two brain hemispheres, I’m not sold on the layman’s interpretation of artists being “right-brained” and scientists being “left brained” or whatever the layperson’s understanding of this is.

      In other words, this really is rocket surgery in a literal sense, and I think this sort of dichotomy causes more misunderstandings for the average person than it clarifies.

      No offense to Ian McGilchrist, who’s certainly done more work in this area than I have. So I don’t mean to dispute any of his specific assertions here, only to reiterate in order to keep this piece accessible to everyone, it’s better not to get into ongoing technical neuroanatomy debates here.

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      1. Sadly, you’re probably right that science education is so pathetically deficient in this country that discussion of even something so basic as the research on brain hemispheres likely “causes more misunderstandings for the average person than it clarifies.” I wish that weren’t true.

        Still, I’d encourage others to look into the science on brain hemispheres. I’d note that the views of McGilchrist (Jaynes, etc) have nothing to do with the layman’s interpretation. To be honest, there is no way to fully understand what’s going on here without some working knowledge in this area. But the basic idea comes across without any of the brain science. Maybe that is good enough for present purposes.

        I’m not entirely opposed to making material more accessible in meeting people where they are at. But hopefully, this kind of knowledge will become more common over time. It is so fundamental that it should be taught in high school science classes. My aspiration for my blog is to inspire people to stretch their minds and learn what might at first seem difficult or strange, not that I always accomplish that feat. Instead, I likely to talk over people’s heads or simply bore them.

        It can be hard to express to others why something seems so fascinating to me, why it’s important to go to the effort of making sense of it. I realize my mind doesn’t operate normally, to put it mildly. But even with my endless intellectual curiosity, I have to admit to struggling with the science at times. So, I sympathize with those who lose interest or get confused by all the differing and sometimes wrongheaded opinions about brain hemispheres or whatever.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Keep in mind, I’m not at all certain the average person can articulate the difference between right- and left- wing politics in a historically accurate or meaningful way.

        Applying right- and left- to brain anatomy and physiology in a political sense is a real thing, but confuses things even more as far as the assumptions people will make.

        Real life – be it neuroanatomy or poly sci – is*not* as simple as any R/L dichotomy is capable of “dumbing it down” for the masses. It is brain science and rocket surgery, after all – ha ha!

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Listen, the average person gets their information from TV, Hollywood, and these internet quizes on social media which tell us what we want to hear:

    https://www.buzzfeed.com/sarahaspler/triangle-test-left-brained-or-right-brained

    Many college students do not take any actual science classes in school. Yes, you can get a degree from a university we all know the name of and not take a single class labeled Physics, Chemistry, or Biology while you are there for four years.

    I know this because my wife got a bachelor’s degree in EDUCATION without taking a single science class at Penn St University.

    ^ This ^ is a real fucking problem.

    Your average economics/ political science/ law school/ MBA graduate politician may not have had a *single* real deal science class except for while in high school. So yes, your state’s senators might believe the bullshit he/she sees on Fox News is real and not have been taught to distinguish between science and the lint in his own navel, ok?

    It is a huge problem in America and it’s exactly why your local incompetent gibbering baboon troop can convene a Congress and pretend to hold an impeachment trial for the president of the US on TV and get away with it.

    Wake up – most of us are really this uneducated and it isn’t a mistake. It’s done to us on purpose because stupid emotional uninformed citizens are easy peasy to control.

    Yes. It is too this goddamn bad and no, it isn’t new, and no, Donald Trump isn’t the first or the worst of it.

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    1. Well, scientific illiteracy is a problem in the US. And it’s an open secret. I’ve seen plenty of discussion of it over the years. It would help if there was a better education system and not limited to college. Remember that three quarter of Americans don’t have any college education at all. That is why educational reform would need to start with grade school.

      Still, I don’t know what is the main problem. I doubt the average American is quite as ignorant as they get treated, even if they aren’t well educated. For example, most Americans seem to have a basic grasp of the climate crisis and support a stronger government response. It’s not as if we had more science classes that we’d finally get politicians on board. The basic science is already understood, even by those politicians who deny it.

      Saying the public is scientifically illiterate doesn’t necessarily tell us much about the problem. I was reading a book about the issue of climate change in one of the Scandinavian countries. They have a much better education system and more scientific literacy. But even there, it supposedly is hard to have an honest public debate about it because thinking about it makes most people feel uncomfortable, depressed, and hopeless. So people mostly just don’t talk about it.

      Part of it goes back to cognitive dissonance. Even when people have immense knowledge on a topic, there remains the dissociation and splintering. People can know all kinds of things and yet not know. The collective and often self-enforced silencing is powerful, as Derrick Jensen shows. The human mind operates largely on automatic. By the way, the science of brain hemispheres can explain some of why that is the case, a major focus of Jaynes’ work.

      What we lack is not so much knowledge about the world as insight and understanding about our own nature. We have enough basic working knowledge already to solve or lessen all of the major problems, if we could only get out of our own way. That said, we can never have too much knowledge and improving education certainly couldn’t hurt. We’re going to need the full human potential of humanity to meet these challenges.

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    2. Here is a thought. What if underestimating the public is a self-fulfilling prophecy? Paralyzing cynicism can come in many forms. And I’m sure I’m often guilty of this. It’s hard to feel hopeful. If anything, hope can even seem naive and wrongheaded. Some argue that we’re long past that point and now it’s time for grieving lost opportunities that are forever gone. But even if we resign ourselves to mere triage, that still requires some basic sense of faith in the future.

      I’m not sure what I think or feel about all of this. But what does seem clear to me is that we Americans have never fallen into the problem of overestimating the public. Instead, we have a disempowered and disenfranchised population. What motivation is there for the public to seek further knowledge when the entire system powerfully fucks them and their loved ones over and over again? What would inspire people to seek out becoming better informed through formal education or otherwise?

      Knowledge matters. But the larger context to that knowledge matters even more. I don’t know what that means in practical terms. I’m just thinking the public should be given more credit, not so easily let off the hook. Even when public ignorance appears justified based on a failed education system or a successful non-education system, maybe that is all the more reason to hold up a high standard of knowledge, a high ideal of intellectual curiosity, rather than talking down to people and dumbing down discussion.

      That isn’t to say we shouldn’t try to communicate well in knowing our audience. On many topics, it’s true that general knowledge, even among the elite, is limited at best and misinformed at worst. But the worst part is how ignorance has been embraced in so many ways, as if one’s truth is simply a matter of belief. What if we stopped tolerating this willful ignorance and all the rationalizations that accompany it. We should look to the potential in people that remains there no matter how little has been expected of them. We should treat people as intellectually capable.

      Education is always a work in progress. Still, the American public is more educated today than a century ago. The average IQ measured in the early 1900s would be, by today’s standards of IQ testing, functionally retarded and I mean that literally (increases in IQ largely measure abstract and critical thinking skills). Few Americans even had high school degrees until the Silent Generation. Society has advanced to a great degree in this area, if not as much as it should. I worry that we’ve become so jaded that we see failure as inevitable and so we keep lowering our standards, instead of raising them higher as something to aspire toward.

      My grandfather dropped out of high school. You know what was one of his proudest accomplishments? Sending two of his kids to college. Now kids are being told that education doesn’t matter, that college is a waste of money. We stopped valuing education and that symbolizes a dark change to the public mood. To not value education is to denigrate knowledge itself. This isn’t limited to formal education, scientific literacy and otherwise. I failed to get much scientific knowledge in high school and I didn’t get a college degree. Even so, I was taught by my parents to value learning, especially self-learning, and to value curiosity. I’ve struggled to educate myself, but I was inspired to do so because the value of it had been internalized.

      The deficiency in education doesn’t by itself explain the cause. It doesn’t explain why we accept it, why we treat mass ignorance as if it were an inevitability. Instead of seeing ignorance as a challenge, as a motivation toward seeking greater knowledge, American society has treated ignorance as the natural state of humanity or at least the natural state of the dirty masses, the permanent underclass within the Social Darwinian meritocracy. In this worldview, most people don’t merely lack knowledge but lack any potential or worth, some combination of grunt workers and useless eaters.

      What could shift this toward another way of seeing humanity?

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    3. I was wondering where knowledge is truly lacking, where curiosity about a topic is lacking and where it matters. Climate change is one where I do think there is basic necessary level of knowledge, most people have some basic interest about it, and it obviously is important. What’s going on there has to do with powerful interests controlling the reigns of power. If politicians did what most Americans want, we’d already be investing money and doing research to a far greater degree.

      Ignorance is not the problem in that case. But it’s different with other topics. I’ve noticed how lead toxicity and high inequality maybe do more fall victim to ignorance, in that for some reason they don’t get the same kind of attention, as they aren’t looming threats in the way is climate change. In one post, I called lead toxicity a hyperobject to describe its pervasive invisibility. Temperature can be felt and a storm can be watched, but lead in your air, water, and soil comes across as an abstraction since we have no way to concretely perceive it. Even the concrete in your child’s brain shows no outward signs, other than the kid being slightly lower IQ and having some behavioral issues.

      Nonetheless, I’m not sure that is a problem of knowledge. Would teaching about lead toxicity actually make it more viscerally real? Maybe not. That’s a tough one. If you asked most people, they probably already know about the dangers of lead toxicity in a general sense and they already know about specific places where there are high rates, but they probably don’t grasp how widespread this is in so many communities, especially toxicity in general such as with toxic dumps. I don’t know what would make it seem more real.

      And what about high inequality? In a way, it’s a hot topic and has grabbed public attention with Thomas Picketty, Kate Pickett, and Richard Wilkinson. Everyone knows it’s a problem. Even those on the political right are increasingly acknowledging it, such as the recent book Alienated America by the conservative Timothy Carney who works for a right-wing think tank. The knowledge is sort of there and yet not really. Americans, in theory, have little tolerance for high inequality. The problem is that, as the data shows, most Americans simply don’t realize how bad it’s gotten. Our present inequality is magnitudes beyond what the majority thinks should be allowable. Yet we go on allowing it. More knowledge, in that case, definitely would matter.

      As for brain hemispheres, I suppose that seems esoteric to the average person. Even most well-educated people don’t likely take it seriously. Should they? I don’t know. It seems important to me, but I’m biased as this is an area of personal interest. I can make an argument that this kind of thing might be among the most important knowledge, since it cuts to the core of every other problem. Understanding how our brain-mind works underlies understanding anything and everything else, and it would help to explain what is going so wrong with the world in general. Knowledge of the brain-mind is knowledge about what makes knowledge possible at all, in any area. I suspect that, as long as our self-knowledge is lacking, to that degree any attempt at solving problems will be impotent or at least severely crippled.

      Would discussing more about brain hemispheres and related info in the public sphere help with the situation? Maybe or maybe not. But it seems like the type of thing we should be doing, in raising the level of discussion in general. Brain hemisphere research might not be a good place to start with our priorities. If so, then we need to find how to promote greater psychological and neurocognitive understanding in some other way. This is why I’m always going on about Jaynes, even though he seems like an obscure thinker. In my opinion, he may be one of the most important thinkers in the 20th century and his theories might hold the key to the revolution of the mind that we so sorely need. Then again, I could be giving him too much praise. It’s just that I doubt the world would be worse off for having more knowledge of this variety, not just knowledge but profound insight.

      All in all, it’s a tough situation. Even if Jaynes’ book was made required reading in every school, I don’t know that would translate to anything beneficial. It would have to be part of a larger public debate going on in society. Before that can happen, we will probably need to hit a crisis that reaches the level of catastrophe. Then moral panic will follow and, assuming we avoid the disaster of authoritarianism, we might finally be able to have some serious discussion across society about what matters most. I guess that goes back to the context of knowledge, that which transmutes mere info into meaning.

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      1. I incorrectly wrote that, “Even the concrete in your child’s brain shows no outward signs..” Instead of ‘concrete’, that should read ‘lead’. Lead, as tiny particles, doesn’t only hide in the environment but hides in the body where it wreaks havoc but slowly and in many small ways.

        Your kid gets into a fight and has trouble at school. The first thought most parents have is simple concern for treating the behavior and the hurt the child is expressing. It doesn’t usually occur that there might be something damaging their child’s brain, nervous system, etc. All the parent sees is the result of changes in their child’s behavior.

        Knowledge, on the personal level, may or may not help that parent. Lead toxicity is often a larger environmental problem. What is really needed is a change of public policy. That would require not only knowledge, as politicians probably already know of this problem, but some other force of political will in the larger society. But since it’s mostly poor people harmed, nothing is done.

        It’s hard to know how knowledge by itself makes a difference. It’s not as if there haven’t been major pieces on lead toxicity published in the mainstream media, some of them quite in depth. But the reporting on this comes and goes. It’s quickly forgotten again, as if it were just some minor, isolated problem of no greater concern. There definitely is no moral panic about it. Other than a few parents in poor communities that live with most severe consequences, it isn’t even seen as a moral issue at all.

        That is what seems lacking, a sense of moral outrage and moral responsibility. I guess that is where, in my own thinking, self-understanding comes in. Morality is a deeper issue. Some of these thinkers on the mind and brain (McGilchrist, Jaynes, etc) are directly touching upon what makes the heart of morality beat.

        It’s not about something like brain hemispheres understood in isolation but how that relates to consciousness and identity, relates to the voices we listen to and the authority they hold. And, yes, this requires understanding a bit of science. So, how do we make this knowledge accessible and compelling, how do we translate it into common experience?

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    4. Here is an interesting question. How does knowledge become common knowledge? That relates to what I mentioned in another comment. How does knowledge become meaning? Or to put it another way: How does the abstract become concretely, viscerally, and personally real? A lot of knowledge has made this shift. So much of the kind of elite education that once would have been limited to aristocracy and monks has now become increasingly common. Not that long ago, most Americans were illiterate and had next to no education. Or consider, as I pointed out, how the skills of abstract and critical thinking (fluid intelligence) has increased drastically.

      We can see this in practical ways. People in general have more basic knowledge about the world around them. When Japan attacked, most Americans had little concept of where Japan was. We like to think American’s grasp of geography is bad and it may be, but it used to be far worse. Now most people have enough knowledge to, with some comprehension, follow a talk or read an article on genetics, solar flares, ocean currents, etc. We’ve become a scientific-minded society where there is a basic familiarity. It comes naturally to think about the world in scientific terms, to such extent that we now worry about scientific reductionism. No one worried about society being overtaken by scientific reductionism centuries ago.

      Along with this, modern people have become more psychologically-minded. We think in terms of consciousness and unconsciousness, motives and behavior, cognitive biases and mental illnesses, personality traits and functions, and on and on. We have so internalized psychological knowledge that we simply take it for reality now. It’s similar with sociology. The idea of race as a social construction was limited to the rarified work of a few anthropologists, but now this is a common understanding that is publicly debated. Even something as simple as socioeconomic classes was largely unknown in the past, as it wasn’t how most people thought. My mother didn’t realize she was part of a socioeconomic class until she went to college and was taught about it in a sociology class.

      That is what I’m hoping for, in terms of brain research and consciousness studies. This kind of knowledge needs to get over the hurdle of academia and spread out into the public mind. This is already happening. Jaynes’ ideas influenced Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials which has been made into an HBO show. HIs ideas were directly discussed in another HBO show, Westworld, and caused a flurry of articles in the popular media. He also influenced Neal Stephenson in writing Snow Crash, also being made into a show, originally planned by Netflix but now picked up by HBO. I might take the superficial view of brain hemispheres as a positive sign. It means the knowledge is slowly spreading out into the general public. It’s an imperfect process and initially involves some misinformation, but that is how all knowledge spreads. It’s nothing new. For all the misinformation, the general public is far less ignorant about brain hemispheres than they were 50 years ago or a hundred years ago.

      Along with the misinformation, genuine information is also becoming more common. This will eventually contribute to changing understandings and attitudes. Give it a generation or two and I’m willing to bet much of what McGilchrist is talking about will have made that transition into common knowledge in being incorporated into the average person’s general worldview. But it’s a process. And we can only promote that process by talking about it. That means confronting misinformation as it shows up, not avoiding the topic for fear of misinformation. Does that make sense?

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