February 15, 2008

American crisis of memory and knowledge

Bill Moyers posted video of his talk with Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason, who offers an fairly accurate description of what she calls "an overarching crisis of memory and knowledge."

People are often guilty of errors in judgment when they confuse opinion and fact.

But facts are facts -- like the fact that we as a country exist because of mass genocide of Native Americans or that we attacked Iraq although 'we' knew the official reasons were false. The 'we' here are the vast majority of people who could actually find Iraq on a map. Of course this vast majority of knowers is quite small since in one poll, only 23 percent of the college-educated and only six percent of high school graduates could find Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Iran, and Israel on a labelled map. Then again you don't have know the difference between Sunnis and Shia to make a killing in war profits and real estate speculation, or to get a big tax cut defended by people who don't know that Genesis is the first book of the Bible.

The problem of knowledge that the masses do sense is that in spite of advanced technology, or more likely because of it, the world seems to be going to hell in a bucket. Mad scientists seem to be creating a terminal mess as well as the matrix of illusion that controls technical development of the beast. The mass of people do sense that there's little chance that evolutionary theory is literally true.

The funny thing is that modern people seem to be revisiting historical cycles of debate over faith and the limits of human reason. Accepting human limits is charity in the wider sense, and is needed to avoid hubris or overweening pride, which expulsion from the Garden of felicity.

Moyers and Susan Jacoby might do well to consider currents in the sociology and philosophy of science and knowledge (for example Langdon Winner and Michel Foucault) as well as historical debates involving Ghazali and Averroes who were copied verbatim by Europeans like Thomas Aquinas.

Update: Susan Susan Jacoby and others joined KQED Radio's Forum to discuss the topic from other angles in Anti-Intellectualism in the U.S.

Update 2: In a more modern scientific vein, Kahneman and Tversky and others demonstrated some of the limits of human reason by showing how the framing of decisions expose human heuristics and resulting biases.

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