What Did We Hear? What is the Reality?
In spite of an aversion to doing political analysis, or seeming to, I've started using the State of the Union Address to remark on the incredible disconnect between the political milieu in the US (and by extension most of the rest of the world) and biophysical reality. Last year I offered my suggestions for what the SOTU should contain if Obama were smart, wise, and knowledgeable as well as honest with the citizenry. In a post-address follow-up I noted that, of course, he didn't mention any of the items I had suggested.
This year I've decided to wait and see what he has to say first and then do a comparison between the promises he makes and the biophysical reality that has so far been pretty much on track from my prior assertions. My real topic is not the SOTU and how far off track the president and congress are from really addressing the real problems facing us. But my topic now is a follow-on to my last blog on the effects of commodification of higher education — the dumbing down of higher education to accommodate the larger masses of people entering colleges with lesser intelligences. The same basic phenomenon is taking place in our polity. One name provides a poster child for the effect — Sarah Palin. But there are many from both the right and left.
When You Wish Upon A Star
When I was a kid I loved Walt Disney and a visit to DisneyLand was a dream. When I was a youngster I thrived on Pinocchio, Peter Pan, and Cinderella; wishing for what you wanted made it come true if only you believed and were a good person. When I finally did get to DisneyLand I was in my early thirties. I enjoyed the ‘E’ rides and the nostalgia. But I had long since learned that wishing didn't make things so. And it was plain for all to see that the ‘magic kingdom’ was really a lot of glitz and technology that made it seem as if wishes could come true. If you were still a child, the place might actually have seemed real.
I don't know if Mr. Obama ever made it to DisneyLand, to see that all that fantasy was truly make believe. I imagine he and his family have been to one of the Disney theme parks. But apparently he still believes in wishing upon a star.
Obama has convinced me, with this speech, that he has no real grasp of physical or even political reality. And I can't say I'm surprised. When Obama got elected I started writing a series of blogs on the theme that Obama's presidency presented the acid test of whether a nominally smart person could really make the kinds of changes not that we could just believe in, but changes that answered the necessities of biophysical reality, e.g. post-peak oil. Everything he has done since then has simply provided evidence that he couldn't do the right things. Either he just doesn't understand the problems, or he is just another political animal that has rationalized his avoiding the truth by a ‘need’ to get reelected.
Obama told the world the kinds of things people wanted to hear. He told both ideologies things that he supposed represents his political practicality. He got applause from either group at certain points where he appealed to their beliefs. Talking tough about government spending got positive responses from the right while talking about investments in education got positive responses from the left. Was he triangulating? If he thought that is what he was doing he is still wishing. The political reality of the US today is that there really is no middle ground. There is no territory where compromise will work. The next two years with Republican control of the House will tell the story. It will provide the evidence, but I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that even so, Obama will not learn from his mistakes. [I base this on his recent appointments to fill Chief of Staff and various economic adviser positions.]
Telling the world that we can solve energy problems with clean technology continues to be patently untrue, and as time goes by more and more energy experts are coming to this conclusion. But everybody, right and left, want desperately to belive that ‘clean coal’ is a feasible future. Many on the right, while denying the reality of human-caused climate change, nevertheless see coal as a way to reduce our dependence on foreign oil (same thing about natural gas). The left see it as the climate savior and also subscribe to the energy independence meme. There would appear to be a political middle ground that Obama believes he can work toward. The tragedy is that there is no such thing as clean energy sources that are truly renewable and fossil fuel-based approaches are doomed to depletion. There is no middle ground because biophysical reality preclude it as a viable political space.
I am tempted to go on in this vein, but frankly I grow weary of making the same observations over and over again, seeing our political system devolve into chaos. Rather I want to ask the larger question of why is our polity in such sad shape. Why are the citizens, politician, leaders, and media so poorly informed about reality that they could spend so much time and energy playing at this game? Why do the majority of people continue to wish upon a star? Has no one noticed that DisneyLand is fake reality?
My questioning has led me to a possible resolution that is, in fact, a follow-on to my last blog regarding the problem with commodifying higher education.
A Few Loose Ends RE: Intelligence
In my last blog a few readers got hung up on the characterization of intelligence, especially the reference to IQ and the notion that this capacity follows a bell-shaped (Gaussian) curve of distribution in the general population. The hang up, I think, centers around the idea, that I put forth, that there is a native capacity for problem solving intelligence that is required in order for one to tackle more intellectual material as has been found in higher education historically. We spent no small amount of time discussing (or haggling) over the nature/nurture debate and the efficacy of the egalitarian premise that every one should get a baccalaureate (and e-mails outnumbered comments two to one!). If you read that piece, you may recall that I asserted that this social dictum has resulted in the watering down of the intellectual challenges that had been the hallmark of higher education (dumbing down, as it is known in higher ed circles). The results have been disastrous for education in general. One mechanism that I didn't mention, but now comes to mind, is the fact that the overall dumbing down applies to schools of education as much as to any other professional school, such that the graduates, who will turn around and teach K-12, suffer the same lack of critical thinking and knowledge.
In my mind, intelligence is just a surrogate for a much deeper competency of mentation that really is at issue when it comes to understanding very complex problems and working on solutions. What I think I should have spent some time discussing is intellect, rather than intelligence per se. Let me take a moment to correct that.
In my working papers on sapience (the brain basis of wisdom) I discuss the relationship of the three generally acknowledged cognitive functions, intelligence, creativity, and affect with a fourth function that has been more recently studied as wisdom (see: Sternberg, R. (ed), Wisdom: Its Nature, Origins, and Development, Cambridge University Press, 1990). My perspective on these functions (or what some psychologists call mental constructs) is to relate them to actual brain functions and even map them to specific brain regions or combinations of regions. Thus I put emphasis on the fourth function not as the construct wisdom, but the underlying brain capacity to process high-order judgments and have suggested the seat of this capacity is in Brodmann area 10 in the prefrontal cortex (see “Is Brodmann Area 10 the Key to Human Evolution?”). Please see those papers for more details. The relationship between them may be represented in a Venn diagram showing each as a domain of processing.
Figure 1. The relationships between sapience, intelligence, creativity, and affect are represented as a Venn diagram. All of these domains of processing interact with one another to some degree or another. This is represented by the intersections. The relative size of the ovals (not to scale in any real sense) represent the dominance of these domains in the mind life of an average individual.
As depicted in Fig. 1, sapience tends to be rather small compared with intelligence and affect. Creativity is smallish. On an individual basis you will find the relative dominance of any of these domains varies considerably. However, I have conjectured that because sapience is the newest domain of processing to be accreted onto the evolving brain, it is generally small in comparison to the others. Most people do not have great wisdom when they mature, nor do they show tremendous judgment in complex social matters. What is interesting in this representation is the intersection area of all four ovals. This represents the areas of interaction (communications between brain regions processing the various domains). For example the affect domain is largely, though not exclusively, mapped to the limbic system and brain stem. Note that it overlaps intelligence and this is indicative of the kind of influence emotional responses may have over purely rational thought (which actually doesn't exist, but lets give intelligence the benefit of the doubt for the moment). This kind of relationship has been explored by Antonio Damasio (“Descartes' Error”) so the reader is directed to that work for more details.
The intersection of real interest, however, is where all four domains overlap (Figure 2). When intelligence, creativity, a little bit of affect (motivation), and sapience interact and cooperate with one another we find the intellect at work. The word intellect is often conflated with intelligence and even shows up this way in some references (e.g. the Wikipedia page for intellect redirects to intelligence; I'll have to try and fix that!) It is understandable how this conflation occurs since intelligence, which is the part of the mind which is responsible for directed search for patterns that match and rational choice, plays a part in intellectual endeavor. However, our choices, or decisions are not just guided by following pattern matching rules (e.g. this pattern is more like pattern A than pattern B so choose A as a match). We also use judgment. That is, we use tacit knowledge to steer our decision processing in directions that pertain to a larger and older context. Each situation that requires our decisions is not necessarily unique, but has attributes that correspond with a generalized form of the situation. As we gain life experience we encode many similar situations (a form of classification is at work) in tacit models that then can be called upon from subconscious levels to provide what we often call intuitions. The better we have learned from life, the more veridical and complete our tacit models are, the better and more accurate judgments we make. People with this ability are called wise.
Figure 2. Intellect is the processing sub domain that integrates sapience, intelligence, creativity, and, to some degree, motivation from the affective domains. The intersection between these four domains provides the basis for intellectual competency.
The intellect, however, is much more than mere problem solving capacity. The intellect is as much involved with decisions about what needs to be learned and how to learn it. It is the center for critical thinking, being able to detect differences between patterns (generated by intelligence) claimed to be the same or similar and generating questions (queries) to explore and explicate those differences. The latter depends on the strength of creativity. And it is all motivated by a strong desire to understand, as in how the world works. The strength of the intellect critically depends on the strength of the three major higher cognitive components. Weakness in any of these three create weakness in the whole intellectual capacity. Moreover, there needs to be a proper balance of the three. Of course a strong affective motivation is needed as well, but the keenness of the intellect (what we sometimes call sharpness) is critically dependent on the three higher capacities. Too much intelligence in relation to creativity or sapience and we have a person who is very rule-driven, probably very organized in life matters, Too much creativity and we have a person who is insufficiently disciplined, generating many more marginal ideas than practical or usable ones. I am not concerned about too much sapience, however. If anything, I think the norm is too little good judgment. Even when intelligence and creativity are well proportioned relative to one another, an insufficient level of sapience diminishes the intellect considerably. And this, of course, is what I think is the problem. Keen intellect and sapience (as demonstrated by increased wisdom later in life) are correlated. Some of the smartest people I have met or read about may still not have a developed intellect. They are good at solving local-scale problems, even very complex ones. But they do not see those problems and solutions as part of a larger context. They do not add the lessons learned to their storehouse of tacit knowledge. They tend to retain what they learned in a context-specific form, unable to transfer the principles to other contexts.
When I used intelligence as the relevant variable in the last post I really should have used intellect. Higher education is an intellectual exercise, or should be in my opinion. Learning and memorizing job skills is a highly context-dependent form of learning that doesn't necessarily engage the intellect. Many educators familiar with Bloom's Taxonomy of learning have commented on how our education system has devolved away from the highest level (the taxonomy can also be seen as a hierarchy) where ‘Evaluation’ (#6 in the cognitive domain) has been left out. It is far easier to teach ‘knowledge’ in Bloom's language, than to teach people to think with keen intellects.
And, much as I hate to say it (I can see the complaints coming in now) there is a reason for this. Put simply the vast majority of people really don't have the brain equipment, properly balanced, as suggested above, to have keen intellects. It is intellectual ability that determines the ultimate value of a higher education. As my previous blog indicated, we have trapped ourselves into dumbing down higher education to accommodate the less keen intellects, thus devaluing higher education for all.
This is not to say that every individual is not capable of some level of intellectual capability. They are, for the most part. Rather it is basically the same argument about the normal distribution of intelligence itself, only now complicated by the balance between three cognitive domains as well as absolute magnitude of those domains in any one individual. I suppose this is why I focused on intelligence rather than try to get into the complexities of intellect, but that was a mistake that I hope to have now corrected. It doesn't make the debate any easier, perhaps. There will be those who earnestly believe that an adequate environment could improve any intellectual ability. They would be right up to the point of recognizing that there is every bit as much of a genetic potential argument that limits the amount of intellectual capacity just as it limits intelligence. A bad environment may stunt whatever intellect is in the genes, but a great environment can't push the intellect beyond what is inherent. Some people have more than others. And a few have much more than most. Those are the ones who should pursue higher education to learn to apply their intellect to important problems for the benefit of the rest of society.
Moreover, it is the higher intellects who, in the best of all possible worlds, would be governing our societies. Now who is wishing upon a star???
Dumbing Down the Polity
The same phenomenon can be claimed in the political process. An easy first approximation is to note that the citizenry is the product of the dumbed down schooling, so they do not, as a result, have even moderate critical thinking skills.
How do you explain a phenomenon like Sarah Palin? Or Michelle Bachman? Or Joseph Liberman? Or George W. Bush? It's kind of a trick question. The left-leaning reader will probably answer that it is obvious, I have listed Republicans, or Tea Partiers, or turn-coats. They will blame it on the obviously (to them) flawed ideologies that motivate the party faithful. But sorry to disappoint the lefties. The same question applies to Rod Blagojevich, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and, now, Barak Obama! Oh, and don't forget Bill Clinton!
Each of these people named, in their own way, and in slightly different ways, are actually pretty clever. They have learned to maneuver the political mazes of their respective parties and the national or state political stages to achieve leadership positions. In other words, they are actually intelligent and creative. Even Mr. Bush is smart enough to adopt a Texas drawl and good ol' boy demeanor to compensate for his very clear lack of intellect. And he is perhaps the best example of the answer to my question. The citizenry that have put these people into positions of power wanted them there. They thought that they would make good leaders. On what basis?
Sound bites. That is it. A twenty-second ad on TV is all that is needed for the majority of Americans to make up their minds about who they want. It doesn't even really matter what they claim as their positions. In fact these days most elections are determined by which candidate had the best smear ads against rivals!
Now think about the leadership records of these examples. Who among them has actually demonstrated keen intellect? I would give Clinton higher marks than most for being able to parse statements and questions and give back a razor-sharp answer. But I would draw the line at, “... it depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is.”! Caught (literally) with his pants down, he resorted to the height of foolishness. Of course the House of Representatives (mostly Republicans) were acting foolishly to pursue impeachment proceedings over Bill's foolish act (see Halpern, D., 2002, “Sex, Lies, and Audiotapes: The Clinton-Lewinsky Scandal”, in Sternberg, R. (ed). Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid, Yale University Press, pp106-123, 2002)
Meanwhile all of the shenanigans that pass as political intrigue are nothing more than a show with the actors jostling for recognition. The media make money off of this and the public eats it up. But the fact remains that the higher echelons of governance leadership are being taken over by increasingly less capable individual who have virtually no intellectual power even if they are socially clever. The last politician of national repute that appeared to have the intellectual horsepower to understand the problems we face was Al Gore, in my opinion. He, at least, got the global warming problem right, long before it became a real political issue.
The American brand of democracy, a representative-based, tricameral form, started out fairly well by most accounts. Just as universities once, long ago, were reserved mostly for the intellectually elite (yes I know the moneyed elite too, but nothing is ever perfect), the governance of the nascent USA was seen as being the responsibility of a few individuals (yes I know all white men - you're going to miss the point if you keep thinking of the politically-correct negatives!). And those individuals were selected from among those who spent a great deal of time thinking about the issues of governance. Moreover, they were selected by a public that also thought about the issues. As Thomas Jefferson said, “Whenever the people are well-informed they can be trusted with their own government”, and also “An informed citizenry is the only true repository of the public will.”
I would be the first to admit that a lot has changed since Jefferson's time. Perhaps chief among them is the sheer complexity and volume of issues that the modern world presents us. Who has time to become adequately informed, and judging by how few senators and congress persons read the evidence documents before voting to give George W. Bush unlimited war powers against Iraq I would say no one has the time. Clearly Obama doesn't have time to read more broadly about economics or peak oil so even he is uninformed.
Wishing For a Solution!
Is there a solution to this conundrum? We have an uninformed citizenry, an uniformed and un-intellectual governance leadership, and we have monumental problems facing us. Yes, there is a solution, at least a feasible solution. But it is only feasible from the standpoint that excludes the democratic process! There are a few people who do have the intellects that would allow them to address the systemic nature of problems and find workable solutions. The only problem is that though they might be workable, the spoiled, uninformed, and un-intellectual (indeed anti-intellectual) public would not be able to handle them because they involve real and deep sacrifices. Ergo, the sufficiently intellectual individuals could only operate in what amounts to an autocratic system. Does this sound familiar? Of course, it is Plato's notion of the philosopher king, or Nietzsche's vision of the übermensch. Both ideas have been deemed unworkable by sociologists and political scientists. And so there will never be a concerted effort to find and ensconce such individuals into the high seats of governance. There will be no council of wise elders for us.
Instead, here is what will eventually happen. I predict it because this is what always happens in these circumstances. Crisis will erupt. The people will panic and turn to whoever seems to be the strongest savior. Might will prevail and to secure that position of power the real intellectuals will be smoked out and killed. This is an age old story for a species that is low in sapience and high in fear. It will come to that here in the good ol' US of A. Never happen here? Just watch.
Sapience is necessary and it must be in balance with intelligence and creativity in order that the average person be able to be intellectual. But high sapience is not what our species possesses. At least not at present. The end will come and the destruction will ensue. Strong arms will win in the short run, but wisdom will prevail in the long run. There will still be remote pockets of wise people who saw it coming and prepared. The world of climate calamities and diminished energy resources will select against the merely clever because it will take significant wisdom to take in the whole systemic nature of the world. Well, at least that is my wish upon a star!