Monday, January 12, 2015


We often tout education as a primary ingredient for solving problems in the world, from the economic (higher paying jobs) to the political (more knowledgeable voters) to the social (understanding the environment). However, education may not be the powerful solution we think it is.

In issues such as vaccinations, justification of the Iraq war (weapons of mass destruction or El Qaeda), how the rest of the world viewed the Iraq war, whether the troop surge reduced violence, and climate change, education actually increases people's dissonance with reality.

Reality (as best as we can figure it out) is that vaccinations are beneficial, WMD and El Qaeda were not justifications of the Iraq War, the rest of the world was against the war, the troop surge did reduced violence within Iraq, and man's carbon emissions do contribute to global warming. However studies have shown that agreement with these issues decreases as education increases. I'm sure we can come up with many reasons for this, such as educated people use more sophisticated ways to justify their views.

In my mind the greatest benefit of education is the appreciation of how little we know ("Recognize your limits" as Pete [the near doctor] has said) along with the passion to learn more. The result of this educational benefit is something that you needn't be highly educated to attain—humbleness. And that, hopefully, will trump ideology, the bane of education.


Big Myk said...

I touched upon this topic some time ago: Why Smart People Are Stupid. That post refers to a New Yorker article that discusses a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that suggests that, "in many instances, smarter people are more vulnerable to ... thinking errors. Although we assume that intelligence is a buffer against bias—that’s why those with higher S.A.T. scores think they are less prone to these universal thinking mistakes—it can actually be a subtle curse." So, the conclusion is that the more congitively sophisticated you are, the larger is your bias blind spot. Because you can see errors in logic or perception so well in others, you assume that you must be bias free and that whatever you believe is the truth.

We can try to steel ourselves against the blindspot. (As the 15th century philosopher and churchman, Nicholas of Cusa said, "Nothing could be more beneficial for even the most zealous searcher for knowledge than his being in fact most learned in that very ignorance which is peculiarly his own; and the better a man will have known his own ignorance, the greater his learning will be.")

But, it may all be futile in the end. Indeed, Daniel Kahneman, admits that his decades of groundbreaking research have failed to significantly improve his own mental performance: “My intuitive thinking is just as prone to overconfidence, extreme predictions, and the planning fallacy”—a tendency to underestimate how long it will take to complete a task—“as it was before I made a study of these issues."

James R said...

That was an excellent post which led to a lot of interesting information, well worth another look.