Monday, July 17, 2006

Doggerel #27: "Educated"

"An education doesn't make you smarter. It only makes you educated."
Welcome back to "Doggerel," where I ramble on about words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless. This edition brought to you courtesy of a 130 dB, 18,000 Hz troll (or at least that's how the text reads to me) who stopped by Ryan's first post.

Education is probably the greatest feature of the human species. We can communicate ideas to younger generations, who in turn build on those ideas, refining the ones that work, and getting rid of (or at least marginalizing) those that don't. Unfortunately, the latter part of the process is quite difficult: Humankind has become successful enough that we can survive the burden of silly notions. This burden, however, inhibits our "higher" forms of successes.

Many people seem to exist under the assumption that having magical letters after your name means that your arguments and opinions are inherently superior to anyone else's. Just because Dr. Bob has a PhD from CGNU doesn't mean that he isn't a fool. Doctors, scientists, engineers, etc. are still monkeys: They can make mistakes. They can be dishonest. They can even be idiots when it comes to a certain field, or even their own field.

One example that comes to mind involves some scientists testing out a "psychic" who could apparently lift a book of matches off the back of his hand with his mind. They had exposed the matches to all sorts of "scientific" tests, including infrared scanning lasers, yadda, yadda. They couldn't figure out how he did it. They called Randi, expressing concern for the prize money of his. Randi sent them a children's magic book: The guy was pinching a bit of the skin on the back of his hand into one of the folds of the match box. When he clenched his hand, it moved the match box.

The scientists thought that they would be able to see any deception. Randi is a magician. His expertise is in deception and trickery. Thankfully, he uses his knowledge of the trade to teach us to see through deception, the flaws in our perceptive abilities, and other such things that can be used to fool us (not to mention entertain us).

Often, woos like to use the authority of "educated" people in place of real arguments, often to said authority's dismay.

For example, one commonly cited authority is Sir Isaac Newton. "Newton believed in God." "Newton believed in alchemy." This, however, is unimportant: What matters is the argument. Why did Newton believe in God? Why did he believe in alchemy? Tossing a big name around is meaningless unless that person had good arguments to support the conclusion. Of course, the necessity of good arguments eliminates the need for name dropping. In a sense, scientists are irrelevant to the science they do.

Talking about the people presenting an argument is little more than ego-stroking. Either an argument is sound, or it isn't. An honest person discusses the strengths and weaknesses of an argument being made. A dishonest person distracts people from that argument, like the previously mentioned troll did. Thank you, Mr./Mrs. Anonymous for the demonstration of the world's worst arguer to date.


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Michael Bains said...

In a sense, scientists are irrelevant to the science they do.

Dig it Dog!

The relevance of "who" is a Social construct. We can drop names for all sorts of helpful or disingenous reasons, but the most important and relevant thing it does is to let those to whom we're droppin' 'em know that we agree with the dropped one's argument.

Of course, it kinda helps if both sides know what that argument actually is.


Anonymous said...

"An education doesn't make you smarter. It only makes you educated."

What is 'smarter'? I concede that you can get a degree from Harvard and still be capable of believing in anything, but I don't know if that means that your intelligence has not increased?

An Anonymous Coward said...

I concede that you can get a degree from Harvard and still be capable of believing in anything, but I don't know if that means that your intelligence has not increased?

Well, to decide that, we'd first have to come up with a good, measurable definition for intelligence, which nobody has so far managed to do (the deeply flawed IQ tests notwithstanding)...

TheBrummell said...

This suggests to me another, reciprocal doggerel post: what about the widely-argued position that an education, with the associated "magic letters" is actually a hinderance?

I've occassionaly run into people who seem to honestly believe that a PhD reduces intelligence. Perhaps the doggerel could be about the interaction between arrogance and elitism.

Anonymous said...

One problem with scientists trying to validate some kind of woo is that typically scientists don't expect someone to be actively trying to deceive them. That's why Randi is so good at what he does. He is practiced in the art of deceit.

Bronze Dog said...

Very, very true, Mark.

Combine that bit of naivete with a desire to be someone who discovers something new, and you've got someone who might convert to woo. Thankfully, a good number of scientists seem to have caught on to simple conjuring tricks, thanks to Randi.

Now we just have to figure out how to do the same with people who employ subtler tricks like cold reading and statistical legerdemain to make random noise look like psi or whatever.

Anonymous said...

People cite authorities for different reasons, though. If one is saying, "Authority x believed p, so p must be true" then of course the argument is worthless. But if the issue is, say, whether it's possible to be rational, well educated, and an authority in a particular area, and still believe p, then citing the authority is certainly relevant. For example, when someone says, "Learn a little science and you'll understand that p is false," it's perfectly reasonable to respond by saying, "Well, here are a dozen brilliant world-class scientists who believe p, so clearly learning a little science will not necessarily disabuse one of p." This is not to say that the scientists are necessarily consistent with respect to their scientific beliefs and p. But it does show that the "learn a little science" response is feeble at best, since if it's a fact that those who know far more about science than we could ever hope to know still believe p, then
it follows that learning some science is not itself a sufficient condition to refuting p.

David P said...

So this is off-topic, purely an aside, but when you talk about the "who" not mattering (not "the who" not mattering, when that happens I kill myself) it makes me think about all the B.S. about "intellectual property". Arguments and ideas are so focused about their "creators" that the ideas are never evaluated or well used. That is possibly the biggest thing I've read in the blog. [/2 cents]