Every day, we are bombarded with information. A police shooting under questionable circumstances. A tense encounter between people of different races. A flood of statistics on COVID-19 cases, mortality, and vaccine effectiveness.
We receive the data in the form of easily digested soundbites and a never-ending reel of videos. We are supposed to respond by taking a stand and making a judgment. If there is any doubt as to what that stand should be, the mood music on the news and the explicit narratives on social media make it plain what we are supposed to feel and think.
Objectively speaking, these videos present as many questions as they present answers. Maybe it’s grainy and fast moving. Maybe the lens is distorting perspective. With YouTube, we can slow it down, rewind, and enhance the color. Ah ha! See! The kid dropped the gun a tenth of a second before the officer’s shot went off, says the know-it-all.
We are ill equipped to make these judgments. In fact, too much data can result in worse decision-making. To make sense of information in general, background knowledge, moral sense, personal life experience, empathy, contemplation, and critical thinking are needed. Do we know what happened before the video started? Do we see what’s happening away from the camera? Do we know how fast humans can react, without the benefit of slow motion, rewinding, and all the rest? Do we know if the person claiming, “I didn’t do nothing,” is credible?
Times are tense. The pace of life fuels that tenseness. All of this information is being dumped upon people increasingly unable to make good use of it. Indeed, those with an agenda, benefit from this information dump. They tell you what to think, and they tell you what you are seeing. Before you have time to explore what just happened, some new story is coming at you and your assent with the prevailing narrative is demanded.
General knowledge, even among those who technically are educated, is at an all time low. At the same time, people who are good at book learning somehow never absorbed the lesson that not every piece of knowledge fits in a book. Reading a book on Kung Fu won’t make you Bruce Lee. Watching a lot of videos about police work is not the same as facing dangerous, dishonest people on a daily basis. There is a type of knowledge—practical knowledge—embedded within activity and experience.
Credentialed or not, people’s life experiences are more and more narrow. Journalists do not understand factory workers. Office workers do not understand cops. People who got Cs in high school biology presume to opine on mRNA and DNA, while not quite getting the difference between one percent, 0.1 percent, or one-in-a-million.
In the absence of knowledge, both abstract and experiential, we fall into one of several traps. Many, particularly among the educated and ambitious, defer to credentials. It is a kind of “wisdom on the cheap.” They repeat enthusiastically, “Science says!” But really they are repeating what one scientist says. This is not science. This is just an argument from authority. Real science is a method. It involves a certain amount of debate and dissensus. Anyone who has actually studied science in any depth knows this. Instead, many of our debates and discussions consist of people shouting (or ALLCAPPING it on Facebook) what they heard someone with a title say.
On the other side, we have a lot of autodidacts, who are simply not very good at evaluating information. They latch onto this or that study, because they are attached to the conclusion. Then, they accept all of the information that confirms the conclusion and ignore all the information to the contrary. This is what you find among the “chemtrails” crowd, as well as those who have had a successful investing career lasting 15 minutes.
On issues of race, things are particularly bad. A narrative about race is the foundation of the Left’s worldview, a worldview where America and white people are fundamentally evil. The supply of facts supporting this view are meager, so local news stories and half-truths about the police are churned up to meet the demand. People who went to integrated schools, live in a world of minority scholarships, and have never heard a racial slur uttered in their lives—other than in the lyrics of rap music—say boldly, “This country is more racist than ever.” This is insane. It is also, as the antiracists were once fond of saying, incredibly ignorant.
The drumbeat of propaganda and information mutes critical thinking. Even among those with raw intelligence, the constant stream of data, videos, narratives, and the like makes us dumber, like the character in the Kurt Vonnegut story:
George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.
Our intellectual heritage once had a great many stories about the wrong kind of knowledge, excessive knowledge. Mankind falls from God’s grace after eating of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Pandora opens the forbidden box, and all the virtues escape, save hope. Prometheus discovered fire, only to be tormented eternally for sharing his discovery with mankind. These are cautionary tales.
Even the wisest men likely would be overwhelmed by the stream of data available on a daily basis, but fools tread quite willingly. This makes much of the necessary work of life, work once done with some modicum of autonomy and scope for improvisation, impossible. There is a real question if police work or a military campaign can survive constant video surveillance and hair trigger alertness to racial strife. We now see the ugly side of life, the scuffles and shootings. We don’t necessarily see the long rap sheets or the anonymous victims of anonymous criminals, who do not wear bodycams.
Even with the wealth of data, there is still much hidden. The data is packaged, promoted, or suppressed in service to a narrative. Ideology may be thought of as a means of organizing and packaging the information from the world around us to serve a political purpose. So we end up with the worst combination: excessive certainty founded on half-truths loosened from context, all uttered by the immature and the uncharitable.
We know too much, and we know too little. We have a lot of data and precious little wisdom. This is no way to run a country. And it’s no way to preserve a civilization.