Tuesday, September 20, 2022

101 Syndrome

I rambled on this one.  It's not tight, but the thinking may be worth it.

Have I mentioned 101 Syndrome before? I can't find it here.  It refers to those who have gained an introductory knowledge in many things, and therefore believe - though they would humbly insist otherwise - that they are broadly educated. Introductory courses are often vocabulary - what the parts of a cell are, what "culture" means, lists of schools of painting. In math it is a vocabulary of both words and symbols. They allow the student to participate in discussions at further levels. They also allow one to keep reading in the subject in the press outside of school and throughout their lives.  They are in theory very good things. 

Yet it goes wrong so easily.  I have kidded grimly that after liberal-arts education and seminary, pastors can read what the popular press has to say about psychology, sociology, economics, anthropology - and combining simple religious ideas like we should care for the less-fortunate or we should try and live at peace with others, start speaking like they actually know something worth having about economic policy or foreign affairs, because they understand these things from multiple perspectives now. This has been going on a long time. It may be getting worse.

Yet the psychology they know is shallow at best and flat wrong at worst; so too with their economics and other topics.  It's just bad but they don't know it.  They don't know it because the popular press articles and trendy books they read are drawn from the people who already agree with them. David Swanson's book Redisciplining the White Church was a book my church was encouraged to read and discuss a couple of years ago. (Swanson is in our small denomination and known to many of the pastors.) I couldn't get past the introduction.  His first example was the discredited psychology that implicit bias affects anything. Well, it doesn't affect anything we've found yet. Next he made a linguistic/cultural/historical error about a Native woman who claimed to be traumatised because of the word "kingdom," because it reminded her of colonialism. Then he accused a visiting friend of prejudice for asking if the neighborhood was dangerous. (Remind me not to be a friend of Swanson's.) Just about that time that Chicago neighborhood did explode in dangerousness. Oh gee. I abandoned the book, but engineerlite convinced me to press on.  Swanson opined on economics, sociology, history - inaccurate every time. I couldn't make it any further.

It's not just pastors, they just occurred to me because I'm in churches a lot.  It is also psychologists or social workers, I can attest from experience.  They know the vocabulary of other fields, and this allows them to think they understand what they are reading or hearing on NPR. Or at Townhall or whatever conservative site you want to mention. 101 Syndrome causes us to think that the heavily curated information from sources we have chosen ourselves over the years has allowed us to "keep up" with all these fields.  Because it is usually combined with actually knowing something about one field, where we know the public misunderstands the reality - especially on the other side - we adopt what is given us with little questioning.  Because we know the vocabulary, have reinforced our ignorance for fifty years, and can still point to idiots on the other side.  

It is worse when what people know even in their own fields is wrong, as it often is and increasingly so as certain types of dissidence are slowly excluded. Genetics is transforming many fields who insist the disproven is still true. Technical advances in archaeology knock what you learned to the ground - and not just in Anthro 101.


james said...

Maybe one treatment (I don't say cure) is to "try to do the exercises in the book"
That doesn't help if the field is laden with "Just So Stories", but for law or medicine or math ...

G. Poulin said...

Being good with words ("knowing the vocabulary") is not only a substitute for understanding a subject -- it is often how expertise is assigned to individuals. That degree hanging on the wall often signifies no more than that its holder has memorized all the necessary spiels demanded by those in charge of handing out the degrees. Not always and necessarily, but all too often. I read a lot of theologians, and I find this to be common; they're just recycling standardized ideas without a lot of critical thinking going on.

Ganzir said...

I probably suffer to some extent from this. That is why I have developed a reflex to consistently and ruthlessly challenge everything I believe. Karl Popper is my cynosure here.