Agnotological Power

I don’t know how I missed it, but I just stumbled across a word that describes a phenomena that I find both fascinating and repugnant: agnotology, “is the study of culturally-induced ignorance or doubt, particularly the publication of inaccurate or misleading scientific data.” It’s not just the right, as Doug Henwood has documented, it’s taken root in so-called alternative media, too.

A certain segment of the right– if that’s the word– rejects evolution, denies global warming, and believes that Obama was born and raised in Kenya. On the left– if that’s the word– we have 911 conspiracies, vaccine paranoia, and all sorts of quack medicine. Our nuts don’t seem to have the national credibility that right-wing nuts seem to have. I suppose the reasons for this difference vary.

A few racists believe almost anything about a black President. A few politicians are promoting these ideas simply because they generate headlines and endure them to their base. It’s the kind of thing that drives teachers batty, I think, simply because we hold so tightly to the old adage, “free your mind, and your ass will follow.” As it turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, it’s not always true.

I think this phenomena has to begin to inform teaching, particularly the teaching of critical thinking. Why has conservative thinking– supposedly the realm of the middle-aged and older– grown so profoundly irrational? It’s entirely likely, as I said, that many of these people are good critical thinkers, in the sense of being able to buy a car or run a business or otherwise keep their lives in order.

It’s hard to imagine what sort of education system could possible inculcate a reasonable skepticism into American culture, one that would be cautious about political authority without falling into wild speculation, if not paranoia. The pedagogical dilemma: there’s a sucker born every minute. The real political genius of our age, apparently, is Gary Dahl, inventor of the pet rock.

Twitter Fascists

Critical thinking is at the center of education, and critical thinking is a complicated, often uncomfortable process. It’s often very emotional, for one thing, but it can’t just be emotional, it also has to involve careful reasoning. And you have to get used to the idea that it’s open-ended. You can be certain you understand one thing today and then tomorrow a bit of new information, or an event that you can’t help but respond to emotionally, changes your ideas.

The recent surge of reactionary thinking- reflected in the O’Donnell primary win in Delaware–has roots in social networking and in anti-intellectualism. Karl Rove may not like what’s happening in his party, but it’s clearly a descendant of his long campaign to remove all critical thinking from the political process. He and his ilk have successfully convinced a certain segment of the population that anything that contradicts the party line is by definition wrong.

Rove’s the establishment now and as resented as the rest of the bums. If everything that contradicts your feelings is wrong, as he taught so well, the only thing you can rely on to help you make decisions is other people who feel the same way. That’s the reactionary echo chamber of fascist thinking. Twitter and Ning and other social networking software allow these random resentments and angers to find a whole new resonance and amplification.

Wikipedia Wins!

Shelley Bernstein, chief of technology at the Brooklyn Museum, told a story about how social networking can benefit a cultural institution. The museum posted some images from its collection on The Commons, a space on the photo-sharing site Flickr dedicated to public photo collections. Not much happened at first, she said, and the museum was about to abandon the experiment until a group of devoted Flickr users began to make use of the material. One was so taken by the museum’s photos of the 1893 Chicago Exposition that he started adding tags to identify different buildings. Like a good curator or archivist, he even provided sources. “Now we see people who have a real investment in these materials looking at them and helping us,” Ms. Bernstein said.

Switch-Tasking and Twittering Into the Future at Library and Museum Meeting, Jennifer Howard, March 2, 2009

I have to admit that despite my love of technology I’m skeptical about certain trends. There’s a fine line between innovation and planned obsolescence. Everyone likes a new shiny toy but not every new toy is worth the cost. I get tired, too, of the bias against Wikipedia, which is too often based in ignorance.

I might change my mind, but to me Twitter embodies the senseless pursuit of change and fun. It’s the very definition of tedious and silly, the pet-rock of communication. Nero tweats while Rome burns. Wikipedia in particular, and wikis in general, though, are innovations that continue to drive substantive change.

Collaborative writing technologies are going to transform learning in ways that are almost impossible to predict. I think the only certainty is that these changes are all going to recall the Wikipedia model of a organic, living body of knowledge created through conversation and debate. Twitter can’t touch that.