Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


When more information makes you stupider

posted by Rod Dreher

Alain de Botton says we all need to take in less information, because learning more paradoxically reduces our capacity to know more. Excerpt:

The obsession with current events is relentless. We are made to feel that at any point, somewhere on the globe, something may occur to sweep away old certainties–something that, if we failed to learn about it instantaneously, could leave us wholly unable to comprehend ourselves or our fellows. We are continuously challenged to discover new works of culture–and, in the process, we don’t allow any one of them to assume a weight in our minds. We leave a movie theater vowing to reconsider our lives in the light of a film’s values. Yet by the following evening, our experience is well on the way to dissolution, like so much of what once impressed us: the ruins of Ephesus, the view from Mount Sinai, the feelings after finishing Tolstoy’s Death of Ivan Ilyich.

Interesting observation: “we don’t allow any one of them to assume a weight in our minds.” I don’t think I’ve ever quite thought of it that way, but it’s true. I am a voracious reader, but nobody can read as much or as fast as I do and can say that he’s allowed the material to assume a weight in his mind. I see that I consume (I choose that word deliberately) great gobs of information, when what I ought to be doing is behaving with more discernment with what I read, and allowing myself time to “digest” what I’ve read, so to speak. The way it is with me, I’ll read a book that knocks my socks off, think about it maybe for a week, blog about it … then I’m off to the next thing. And there’s always a truly interesting Next Thing, vying for attention. When it comes to taking in information, I am a gourmand, not a gourmet. De Botton’s brief remarks make me realize that I should slow down, that information is not the same thing as knowledge, and that knowledge is not simply a matter of input, but of processing — and that takes time to do right.
But I’m not going to do it. I wouldn’t know how. Seriously. This is a problem, one that reminds me of the realization I had one day that even though I’ve traveled far, far more widely than my father, he arguably knows more about the world as it is from having lived in one small place all his life, and having gotten to know it intimately.



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kenneth

posted June 3, 2010 at 10:41 am


Very true. We have the technical capability now to “hear” almost everything going on planetwide in real time, but we’re hearing far more noise than signal, and we have no time or perspective to analyze the signal even when we do recognize it. More information is not more knowledge. Let me cite one example from my career in the news business: when government bodies didn’t want you digging into “their” business, they would often find reasons to deny or stonewall a Freedom of Information Act request. No surprise there.
On the other hand, one of the most effective tactics they had was to give you every shred of data relating to the topic you asked for! By dumping thousands, or tens of thousands of pages of data on reporters, they could effectively bury the story or force the new organization to spend weeks and months and precious resources sifting through it.



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Pete Simko

posted June 3, 2010 at 10:42 am


I certainly agree that it is definitely something difficult to do, as much as it would probably be ideal. Historically, I wonder how far back one would have to go to find an American culture that was more easy-going with regards to taking in information. Was there ever one at all? Maybe technology and really how society runs at present help us realize (every so often) the pace we do things and the little amount of deep thought we put into them. Upsetting, but certainly nearly impossible to get away from. For some reason, southerners and monastics come to mind as examples of the possibility of going in the right direction…



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H.S.

posted June 3, 2010 at 11:02 am


Interesting . . .
I know a family doctor who, when he went into medicine, was trying to decide between being a specialist or becoming a generalist. One of his professors at med school suggested that a specialist’s mind dealt with knowledge like this:
K
N
O
W
L
E
D
G
E
. . . and a generalist’s mind dealt with knowledge like this:
K N O W L E D G E
We need both axes of the graph, I think.



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H.S.

posted June 3, 2010 at 11:04 am


:-D
I would like to correct the bottom axis to look like more like this:
K N O W L E D G E



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H.S.

posted June 3, 2010 at 11:05 am


Oy. It didn’t take my spacing, but squooshed it all together again.
Anyway, point already flogged to death.
I’m enjoying this blog, btw.



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Judith

posted June 3, 2010 at 11:09 am


Rod,
Are you the one who awhile ago introduced Kathleen Norris’ book on Acedia? I recently started rereading this book, mindfully, the way she suggests. She talks about exactly this problem, consuming books instead of reading them mindfully.



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E.B.

posted June 3, 2010 at 11:09 am


We teach this way too… The breadth of what we teach is out of control, and it’s at the expense of any depth. I teach elementary school language arts, and I have a lot more flexibility in how much time I spend on different objectives, but math and science in my district are broken down to a day by day calendar that includes less than a week on long division, 2 days on density, etc. (at the 4th grade level.) Kids aren’t given time to solidify the foundation on which they’re expected to build upon in school. Plus, all the input of additional information from pop culture that continues to distract from academic objectives.



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baconboy

posted June 3, 2010 at 11:17 am


Rod, in the Latin west Christians historically distinguished between the vice of curiosity and its opposing virtue of studiousness, usually placed under the overarching virtue of temperance. Curiosity was thought of as a kind of lust of the mind that acquired knowledge for selfish purposes, while studiousness was knowledge that was for the service of others. Aquinas devotes a question on both the virtue and the vice in the Summa in II-II, Questions 166 and 167, which can be found here: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3166.htm
Paul Griffiths, a prominent Catholic theologian, has written an excellent book on this topic called, “Intellectual Appetite”. I would highly recommend it and I’m going to send you a copy of his article on Augustine’s take on this via email.



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DOD

posted June 3, 2010 at 11:41 am


First thought: God created and has good uses for both hedgehogs and foxes in Isaiah Berlin’s parsing. They need each other. Second thought: both have sinful proclivities that need correction. Thanks, Bacon Boy, for point to an elaboration of temperance that moves in the right direction.



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William Gall

posted June 3, 2010 at 12:08 pm


As a fellow Orthodox Christian, Rod, we can agree that the Church teaches that how we eat is important. Our is a Church that fasts, and our Church fathers warn us how damaging gluttony is to our ability to focus on the one thing needful.
What I’m leading to is my own, stupid, lack of appropriation of the very eye-opening and helpful book, “In Defense of Food,” by Michael Pollan.
At one point I realized that in order to fast, one must approach food in a Divinely normative fashion. Among other attitudinal aspects toward fasting, our fasting must take its departure from a life of healthy eating habits, and this book is one that opens that door. (There maybe other such books as well.)
But have I not set it aside, forgetting it, as I went on to other things? Yes, I have.
So we share this “gourmand” approach, unfortunately.
As it is the Apostles fast, a wonderful opportunity, through confession and repentance, to change course. Lets do it!



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Russell Arben Fox

posted June 3, 2010 at 12:09 pm


Alain de Bottom’s point fit’s perfectly with the one Nick Carr makes in The Shallows–namely, that the internet, in the surfeit of information it makes available to us, is helping train our brains to not think seriously about things. As I summarized in my review, Carr claims that:
[Through the internet] we become habituated to viewing all information–literature, science, journalism, scholarship, whatever–as something to be “strip-mined [for] relevant content” (p. 164), and rather than thereby supposedly refining our ability to recognize (in classic marketplace of ideas fashion) good information from bad, in fact our capacity to make learned judgments is physically undermined. Carr quotes neuroscientist Michael Merzenich, who bleakly sums up the research: we are “training our brains to pay attention to the crap” (p. 140).
Carr’s book inspired me to read books this summer–less time on the internet, more time with arguments that I actually have to find the time to work through and think about. Bottom’s only adds to that determination.



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Franklin Evans

posted June 3, 2010 at 12:33 pm


I see this as the direct consequence — yes, “I told them so!” implied — of the shift in priorities imposed by our culture on our education processes: Content is more important to getting ahead than the ability to reason objectively, think critically in a constructive sense, and acquire problem-solving skills instead of banking on how others have or might have solved something in the past.
I shouldn’t be surprised. At the top of our societal values is that it’s more important who you know than what you know.



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David J. White

posted June 3, 2010 at 1:50 pm


First thought: God created and has good uses for both hedgehogs and foxes in Isaiah Berlin’s parsing.
Just for the record, Isaiah Berlin borrowed that famous analogy from Archilochus.



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Scott Lahti

posted June 3, 2010 at 2:21 pm


Albert Jay Nock weighs in:
One’s time for reading is so limited that it seems one might
best spend it upon what one knows is good rather than take
chances on what one is not sure of. – Selected Letters from Albert Jay Nock.
The mere bulk of what one reads amounts to very little by comparison with assimilating what one reads, even though it be not very much. – ibid.
It must never be forgotten … that culture has not for its final
object the development of intelligence and taste, but the profound
transformations of character that can only be effected
by the self-imposed discipline of culture. – On Doing the Right Thing.
Wholesale indiscriminate travel is merely a levelling and vulgarizing
influence. – A Journal of Forgotten Days.
The worst thing I see about life at the present time is that
whereas the ability to think has to be cultivated by practice,
like the ability to dance or to play the violin, everything is
against that practice. Speed is against it, commercial amusements,
noise, the pressure of mechanical diversions, reading-habits,
even studies are all against it. Hence a whole race is
being bred without the power to think, or even the disposition
to think, and one cannot wonder that public opinion, qua
opinion, does not exist. – A Journal of These Days.
I learned early with Thoreau that a man is rich in proportion
to┬Ěthe number of things he can afford to let alone; and in view
of this I have always considered myself extremely well-to-do. – Memoirs of a Superfluous Man.
But even so, it was a cheering and hope-inspiring experience
to touch the fringes of a well-to-do, prosperous, hard-working
society which does not believe in too much money, too much
land, too much impedimenta, too much ease, comfort, schooling,
mechanization, aimless movement, idle curiosity; which
does not believe in too many labor-saving devices, g~dgets,
gimcracks; and which has the force of character-fed and sustained
by a type of religion which seems really designed to get
results-the force of sterling character, I say, to keep itself well
on the safe lee side of all such excesses. – Snoring as a Fine Art and Twelve Other Essays.



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David J. White

posted June 3, 2010 at 2:34 pm


The worst thing I see about life at the present time is that
whereas the ability to think has to be cultivated by practice,
like the ability to dance or to play the violin, everything is
against that practice.
This reminds me of something I read years ago in one of George Will’s columns, of all places. He asserted that serious reading and reflection requires two things that the modern world seems determined not to let people have: silence and solitude.



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Erin Manning

posted June 3, 2010 at 2:56 pm


David, if I required either silence or solitude to read, I would never read anything! (This is not to say that we don’t lack these things–just that one can train oneself to read and to concentrate in the midst of chaos–ask any bookish mom.)
I think my favorite poet has something to say on this topic:
A little Learning is a dang’rous Thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fir’d at first Sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless Youth we tempt the Heights of Arts, [220]
While from the bounded Level of our Mind,
Short Views we take, nor see the lengths behind,
But more advanc’d, behold with strange Surprize
New, distant Scenes of endless Science rise!
So pleas’d at first, the towring Alps we try,
Mount o’er the Vales, and seem to tread the Sky;
Th’ Eternal Snows appear already past,
And the first Clouds and Mountains seem the last:
But those attain’d, we tremble to survey
The growing Labours of the lengthen’d Way, [230]
Th’ increasing Prospect tires our wandering Eyes,
Hills peep o’er Hills, and Alps on Alps arise!
Alexander Pope, from An Essay on Criticism:
http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Texts/essay.html



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Rick Shorrock

posted June 3, 2010 at 4:27 pm


I sure hope your headline is a pun or spoof of your subject matter. I guess I was just brought up in the real English world of public speaking. You know, that world where there is no such word as “stupider.” You should have used the phrase “more stupid” instead.
[Note from Rod: Yes, it’s a joke. — RD]



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Scott Lahti

posted June 3, 2010 at 5:56 pm


Another benefit from not feeling the slightest need to be hip, in politics or culture: unexpected, integrating connections from old chestnuts not available to those in the avante-garde of the instantly disposable – call us charged with picking up the pieces afterward the apres-garde.
Point in case there is one: I’m fixing my expired box of scalloped potatoes (no foodie I, I’d buy 50-lb bags of dry human food were they sold: how about it, Commerce?) and switch on TBS (very not funny, contra its promos), and, seeing Friends is on, switch instanter to Webitched – the late Elizabeth Montgomery hath charms of which the Kudrow-Anniston-Cox axis (say it three times fast) shall not dream, though it liveth unto its thousandth. I see Paul Lynde’s Uncle Arthur, and notice, as he rolls into his fullest, throatiest, leg-pulling smirk mode: he sounds a lot like the late (laughwise, I mean) Dennis Miller! (watch for his airport potboiler, Dennis Miller’s Scents of Snow, based on the true story of his fears of his chat-show’s cancellation mid-last decade).
Those are the sorts of lightning-bolts-at-the-stroke-of-midnight-splitting-mighty-oaks-to-tongue-depressors-after-Max-Fleischer-Popeye-shorts insights you just don’t catch when you’re obsessing over Phoebe/Rachel/Monica, let alone the headlines de l’heure from extreme southwest Asia, still called the Middle East by the occasional dullard.



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