In a world awash with information, people have become more and more ignorant. Information is ubiquitous and is available to almost everyone in the developed world. Information is a powerful tool. The control of the information abundant society we now live in has created some of the largest and most powerful corporations the world has ever seen.
How can so much information make people stupid?
Information is nothing more than information. Information does not lie within people’s brains. Once information is in your head, it becomes knowledge. And so we live in a culture where not only is information available to almost all of the developed world’s population, but that availability means that more and more people are acquiring knowledge at greater and greater rates. So how is this leading to the dumbing down of society?
Knowledge is not understanding. Knowledge is nothing more than knowing something. Understanding is the transformation of knowledge into something that is contextualized and useful. A knowledge base is acquired when a person takes the time and effort to transform information into a state of knowledge and then take the time and effort to transform the knowledge they have acquired into understanding.
Transforming knowledge into understanding is what we do as humans. This transformation involves thinking. Not higher order thinking, but thinking nonetheless. The thinking embeds and transforms knowledge by making neural connections to knowledge that has already been stored in the brain. By increasing the number of connections between different aspects of a concept, understanding emerges.
A large part of the dumbing down of society occurs when knowledge is not transformed into understanding. When information is sought out to answer a question, becomes knowledge, but is really nothing more than internalized information.
This doesn’t mean that understanding leads to enlightenment. When a person has turned knowledge into understanding, the knowledge has been contextualized and an understanding has emerged. There is a large segment of the population who have worked hard to understand what it means to be a white supremacist. However, that understanding in no way enlightens the individual, even if they insist that it has. A criminal may have a good, solid understanding of how to commit a particular type of crime, but that understanding is not a positive contribution to society. Understanding is just that, understanding.
The reason that ubiquitous information, knowledge, and an increase in understanding within the general population leads to a dumbing down of our society is that there is no general understanding of the differences in the sources of authority, which how most knowledge is acquired. Of all the methods of gaining knowledge, the method of authority is the method that is the most widely used. It has to be. We cannot use more accurate and robust methods simply because we don’t have the time. We have to rely on the method of authority to both acquire knowledge and transform it into understanding.
The problem lies in the ubiquity of the information in the first place. It is true that the statement made millions of times that, “I know just as much as you do,” is kind of true. What is meant by that statement is that any individual with access to the greatest library of all time (the internet) can access all the information that any of us have transformed into understanding? The access to that information and transformation of that information into knowledge is an internal process and begins with the knowledge that a person has already acquired and transformed into understanding. The new information that is acquired becomes connected to the understanding that a person already has. The real difficulty lies in restructuring a person’s understanding of knowledge so that the knowledge base reflects reality or some close approximation of the truth.
Because the restructuring of understanding is an extremely difficult undertaking, this restructuring is normally done through formal means – education. Individuals are willing to be educated because this is supposed to help understand reality better and bring that understanding closer to reality. A “student” or someone willing to learn, will open their mind, a more common way of saying that a person is willing to restructure their understanding, by modifying neural connections and enlarge or expand (occasionally even change) their understanding of reality. Restructuring understanding is extremely difficult and highly rested by individuals with the resistance increasing with age.
Formal learning usually entails gaining knowledge that has not yet been deeply embedded and developing an understanding based on the way information is transformed and knowledge is guided by a teacher into a structured understanding. A teacher's responsibility is to help a learner structure their understanding in a way that the understanding reflects an approximation of reality. With the focus on the transmission of information in our higher educational institutions of today, the transformation from knowledge to understanding is often left for the student to complete. Providing a learner with the tools to use their understanding or knowledge base to focus and address a problem in reality rarely happens and we are left with a world where memorization is the epitome of learning and we have a paucity of individuals with higher order thinking skills.
Those who have no formal higher education, those with a basic higher educational qualification, and those decorated with the most prestigious academic honors available end up ingesting information and fitting it comfortably within the framework of their understanding of reality. Because restructuring understanding is so difficult, self-correction (changing thinking in light of new evidence) rarely occurs, even in those who pride themselves in their ability to think. Outside of a narrow sliver of expertise where evidence is actively sought after and self-correction is expected, academics are no different from the average person when it comes to restructuring their understanding in light of new evidence in an area outside their immediate expertise.
This is the foundation of the confirmation bias. We seek out information that supports our understanding of reality because doing otherwise upsets the reality we have constructed for ourselves and we avoid the discomfort that entails. As we age, the more solidified our understanding becomes and the more dogmatic, rigid and narrow our thinking becomes and we go to great lengths to preserve our own, unique understanding of the world.
We often hear people say that they are lifelong students forever seeking after truth or a closer approximation of reality. However, this kind of individual is ever so rare and in spite of protestations otherwise, most of the lifelong seekers of truth are looking for information that confirms what they already believe.
Restructuring understanding is painful, means we are wrong and is avoided at all cost.
Jesse is a world leader in the integration of the science of learning into formal teaching settings. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Lethbridge and Director at The Academy for the Scholarship of Learning. Huge advocate of the science of learning, he provides people with ideas about how they can use it in their classrooms. Jesse holds a PhD in Psychology from the University of Wales, Bangor.