Lippmann’s hammer

This is xposted from a comment thread over on . Start with boztopia‘s post here.
Long ago, in a galaxy far far away (well, it was in the US in 1922), Walter Lippmann published Public Opinion, a book that seems to grow more and more relevant with each passing day. In brief, Lippmann argues that the average person cannot begin to fathom all the complexity and nuance required to make intelligent, informed decisions. To address this, he imagines an agency that would be charged with understanding the hard stuff and making policy using its detailed knowledge and expertise.

If Lippmann thought 1922 was complicated, he’d love 2006.

Now, his technocratic ideal was problematic, as is any proposal granting massive authority to centralized bureaucracies. And as the Bushies have taught us with their full Monty assault on science and education in America, nothing is immune to political influence of the lowest sort. (We knew this already, but Dubya & Co. have just about perfected the process.)

Still, Lippmann was breathtakingly correct in understanding a couple things: the world is complex and getting moreso, and very few people know enough to develop informed opinions on how we ought best to proceed in a given area. This is true even if said people try their hardest. Even if you want to understand a difficult subject, you’re still faced with the demands of actually learning the terrain, and with many important topics very few citizens possess the basic intellectual capability to achieve awareness, let alone mastery. That very few people do make the effort doesn’t help.

What we’re seeing here is the unfortunate alternative (or at least one unfortunate alternative) to the technocracy. That is, the circusocracy. The idiotocracy. The mediocracy. The dog-and-pony-ocracy. The smoke-and-mirrocracy. The shiny-thingocracy. The infotainocracy. The sound-bitocracy. The factoidocracy. The dittoheadcracy. The Anti-Intellectualocracy from Hell.

We live in a culture where our most important decisions are made by people who don’t understand the issues. By design. And while nature abhors a vacuum, corrupt power-elites love a knowledge vacuum. Somebody is going to shape the opinions that the ignorant carry into the voting booth with them, and in the absence of informed and informing structures serving the public good, those opinion-mongers are unavoidably going to be the worst among us.

Put another way, will we be shaped by our smart people or our bad people?

Sadly, that question has been answered.



12 thoughts on “Lippmann’s hammer

  1. It seems to me the whole “the world is too complicated to understand” thing is true only if you think in terms of only understanding details. What if you’re someone who thinks in terms of patterns? Some people seem to be able to see the data flow rather than the data bits…

  2. Obviously this is important. But there is a basic, fundamental issue where specific knowledge is concerned. To vote on candidates who are faced with foreign policy challenges, you need to know a thing or two about the geopolitical issues shaping the policy challenge, right? For example, 1/2 of Americans think Iraq had something to do with 9/11. How can these chimps POSSIBLY vote intelligently in an election where the conduct of our Middle East policy is a primary issue?

  3. Playing devil’s advocate here…
    IF you believe that terrorism is the primary pattern. AND you believe that Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Egypt, etc etc etc are/were sponsoring terrorism. AND you look at a map and see Iran between Afghanistan and Iraq.
    THEN isn’t the specific detail about Iraq’s involvement with 9/11 is just that? A specific detail?
    Couldn’t you agree with the pattern of activity in the middle east even if you don’t agree with the details about how we got there?

  4. This is insanely beneath you. You’re TRYING to bait me. To quote Colbert, what is the “truthiness” of the proposition?
    It ain’t about what you BELIEVE. What you BELIEVE may be WRONG. It may be STUPID. In order for it to be a detail it needs to be accurate – otherwise it isn’t a detail, it’s an ERROR.

  5. Maybe “believe” is the wrong word. I thought about using “intuition,” but that didn’t work either, because the “belief” I was talking about was based on a whole lot of data (relations between the middle east at the US over decades) vs a single detail (iraq’s involvement in 9/11).
    I actually thought you were going to say something about emotion. We’ve talked about AI and A-Life enough that you know I don’t believe something like DATA from Star Trek can even exist. Once you have enough data and memory and processing skills to be considered sentient, emotions start to show up.
    Let’s say emotions are a form of filtered feedback/feedforward control on pattern recognition. Filters are based on what an individual considers “important”. The higher the gain is on the feedforward/feedback control, the less the details matter…in the extreme, you get religion. But short of that, you also get intuitive leaps based on limited data. The lower the gain, the more “logical” you are, but you might not see the forest for the trees.
    Most of us are in the middle somewhere. And, of course, all of this depends on all sorts of internal and external factors. Education, experience, genetics, sources of information, etc.
    Now, put this in the context of what I asked above. Assume a person is of average intelligence and has realistic filters, but higher gain on his/her controls. This person would place more importance on the pattern of data rather than the individual data points. Misunderstanding about 9/11 would be a spike in the data set, sure. And given a big enough spike, the whole pattern will be out of whack. But these points also tend to be overwhelmed or discarded based on the rest of the pattern.
    So, could such a person be wrong about how we got into Iraq, but recognize the overall correctness in the policy pattern? And vote accordingly?

  6. I’m not sure I buy that there’s a realistic issue where we have “average” intelligence people who are capable of perceiving higher order patterns that transcend the factual record. I’m also not terribly interested in taking a very real problem where half the damned population is voting based on a error and turning it into a rarefied theoretical examination of a condition that may, at best, reflect eight people in the world.
    The problem I’m talking about is significant enough to swing about 98% of the electoral votes in America. Elections are being decided by people who think Iraq bombed the WTC.

  7. Well, you already know that the only way to do that is change the way mis/information is sold. You’ve moved away from educating small groups of individuals (in a classroom) and started moving toward mass distribution/organization of data bits (blogs, Razzberry Sync), so I guess it’s a start.
    Unfortunately, people don’t want information nearly as much as they want to be entertained.

  8. Yeah, well, my professional move has less to do with making the world a better place and more to do with giving up on democracy and looking out for #1.
    Okay, it’s not QUITE that bad, but your last sentence is not only correct, it’s the fundamental reason why systems developed by everybody from Marx to Jefferson have failed to realize their potential.

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