This article will not go viral.
Professor Charles W. Kingsfield Jr. announces his mission statement to his first-year contracts class at Harvard Law School.
You teach yourselves the law, but I train your mind. You come in here with a skull full of mush; you leave thinking like a lawyer.
Kingsfield is a fictional character, from the novel, 1973 movie, and television series The Paper Chase. John Houseman, as Kingsfield, had as memorable a voice and almost as fearsome a demeanor as Darth Vader, who would appear four years after The Paper Chase movie. Houseman won an Academy Award and became the spokesman for Smith Barney, stating its tag line with aristocratic frost: “They make money the old fashioned way…they earn it.”
Teaching his charges to think like lawyers meant developing and honing their ability to think logically, to analyze, and to present arguments and conclusions with precision and clarity. More’s the pity Kingsfield was fictional; most people would benefit from such instruction. Harvard’s fictional One L’s were a bright lot. If their skulls were full of mush, then skulls today are full of the polluted runoff from TV, internet pornography, texting, and social media.
Garbage in, garbage out, as the computer programmers say. It’s far beyond the scope of this article to examine all the garbage out there that passes as thought. We’ll look at a sliver, what can be termed group attribution. Beyond the quality that defines a large group, it is generally impossible to make a categorically true statement about all of the members of that group. Yet, the fallacy is ubiquitous across the political spectrum, from social justice warriors babbling about white privilege to alt-righters claiming that members of various races are inherently incapable of living together.
White men can’t jump. Except that most of the 16 men who have cleared the 2.4 meter mark (7 ft., 10 1/4 in.) in the high jump have been white, hailing from places like Russia, Eastern Europe, and Sweden. (The world record, 2.45 meters, is held by Javier Sotomayor, a Cuban.) The problem with group generalizations is that a counterexample invalidates them.
What difference does it make? Group generalizations are usually based on an average characteristic within the group. Let’s say the average white man can’t jump 3 feet (that may be too high, given the obesity epidemic). What’s more interesting, the mass of white men who can’t jump that height, or the exceptions who can jump over twice that height? Do you wonder why the average white guy can’t jump very high? Or how men or women of any race can learn and train themselves to jump over a foot higher than their own height? Who would you study if you were trying to improve your own jumping?
Most of our social structures are geared to the average, or worse. Students on the far right side of the intelligence bell curve (yes, there is an intelligence bell curve) are stultified in schools so oriented. Escape and refuge generally involve paying large sums of money for the comparatively few schools ostensibly devoted to educating the bright and brilliant. In higher education, a significant part of the social sciences (a misnomer) are wastelands focused on groups and averages, using that dreariest branch of mathematics, statistics.
Imagine an Olympic training facility that accepted any white male, devoting its resources to raising the average high jump from 36 to 37 inches, though its trainees would win no gold medals. Isn’t that analogous to the education system? The best universities draw applicants from around the world and accept 5 to 10 percent of them, indicating a shortage of high quality institutions relative to the demand. Meanwhile, billions are spent raising average academic performance the equivalent of 36 to 37 inches.
That’s accepting the charitable assumption that our education system accomplishes its stated goals, which it does not. These days, illiterates with no mathematical skills beyond counting on their fingers graduate from high school.
Anomalous individuals, not the average ones, propel civilization. The fixation on groups and their averages is intellectually and practically counterproductive. Even the notion of identifying the exceptional is falling into disrepute, and that has something to do with the present state of the world. Overall quality of life is a reflection of overall quality of thought: garbage in, garbage out.
Muslims are violent, bent on world domination, and are guided by the Koran, which justifies their behavior and goal. One can find that generalization in various forms all over the internet. No denying that it’s true for some Muslims. However find one peace-loving Muslim who doesn’t read or follow the Koran (Do all those who call themselves Christians read and follow the Bible?) and the generalization is invalidated.
What difference does it make? Take the generalization to its logical end, and you can justify a preemptive genocide stretching from Indonesia to Morocco. If every one of 1.3 billion Muslims is bent on ruling the world and killing you, you’d better kill them first. A “Clash of Civilizations” has been invoked to justify US military interventionism in Islamic lands. Except by the warped standards of its promoters, that effort has not gone well: a never ending war on terrorism that begets more terrorism, huge refugee flows, increasing hostility towards the US, destruction, chaos, and a massive waste of blood and treasure for all concerned. Garbage in, garbage out.
Contrast the US effort in the Middle East to Russia’s, which seems to be guided by a more precise and accurate formulation: some Muslims are violent and bent on world domination. Russia identified such a group operating in Syria and Iraq. At the invitation of the Syrian government and allied with Iranian, Iraqi, and Hezbollah militias, it has reversed ISIS’s territorial gains and is in the process of exterminating those members who have not fled. In so doing, Russia has enhanced the security of ordinary people in Syria and Iraq and raised its diplomatic status throughout the Middle East. Smart in, smart out.
One problem with logic, clarity, and precision is that like Professor Kingsfield, they’re not warm, cuddly, fuzzy, and friendly. At the end of The Paper Chase movie, after months of back and forth with Kingsfield, student James T. Hart, played by Timothy Bottoms, tries to tell the professor how much he and his class have meant to him. Kingsfield doesn’t even remember Hart’s name. He‘s so deep into the fascinating nooks, crannies, and interstices of contract law (they are fascinating) that everything else has become secondary or irrelevant.
Logic, clarity, and precision are hard work and won’t get you invited to parties. They are also the foundation of the scientific method, which deals in hypotheses and theories, but never the comforting certainties of prejudice, generalization, and belief. The scientific method can lead to self-induced cognitive dissonance for those who cannot hold in their heads inconsistent hypotheses simultaneously.
If the world appears wildly chaotic, bordering on insane, check the programming. Garbage in, garbage out. The current state of affairs reflects the predominant quantity and quality of thought. What’s true at the individual level—there is no hope of improving life without improving thought—applies to groups, including the group known as humanity.
One hypothesis can be advanced with virtual certainty: among the masses hooked into the internet, exchanging pictures of cute animals and the fascinating details of their fascinating lives, this SLL post will not go viral.
You Owe It To Yourself