My fight against anti-intellectualism

This is going to be a long one, get some coffee.

Where was I on the day of Brexit? At 4am UK time, I landed in Rome and for the first time since the polls closed had access to internet. For the next 16 hours, the immediate fallout of this fateful vote gave me enough adrenaline to stay awake despite two sleepless nights travelling. (I can’t sleep on planes.) This post is not about the emotions and thoughts during those 16 hours. This post is not even about Brexit. This post is about what I will do after all this.

I have to start with a frank admission. I am not ready to write this post, although it has been brewing in me for several years, I was not planning on doing this for another year or two. Yet I feel I must do it now. So this is raw stuff, personal and quite unstructured. Criticism, comments and suggestions are more than welcome.

I also realise that this post is unlikely to reach a wider audience than my immediate friend circles, most of whom are from the same well-educated and international background as I am and who would instinctively agree with a lot of premises herein, so I am writing with you guys as my target audience in mind. Because you guys flooded my Facebook feed with anger, confusion and despair at the uncertainty of future prospects after Brexit. Because so many of you said you don’t know what to do next. And I know how you feel, I feel the same. And this is why I want to share what I am going to do about it.

Enough of preambles.

It is truly shocking what the Brexit related campaigning was about on both sides. Anger, misinformation, mistrust, confusion, complacency, indifference — the list goes on. Across the pond, the Trump phenomenon reflects the same worrying trends. Terms like “post-truth politics” have entered our vocabulary, and “people […] have had enough of experts”, according to one British political leader. We can argue about the reasons behind this and the effect political discourse has on the choices made by the people in power (and vice versa), but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that despite our world becoming ever more information rich and interconnected, allowing fast and efficient dissemination of information, the value of veracity of information is diminishing. The mission of the Age of Enlightenment has never quite been completed, but this trend of anti-intellectualism seems to push us further back from finally endorsing the values of logic and reason on a societal level. We can’t let that happen.

Imagine if people were better informed, or at least wanted to be better informed and cared about the accuracy of information, and — if it is not too much to ask for already — could distinguish facts from opinions and interpretations in our uncertain world. What a world that would be! How different would the Brexit debate be if people actually wanted to know what the relationship between the UK and the EU is and how it affects them? If people focused on fact-checked information rather than emotions and scaremongering? (I am saying this as someone who sees value in both pro-European and constitutional reformist arguments, and for whom the issue of Leave/Remain is an issue of idealism/realism at the end of the day. But if the debate was of a higher standard, maybe I’d be better informed and have a different opinion now?)

What I am talking about goes well beyond politics. We live in a world of confusion and misunderstanding. Our lives are dominated by the flow of money but most of us have very little financial literacy to optimise our personal finances. Our society is founded on the basis of and functions (or fails) according to a complex system or rules and regulations, yet most of us have no idea about how to navigate this system, what rights and obligations we have in this system or, most importantly, how to contribute to its improvement and evolution. We are under a constant attack of persuasion and marketing strategies, but we have little appreciation of how to stay unbiased in this torrent of attempts to affect our judgement and choices. We are not quantitatively literate, we don’t understand uncertainty and probability, the value of the scientific experimentation in learning about the world around us, or the importance of evidence based decision making. (One doesn’t have to be a scientist for this!) And, finally, we do not like admitting to being wrong and find it hard to forgive others for changing their mind about something.

Notice that I am talking in first person — all of the things above I am educating myself about on a daily basis. I taught myself how to optimise my finances and this has had a noticeable positive effect on my life. I am learning about how I can participate in the political discussion in order to improve rules and regulations regarding things I care about, such as education. Also as a scientist, I am teaching myself the quantitative skills needed to better understand data and how to draw conclusions from it. I could talk forever about things I am still trying to figure out regarding how our world works. I am clueless but I am trying to become less so every day, I am hungry for more knowledge. However, I am privileged to have been given great education and access to information, especially through well-informed friends and family. Also, quite importantly, I am privileged to have the time to try and educate myself. But this privilege puts me in a position to try and give back.

I am a teacher. Although technically I am doing a PhD at the moment, for reasons that I would prefer to discuss some other time I am not enjoying it and I will have to leave academia at the end of it. But during this time I have had the chance to teach undergraduates and I consider this my main occupation at the moment, certainly the one I care the most about. So I like to call myself a teacher. And just as much as I like educating myself about all the things I mentioned above and learning from those who understand them better, I like propagating knowledge and sharing with others what I have learned and understood myself. I feel like this is where I am actually creating value, both for myself and others.

I asked you to imagine a utopia where the Brexit debate is dominated by sound logical reasoning about fact-checked information. I wish I could say that we are moving in this direction but I can’t. The current trend of anti-intellectualism is the exact opposite of this. And it is not the effects of Brexit (that may or may not be more negative than Bremaining in the long run, time will tell) but it is this trend that is the danger to our society and to our way of life. I don’t want to enter the discussion of populism, voting rights and the value of democracy, we can do that some other time. I simply posit that we would all be better off if the general level of education about two things — what I would broadly call “rationality and reasoning” and the societal system we live in — was of a higher standard. We all need to be able to rely on sufficient background factual knowledge to approach a topic, to examine evidence and draw our own unbiased conclusions in a rational manner, and to argue our case or take action in accordance with our conclusions while evaluating new evidence and considering opposing opinions. I see this as being at the core of many of our problems both politically and socially, and I can’t imagine successful progress towards a post-scarcity technological society (not dominated by an anti-individualistic doctrine) without addressing this educational issue. This is what I want to contribute to as much as I can, and if you want to decrease the probability of the Brexit scenario repeating itself, you might want to think about it too.

I would like to tell you what I personally want to do about this.

Let me first collect a list of educational concerns that I have been alluding to. I have been referring to “rationality and reasoning” and I include the following under this category:
- Quantitative literacy
- Understanding of uncertainty and probability
- Experimentation and evidence based learning
- Logic and reasoning
- Heuristics and biases (with apologies to Kahneman and Tversky for stealing their title)
- Persuasion, debating, marketing, presentation of information
And I have been talking about the understanding of our societal system as the second component:
- Financial system and financial literacy
- Judicial system and judicial literacy
- Governance, political system and institutions (country specific)
- Individual’s rights and obligations within the state system and society
I specifically refrain from including any history of these systems into the list above as it is subject to biased interpretations but ideally I would like to see a version of that there, as unbiased as possible.

This is a list that I would like to keep expanding, so please let me know what else needs adding.

Now onto the plan itself. I would divide it into three broad directions that I will call resources, direct action and systemic changes. Let’s talk about each in turn.

First and foremost, educating people depends on resources, whether we understand it to mean the specific knowledge of the teacher that is being transmitted to the learner (or, from a more constructivist point of view, the teacher’s knowledge of how to set up a learning environment in which the student develops new understanding), or actual books, websites, videos and other material from which the learning takes place. Considering the latter interpretation first, for some educational concerns that I raised above there do in fact exist wonderful resources, but for others they are lacking. I see the need of collating and categorising good resources on these topics, and also, very importantly, adapting them (or developing new resources where necessary) for specific purposes, such as, for example, making a version suitable for classroom teaching at a high school, or a version for adult self-education. I envision a website that would collect all this information in one place and that would serve the needs of both learners seeking resources to educate themselves, and teachers looking for resources that can assist their work.

What concerns the resources of teacher skill, I see the need for building connections and establishing networks of people who could share their insights on successes and failures in their teaching strategies of these skills, so that we can learn from each other and improve our practices. The teacher section of the website above could include this functionality.

By the way, I should make it clear that when I refer to teaching and teachers, I do not think exclusively of school level teaching (although there is an argument to be made that this should be the primary focus) but of any situation where a person transmits knowledge or facilitates understanding, even just a conversation between friends.

The second direction is direct action, by which I mean all activities aimed at either teaching these skills or improving their adoption and usage. What can you or I do? A lot. Here are some examples. With the help of existing resources, we can create a presentation on uncertainty in daily life (or any other topic that we enjoy and understand sufficiently well) and get in touch with our high school teachers asking for permission to come and give a talk at our school one day. Or our work place, or our biweekly Exploding Kittens playing group. We can write up our thoughts about how we manage our finances and publish a blog post, a newspaper article in our locality or just send an email to all our friends about it. We can fact-check a recent interview with some politician and let all our Facebook friends know we don’t just hate that guy for a facial expression worth punching but actually because they are clearly inconsistent and provably wrong. In a political campaign period, we can even put up a stall on the Market Square with a banner saying “Come have some facts!” and sit there waiting for curious passersby to approach. The list goes on, there is so much we can do! Or if we don’t have the time, skill or courage to do any of that, we can always support others who do it instead of us. Not only individuals whom we know, but also relevant groups and organisations such as Sense About Science. (I am deliberately only giving a single illustrative example using the first such organisation that came to my mind so as to avoid a discussion of which ones are effective or doing the right thing — let’s discuss that, but not immediately now.)

And the third direction is systemic changes. How do we improve the education system on a large scale so as to include the practice of teaching these skills? How to do it so it actually works in diverse settings? How do we make evidence based discussion and policy the norm? Achieving such complex social engineering goals is a far-away target but we should keep it in mind and learn from our experiences in developing resources and partaking in direct action, thinking of how to expand it to the societal level. Furthermore, going a bit meta, we should initiate an evidence based rational discussion about the best way to achieve these changes…

There is a lot one can do, something for everyone when you really ask yourself the question of how you can contribute to the fight against anti-intellectualism. And if you are bothered by the situation around Brexit, or the Trump campaign, or pretty much every single topic discussed by John Oliver in his show, instead of just feeling angry/confused/sad you can actually do something about it all. You can help address the underlying issues. And it doesn’t matter whether you want to leave the UK/US or stay in light of the recent/potential future events, or if you are living in neither of those to start with. This is a global fight. Do what you can wherever you can and the world will be better for it. And remember, the impact of education is multiplicative through the meta effect of your students also becoming teachers. You can make a big difference this way.

“Take back control” was a powerful slogan used by the Leave campaign. Well, I think it is just fitting to use it to mean an educated society taking back control of its opinions and discussions. Let’s take back control over our logic and reasoning, over our facts and evidence, over our knowledge and literacy. The Age of Enlightenment is yet to come.