Education

Is there a cognitive psychologist in the house?

chimp scratching chin as though in deep thought

There’s an outbreak of Dunning-Kruger, and I might have it

I’m a peevish little fellow. I know. That’s some knock you over with a feather material right there, now isn’t it? What can I say? I’m pretty self-aware. It’s not that every little thing peeves me. It’s that I’ve got a few overarching peeves that just catch up so very many things.

Lies piss me off. As someone I can’t stand once said, “lies steal my reality.” Credit where credit’s due, unnamed ahole. 

There’s something under a lie that pisses me off more. It’s where the white lie parts with random bullshit (the fish was this big!) parts with lies told to avoid responsibility, which keep altogether too much company with lies told to cheat the victim out of something valuable, something real like money or power.

Underneath all the malice aforethought, and usually lingering for sometime after, is this detestable smugness. This is the creepy ex who doesn’t know where you live moving in next door with a shit eating grin on their face smug. It’s that special something above and beyond just being an enormous dillhole that made so many people want to punch Martin Shkreli. It’s not his face. It’s what he does with it. The kind of person he is has contorted his face into a rictus of sheer smugness.

That smugness just pisses me off.

Another thing that pisses me off is supposedly “scientific” content on superficially science-friendly social media. Reason has its limitations and science is, as some ancient wise person once said, a separate Magisterium or somesuch. In terms of manipulating and adapting to our environment, one monumental leap after another, reason’s the thing to beat, though, even if it could stand a bit more poetry and a lot less slapstick and tragedy. It’s one thing to get some point of smart people minutiae wrong. Error happens. But when a clear failure to think is evident, I damn near bruise myself with the facepalm. OFFS!

Now, I might not be the sharpest tack in the box, and I might not be able to rattle off all the Latin phrases for the great many logical fallacies that exist, and I’m probably guilty of a few here and there myself, and boy howdy do I like to play up the “but what do I know, I’m just some rando on the internet” schtick, but I think how a person thinks is terribly important. In the big scheme of things, I couldn’t give two shits about what a person thinks. All of this *waves arms around like a crazy person* is transitory. It doesn’t feel it, but it is. In another hundred years, whatever we’re dealing with today will be just another short list of the more spectactular factoids that the high school kids of tomorrow will forget on a multiple choice test.

I care about how we think, because failure to do that well is how we get to my pessimistic scenario with the kids of the future.

As one might suspect, when you couple the zealous nerdiness of being a Facebook science fan (which is often a great thing) with an error, one gets a fair bit of wagon circling and jeers. It has all the ugliness of social media politics. And all that smugness.

That thing where I play up the “I’m just a rando” schtick? There’s a point to it. It’s not that I’m anti-elitist. I’m radically pro-elitist. I want more damned people to be elite. To hell with the idea that if everything is highlighted, nothing is highlighted. That’s a chance I’m willing to take. I want a world full of top-flight educated people. Nobody has ever suffered from too much education, unless one counts existential angst, which is really quite exquisite, I assure you, though mine comes with no pedigree.

There’s that smugness, delivered as snidely as possible, that seems to be the special province of some, but not all, the “elite,” and certainly among the pop-smart people sycophantic fandoms that spring up like weeds. Cui bono. Being SMRT is trendy and trendy is market eyeballs on paid ads.

Dunning-Kruger is catching, apparently. As a lifelong underachiever with an ax to grind and a chip on my shoulder (prickly and arrogant, maybe, never smug), I can attest to the failing power of pointing it out in one’s superiors and calling bullshit, and now I’m a classist. Go figure.

Imagine my sublime joy when I spy a Dunning-Kruger jibe at the dumb people, whom I’ll just call the Dumbs from now on. Just like there’s a stripe of militant atheist that needs to be as big of a cock about it as possible (rampant misogyny, anyone?), there’s that stripe of SMRT fandom as well. Know what really draws a larger ad revenue generating audience? Mock the Dumbs. It’s a feature. Shiny post. Shiny post. Shiny post. Mock the Dumbs. Click click profit. When you’re really lucky, the group will eventually post something the equivalent of Aliens! and you know it’s time to step away slowly.

The Dunning-Kruger mock the Dumbs post hit a sweet spot…psychology. My less than stellar academic career is marginally relevant here.

My low threshold for bullshit led me to drop out of high school, never mind the honors classes and having the school offer to erase enough of my absences to keep me from flunking because I was a National Merit semi-finalist right up until I said no thanks, neve mind how good it would look for their numbers and their funding. My life was hell there, and fuck ’em and good riddance I thought at the time. But I’m a good test-taker, if nothing else. The military liked my ASVAB scores enough to offer me a DLAB test, which results they liked well enough to pay me good money for them. When it was college time, I was a git and took the ACT (the what? exactly) and tested out of a few credits here and there and straight into the honors program. That was doomed because I’ve got authority issues and a very low bullshit threshold.

I was a biology major who was still young, naive, full of ideals, and anti-war. Imagine my horror when the holy shit how cool is this electron microscopy I’d always wanted to do since I was a kid and that I was actually doing with my literal life was actually a military gig. I was at least smart enough to ask questions. Oh, yeah. That’s where the grant money is. Oh, and by the way, department politics. Oh, the politics! Haha, science? It’s scary how little science is going on here. What goes on here is what goes on here. Just what you see. What doesn’t go on here is more important. Funding, you see. Without it, it, whatever it is, doesn’t happen. Oh, and thank goodness for grad students. Publish or die!

Ye gods, I’m glad this was before I knew about impact factors. Maybe it wasn’t a thing yet. It’s all so very pre-internet.

That my mentor turned out to be a raving David Duke supporter (Louisiana politics at its ugliest)? OFFS. This is the gauntlet you have to go through if you want to take your shot at being the next Crick, Watson, or Pauling?

After a brief flirtation with fine arts, psychology came a-callin’, and appealed to so very much of my irrational nature. I learned quickly that I had taken the higher calling into an actual science! Not like those fools over there in sociology. Oh, we had our Freudian slips and Jungian archetypes, but we were reviled by those Scientists, because we had no data and dealt in immeasurables. Well after Pavlov, Skinner came along and tortured his daughter, and gave us all the tools of Big Data marketing that keep us buying like good little consumers to this very day and shelling out hard earned money on in-game microtransactions and monthly Blizzard subscriptions to quest on Azeroth in search of a constant stream of little dopamine shots. He gave us behaviors…observable you can count ’em up real good and draw tables and come to conclusions from them behaviors. All tarted up and spraying numbers around like perfume, Science took note, departments were changed, and that’s how you get funding.

I did a short stint at a residential facility for the developmentally disabled. As an intern, you git. An intern. Paid, too, so top that. I just had to count self-harm behaviors from a safe distance and hope today my hep c vaccine wasn’t suddenly the greatest idea ever if the poo starts flying, which I was warned it might at any time. And don’t mind the rape. If you see something, get an orderly. It happens. It’s a touchy philosophical issue about agency and mental competence, and what’s a better alternative? Prison? See also: agency and competence. And just by the by, we’re hard pressed for restraints. Bind a physically 35 year old linebacker with the mental capacity of a toddler and rage unchecked by healthy development to keep him from hurting himself or others during an episode, and your wrong. Shoot ’em full of drugs for chemical restraint and the DOJ is on you like gnats on mashed potatoes for only the most invasive approach possible…medication.

While I was at it, I learned that the DOJ’s reasoning was driven by my latest loves, chaos theory and fuzzy logic. Things were really looking up until I read Feyerabend’s Against Method and Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance while my advisor  was advising me that my intentions for grad school were grandiose. How I got stuck with the clinical guy when I was headed for cognitive is almost beyond me. Turns out biology hadn’t cornered the market on departmental politics. Who knew?

Then I heard of industrial/organizational psychology and thought I’d hit the motherlode of all the great things. Psychology bashed on an anvil until it practically becomes a technology, a weaponized technology to help, you see, help measure observable behaviors and help all the worker bees work in perfect worker bee harmony with maximum efficiency for greater shareholder dividends. Yeah, thinking that through didn’t leave me feeling like I really had a place in the field. Looking back, I was damned near prescient.

I’m not part of the pedigreed elite, a great many of whom I respect from the very bottom of my black little heart. I’ll never be. I burned that bridge, knocked down the pilings, and sold the rest for scrap. I was much better behind the scenes assisting someone who knew more and had the pedigree and did The Things.

Dunning-Kruger.

I’ve even been told I suffer it myself, though never by anyone who demonstrated the reasoning of their diagnosis. It would be a funny malady for me to have since I don’t tend to do certainty. I’m a doubts and grave reservations kinda guy.

So I see one of these snotty little pro-sci (not to be confused with pop-sci) groups post a clever little bit of mockery. Oh, those Dumbs, hyuk hyuk. Some professor allegedly got his nose out of joint when some halfwitted undergrad had the audacity, would you believe it, to suggest he look up cognitive dissonance and maybe read a book so he’d have a better understanding of it than he could get from a Google search. Haw! Haw! Him? What? I can just about see the monocle and safari hat, and hear the fake British accent. I say, old chap, I gave that scrumbledilly the ol’ what for, I did! Me, a professor and…a cognitive psychologist at that! [cue wink and a smile that tings when the light glints off those gigantic pearly white] What a delicious example of Dunning-Kruger that was supposed to be at the poor undergrad’s expense. Doc told him off good.

Oh, the congratulations circling around in the comments. Those Dumbs! We burned ’em good with our superior thinkaging.

I think I saw in that post everything I hated about psychology. That professor in the safari hat and monocle that I imagined looks suspiciously like my advisor of old. And those preening Lord of the Flies rejects! What a bunch of tools.

Could it be, I wondered aloud for their edification, that it’s the professor with the Dunning-Kruger issues? Why on earth would a professor and, ahem! cognitive psychologist necessarily know more than fuck all about cognitive dissonance? It’s an idea postulated in social psych, not cognitive.

Who knew I was a windowlicker until today, right? I got the Dunning-Kruger, apparently.

This from the acoustic tile technician and the foreclosure person (who I think I hated on general principle), especially. I love irony, but it’s like salt. Too much ruins the taste. I asked if they studied much psychology to arrive at their conclusions. Judging from the snotty vitriol, I’m guessing not, but wow are they right or what!

Never mind that I pointed out some simple considerations. As an undergrad you take a survey course or two. If cognitive dissonance is mentioned (I suspect it was because I learned about it in brief), it’s a mere few paragraphs out of several hundred pages of text and maybe mentioned twice in class…once in lecture, in brief, and maybe again for exam review. After that, you get your core classes and electives. Let’s see, there were developmental, clinical, cognitive, neuropsych, and the requisite methodology and stats. I hadn’t gotten to social psych yet. I’m not certain I’d have taken the class. I think it was elective.

So why on earth would there be a presumption that just because someone becomes a professor they necessarily have a greater than undergrad survey course knowledge of cognitive dissonance unless it were clear said professor has a background in social psychology and maybe some reason to have read more deeply into the work of Leon Festinger and maybe that of his successors in the field.

Ah, yes, that clever prof with the sharp wit and the safari hat and monocle. I’m a cognitive psychologist, what ho. Haw! I told him!

Implying what, exactly? Oh, I threw down a gauntlet. Show me! Show me why there is any particular expectation that a professor or cognitive psychologist would be more versed than an undergrad in the concept of cognitive dissonance. I threw a hypothetical undergrad at them, who took the same courses I took. Where’s the cognitive dissonance if social psych isn’t taken, except in that survey course? So my hypothetical undergrad does great on the GRE, goes to grad school, and…focuses on something that’s not social psych. Where’s the obviously compulsory osmotic learning of a deeper understanding of cognitive dissonance supposed to come from? The great grad student goes all the way for their PhD. Dr. Student defends their thesis with aplomb and wins all the fancy pedigree thingums.

Unless their research involved cognitive dissonance, which, I assume, the vast majority of research does not involve, where were they supposed to pick up this superior knowledge of cognitive dissonance? In cognitive psych? He’s a cognitive psychologist, after all.

I asked for a reference to any recent cognitive psychology textbook that discusses cognitive dissonance at any length. Oh, I couldn’t demand that. Not my place. I’m the one making the absurd claim and have I got the Dunning Kruger all over me or what? No, I couldn’t make the demand. I had to slap them with that gauntlet before throwing it down. “Here!” I say. Here’s a modern 6th edition cognitive psychology text suitable for a junior/senior level cognitive psych course. Know how many times it mentions dissonance? Zero damned times. The book can be searched. And if there’s no mention of dissonance, then what of cognitive dissonance? That’s a damned funny place to not talk about it!

Where then the force of Dr. Professor’s taunt, predicated as it was on his being, specifically, a cognitive psychologist?

Why, damn, Earl. It’s got cognitive right in the name there, now don’t it? That’s gotta mean something, right?

I follow things like pop-sci and pro-sci pages and puns and pretty rocks and a handful of entertainment things to take the edge of the constant barrage of bad news. So much of our bad news hangs on Dunning Kruger. Hell, our president thinks that because he could con and swindle his way to vast riches, he knows how to preside over the affairs of a nation. We’ve taken Dunning Kruger to nightmarishly absurd levels.

But at least we have hope. We’ve got the hope of today’s youth, the leaders of tomorrow, with their heads full of reason and science and orthodoxy. And orthodoxy right now is that the Dumbs are best when mocked, and here, have a Dunning Kruger joke, delivered poorly, and actually, well, it isn’t even really funny or telling once one gets past the superficial absurdity of it. One just has to get past it first to lose the laugh.

But one can’t if one has gone full Dunning Kruger, so it’s hi-larious.

If there is a cognitive psychologist in the house who would like to explain to me why it would make perfectly good sense to assume that a cognitive psychologist necessarily has a greater than undergrad survey course understanding of cognitive dissonance, I would actually like to know why. None are forthcoming in the pro-sci gaggle that either refuses to learn or refuses to educate, which is a damned funny position for pro-science anyone to take.

I’m willing to put my picture next to Dunning-Kruger in the dictionary, but first the case has to be made. Failing that, my optimism about what passes for quality thought in these up and coming generations takes another hit, because the strutting cocks of the SMRT set aren’t just failing to think well, they’re teaching others to think less clearly with all the swagger. These are minds readily yoked to the next big orthodoxy, whatever it is, and these are frightening times for wrong-headed orthodoxies.

For those who just couldn’t bring their A-game, I leave this little gem of wisdom. Wanna troll? I got your troll. The point to my “just some rando on the internet” schtick? Because when some snot-for-brains can’t put up a defense, I’m what they got schooled by, some nobody without the pedigree.

 


Afterword: I highly recommend recognizing the things that piss you off and simply saying it. That really pisses me off! It’s cathartic as all get out. There might not be a damned thing you can do about it, but just the exclamation gets a little of it out of your system. That’s a good thing. It’s good medicine like cussing when you smash your thumb with a hammer. The brain’s pharmacy opens up. Sweet dopamine shot. One might guess from all my spleen venting that I’m some hunched over, gnarled root of an old coot with arthritic claws and a mean, wild-eyed face, but I’m actually just…normal. Hell, I’ve even been called pleasant less than ten years ago. This catharsis thing is clearly working for me.

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