We Are Drowning in Information, While Starving for Wisdom

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsWe are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.

From Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge by Edward Osborne Wilson, Pulitzer Prize winning author, biologist, and naturalist. He is considered “the father of sociobiology”, “the father of biodiversity”, as well as the leading authority on ants. The Ants, co-written with Bert Holldobler, is considered the definitive scientific study of ant behavior; it won a Pulitzer Prize in 1991. He taught at Harvard from 1956 to 1996.

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Confessions of a Bibliophile: J. Kevin Graffagnino

alex atkins bookshelf booksAs with most human passions, there is disagreement over whether booklovers are born or made. For my part, I can only say that I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a biblio­phile. I grew up surrounded by books. When I was a boy in Montpelier, Vermont, in the 1960s, our house contained somewhere around 1,000 books — then (and now, I suppose) considerably more than the average for an American home. My family’s “library” was an eclectic, unplanned mix of subjects and titles. Thirty years later, I can remember concentrations in European and American history, dozens of beautifully printed Limited Editions Club volumes from the 1930s to the 1950s, various impressive but impenetrable classics from the Everyman Library series, and an assortment of mod­ern literature, economics, biography, and philosophy. Even though there was almost nothing specifically aimed at chil­dren, beginning at about the age of nine or ten I still managed to fill many happy hours at home reading books I was too young to understand, plowing cover-to-cover through a near-complete run of American Heritage, and mining the tissue-thin pages of the eleventh edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica for arcane, out-of-date information to include in school papers and assignments. The absence of television — we were the only family I knew in Montpelier that didn’t own a TV — may well have steered me toward books for entertainment, but I don’t recall any particular sense of deprivation over having to substitute books for the delights of My Three Sons, Bonanza and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

From Only in Books: Writers, Readers, and Bibliophiles on Their Passion by J. Kevin Graffagnino. Graffagnino is director of the library at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.


There’s a Word for That: Cacoepy

atkins-bookshelf-wordsAlthough it sounds like a disease of the intestines, cacoepy is defined as the mispronunciation of a word. Ironically, the word is difficult to pronounce: kuh KOH uh pee. The word is derived from the Greek kakoepeia, meaning “faulty language.” The proper pronunciation of a word, on the other hand, is orthoepy (pronounced: or THA we pee).

Read related posts: There’s a Word for That: Esprit de l’escalier
There’s a Word for That: Jouissance
There’s a Word for That: Abibliophobia
There’s a Word for That: Petrichor
There’s a Word for That: Deipnosophist
There’s a Word for That: Pareidolia
There’s a Word for That: Macroverbumsciolist
There’s a Word for That: Ultracrepidarian
There’s a Word for That: Cacology


Books are Magic Doors

alex atkins bookshelf quotationsBooks are, indeed, “Magic Doors” through which one can walk into innumerable wonderful worlds. The desirable thing — if chance has not solved the matter for us — is to enter first through the door which attracts us personally. The book to start with is the book which will cause the most intense mental excitement and leave an indelible impression that books can be alive. The individual should begin with those books which deal with subjects or people or places which exercise some strong attraction on his curiosity.

American journalist Jesse Lee Bennett (1885-1931) from What Books Can Do For You: A Sketch Map of the Frontiers of Knowledge (1923)

For further reading: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.$b658756;view=1up;seq=34


Doublets: The Triumph of Evil When Good Men Do Nothing

atkins bookshelf quotations

Evils that befall the world are not nearly so often caused by bad men as they are by good men who are silent when an opinion must be voiced.

Lawrence Schiller, author of Perfect Murder, Perfect Town: The Uncensored Story of the JonBenet Murder and the Grand Jury’s Search for the Truth

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

This is one of the most well-known apocryphal quotes, that is, a quote that is of doubtful authenticity and is falsely attributed to a notable individual. This particular quote has been attributed to Edmund Burke, the Irish philosopher and statesman, but there is no written proof to support the claim. The only writing that comes close is this: “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle. (1770).” Almost a century later, John Stuart Mill, the British philosopher, expressed a similar thought: “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” Garson O’Toole, known as the Quote Investigator, tracked down  a medical bulletin from 1895 that had this sentence without any attribution: “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.” Perhaps over time, these quotations were conflated and attributed to Burke. Soon the quote made its way into prominent speeches, like JFK in 1961. From there the quotation was included in reference books, like the Yale Book of Quotations (1950) and Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, 14th Edition (1980). Once the quote made its way to the internet, it joined the army of apocryphal quotes that marches on and propagates endlessly.

Read related posts: Doublets: Love
Doublets: Genius
Doublets: Youth and Maturity
Doublets: You Cannot Run Away From Yourself
Doublets: The Lessons of History
Doublets: Reading a Great Book
Doublets: Tolerance
Doublets: The Role of Religion
Doublets: Things Left Unsaid


What is the Dunning-Kruger Effect?

alex atkins bookshelf phrasesDo you know someone at work who claims to be expert at something but doesn’t have the experience or proof to back it up? Let’s say you work at a newspaper, and one of your colleagues brags that he is one of the paper’s best writers, has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize many times, and has been approached by several headhunters from other newspaper and magazines. Of course, nobody likes a braggadocio. But then you read his copy and his writing, well… sucks. And then you learn that his editor is always haranguing him about missed deadlines, sloppy reporting, and so forth. Hmm… maybe he’s not the expert he claims to be. Congrats — you have just witnessed the Dunning-Kruger Effect in action. The term was coined by David Dunning and Justin Kruger, psychologists at Cornell University, in their 1999 study titled “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.”

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a cognitive bias where a person who is incompetent at something is unable to recognize their own incompetence. Moreover, that individual has a false inflated sense of confidence about their supposed competence. And this, of course, is what makes these individual so annoying. Dunning points out the irony of the effect: “the knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task — and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at that task.” Consequently, without appropriate management and training, such a person cannot improve because they are essentially clueless about how bad they are at a particular job. In subsequent research, Dunning has found the Dunning-Kruger Effect rampant among employees of high-tech firms and medical companies, professors at universities, and among drivers.

If you have been reading the news in the last few months, you know that the Dunning-Kruger Effect is alive and well in American politics. In an op-ed for The Washington Post titled “Trump has a dangerous Disability,” political commentator George Will wrote the following about President Donald Trump’s many egregious mistakes about American history: “What is most alarming (and mortifying to the University of Pennsylvania, from which he graduated) is not that Trump has entered his eighth decade unscathed by even elementary knowledge about the nation’s history. As this column has said before, the problem isn’t that he does not know this or that, or that he does not know that he does not know this or that. Rather, the dangerous thing is that he does not know what it is to know something [emphasis added].”

Yale psychologist Gordon Pennycock recently published a paper that explores the connection between the Dunning-Kruger Effect and the concept of reflectivity (a trait that can predict whether a person is likely to be highly deluded about his or her own knowledge). Pennycock found that the Dunning-Kruger Effect impacts a person ability to reason and reflect. Subjects in the study were asked to take a test of reflectivity and then asked to evaluate themselves. Most of the subjects who were unreflective believed that they did very well since they had no idea of what it meant to be reflective and thus were too incompetent to accurately evaluate their own behavior. Now think of Trump and his statements. Alarmingly, Trump lacks any modesty about his self-professed intelligence: in many interviews and appearances he has bragged that he is very well-educated, intelligent, and possesses a very high IQ. Is he highly deluded?

This leads us to our next discussion: what happens when a person who exhibits this cognitive bias is surrounded by enablers. And, in the case of Trump, this situation is amplified because he is the President of the U.S., the leader of one of the most powerful nations in the world. One is reminded of the famous fairy tale by Hans Christian Anderson, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” In that story the emperor, who is very vain and a slave to fashion, is swindled by two crafty tailors who fashion the finest clothes with fabric that can only be seen by smart or competent people. The tailors, of course, made nothing at all and the emperor falls for the con and proudly dons his “new clothes.” The pompous emperor then walks around nude (or perhaps wearing underwear, the story is not clear) in his palace, and all of his servants bow down and praise his very fine new clothes. Eager to show off his new clothes to all his subjects, the emperor organizes a parade to walk through the town. Again, like his servants, the public praises the emperor’s fine (but invisible) clothes — except for one little boy, who sees this ridiculous sight and provides a vital reality check: “But he isn’t wearing anything at all!” However, it is a variation of that line that endures as an idiom: “The emperor has no clothes!” One can only hope that at some point, the elected representatives in Congress and parts of the American electorate should realize that the President has no clothes.

Interestingly, long before there was any formal, scientific research, many philosophers and writers throughout history intuitively understood man’s inflated sense of intelligence or competence. Here are the different ways they expressed this universal truth:
Confucius: “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.”
Socrates: “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.”
William Shakespeare: “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” (from As You Like It)
Charles Darwin: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”
Bertrand Russell: “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.”

Read related posts: What is the Barnum Effect?
What is the Pinocchio Effect?
There’s A Word for That: Trumpery
Words Related to Trump
What are the Most Common Lies on Social Media?
What is the Big Lie?

For further reading: The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President by Brandy Lee
https://www.forbes.com/sites/markmurphy/2017/01/24/the-dunning-kruger-effect-shows-why-some-people-think-theyre-great-even-when-their-work-is-terrible/#24624b915d7c

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trump-has-a-dangerous-disability/2017/05/03/56ca6118-2f6b-11e7-9534-00e4656c22aa_story.html?tid=ss_tw&utm_term=.883b9bdaf4c0
https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2017-05-12/trump-s-dangerous-disability-it-s-the-dunning-kruger-effect
https://link.springer.com/article/10.3758/s13423-017-1242-7


We’re All Looking for Connection

alex atkins bookshelf quotations“I’m [an addiction] specialist in that I’ve experimented on myself quite ruthlessly and quite extensively [but] not in laboratory conditions. More’s the pity — I could have done with someone in a lab coat to give me a cuddle. And a petri dish would have been useful! But what I do agree with is that these are times where we live on the outside. External phenomena has stimulated us to a ludicrous degree and the addiction is just the amplification of consumerism. If you constantly broadcast at people that they ought to be afraid; if you constantly broadcast that they ain’t good enough, and that they can purchase somehow externally the feeling of well-being then addiction… is a natural conclusion of this phenomena.

For me the only drug that I’m interested in is the drug that we are pursuing in the first place — the drug of connection, of unity, of love. For me all these things are placebos — every drug, every commodity is just a placeholder on the way; false idols, as we seek out some kind of true connection in whatever time, denomination, in whatever language — whether it’s agnostically, atheisticly, or religiously. We’re all looking for connection.”

Russell Brand, English comedian, actor, and author, discussing his most recent book, Recovery: Freedom From Our Addictions, on Real Time with Bill Maher (October 6, 2017). In many interviews, Brand has admitted his many addictions to hard drugs, alcohol, sex, caffeine, food, and fame. Indeed, he is an addiction specialist.


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