BB #56: Sour Bubbles

BrainFireLooking back over the trail of sour bubbles, obvious themes emerge: Society, Politics, Media, The Interweb. Important topics that affect and reflect us. Topics I find filled with dire signs and portents, chill winds carrying a hint of smoke that makes my neck hairs stand up straight.

For example, Vin Scully is retiring. If that’s not a sign of the coming apocalypse, I don’t know what one is. Adding insult, my Minnesota Twins are having a bad season of truly biblical proportions.

So a strange sour silly summer…

I’ve stressed repeatedly the importance of rational thought over emotional thought. And to be clear, by “rational thought” I do not mean strictly logical thought. It is rational to be compassionate. It it rational to be moral.

A nice way to put it: The heart pushes, but the head leads.

In an emotional world people resist that message, so I was pleased to see Molly Worthen’s New York Times article, Stop Saying ‘I Feel Like’ last spring (April 30). As her title suggests, she’s talking about people who base their opinions on what they “feel” or “believe” is true:

These people don’t think, believe or reckon. They “feel like.” Listen for this phrase and you’ll hear it everywhere, inside and outside politics. This reflex to hedge every statement as a feeling or a hunch is most common among millennials. But I hear it almost as often among Generation Xers and my own colleagues in academia. As in so many things, the young are early carriers of a broad cultural contagion.

She’s right, you do hear it everywhere. It excuses knowing the facts and acts as a shield for dissent — you really can’t argue about someone’s opinion. The problem, a key social bullet point for me, is that we increasingly live in a world that legitimizes opinion as fact.

The article really hit the nail for me; there are too many great points in it to go into here. (It would be worth a separate post, except Ms Worthen already wrote the perfect one; you should read it.)

This point is worth emphasizing for suggesting the historical arc:

For decades, Americans have been in the process of abandoning both the moral strictures of religion and the Enlightenment quest for universal truth in favor of obsessing over their own internal states and well-being. In 1974, the sociologist Richard Sennett worried that “the more a person concentrates on feeling genuinely, rather on the objective content of what is felt, the more subjectivity becomes an end in itself, the less expressive he can be.”

Yes, and that ties in with a growing locality to language. Grammar rules don’t matter so long as people “know what you mean.” But local usage tends to diverge, and soon people don’t know what you mean.


In a more recent article in Time (‘Says Who?’ Thinking Is Ruining America, August 19), Sarah Miller focuses on how that primacy of opinion and feeling allows people to dismiss factual statements with the classic, “Says who?”

[Says people who know what they’re talking about, that’s says who.]

Her article was prompted by Trump campaign staffer, Michael Cohen’s eponymous response to a (factual) statement by CNN’s Brianna Keilar that his candidate was down in the polls.

It’s hardly restricted to the right. They use it against (to name one) global warming, but liberals use it against vaccines.

The implication is that scientists, or doctors, or pollsters, or most especially the media, all lie. They can’t be trusted. And, sure enough, institutions aren’t perfect and do make mistakes. (But science and physical facts tend to be self-correcting. Reality eventually always trumps.)

She concludes:

But it’s terrifying that we allow these imperfections to give us the right to invent reality, and to ignore that these institutions do a lot of good things. “They can’t get it right,” Americans say to ourselves. “I will do it better.”

As if. One of the sad, but often hysterical, elements of reading blogs of physicists and, especially, mathematicians is the way some people without training think they’ve got it figured out better than people who’ve made a career of the study.

It’s the Dunning-Kruger effect in action!


Speaking of the Dunning-Kruger effect, an article in the Washington Post cracked me up and illustrates the effect beautifully (This attempt to walk 45 dogs at once was an adorable, spectacular failure, Karin Brulliard, July 27).

The associated video is amusing to watch, but consider the underlying logic. A guy with some experience walking dogs thought he could outdo a record set five years ago by Joseph Orsino Jr. of Pittsburgh, a professional dog trainer with years of experience:

Orsino said he knew from a young age that he had a way with dogs. In high school, he was a champion dogsled musher. During the Vietnam War, he was an army K-9 trainer. Today, Mr. O’s Dog Training promises to educate its pupils in one day, and it also offers a special class for dogs that have been assigned roles in weddings, like ring-bearer.

Okay, then. You can see why he might be able to pull off walking 35 dogs, especially ones he knew and worked with. (And even so, it was a challenge.)

And some guy is going to pull off walking 45 strange dogs who show up on the day. That’s not hubris; that’s sheer stupidity.

But it was kinda cute to watch. See the linked article for the video.


William Poundstone, writing in New York magazine’s Science of Us, invokes the Dunning-Kruger effect directly in The Internet Isn’t Making Us Dumber — It’s Making Us More ‘Meta-Ignorant’.

Poundstone moves from the D-K effect to the ‘Google effect’ — the documented phenomenon “describing the automatic forgetting of information that can be found online” which prompted an experiment by Linda Henkel of Fairfield University:

[Henkel] performed an experiment at Fairfield University’s Bellarmine Museum of Art. Undergraduates took a docent tour in which they were directed to view specific artworks. Some were instructed to photograph the art, and others were simply told to take note of it. The next day both groups were quizzed on their knowledge of the artworks. The visitors who snapped pictures were less able to identify works and to recall visual details.

The key point, other than how living through our cell phone cameras causes us to miss out on experiencing life, is that we’re increasingly adapting to the ability to find information online by not bothering with remembering it.

Large numbers of millennials have no knowledge of basic history and — this really struck me  — most “can’t name the single word uttered by the raven in Edgar Allan Poe’s poem.”

Um… Oops?

Poundstone concludes:

Today’s mediascape does not provide much guidance. It encourages us to create personal, solipsistic filters over information, making it unprecedentedly easy to gorge on news of favorite celebrities, TV shows, teams, political ideologies, and tech toys. This leaves less time and attention for everything else. The great risk isn’t that the internet is making us less informed or even misinformed. It’s that it may be making us meta-ignorant — less cognizant of what we don’t know.

Which really amplifies the Dunning-Kruger effect!


Needless to say, this all gives me such a sour feeling in my heart.

Damn, people. Be better!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

2 responses to “BB #56: Sour Bubbles

  • rung2diotimasladder

    “This reflex to hedge every statement as a feeling or a hunch is most common among millennials.”

    The other day I heard the tail end of an NPR story about millennials—not enough to get any content—and my husband said, “They’re talking about you!”

    I said no. No. NO!

    Turns out he was right. I was born in 82, which makes me a millennial. Lately I’ve been reflecting on why I so desperately didn’t want to be categorized as one, and I realized it’s in part because they’re so damned coddled and they act like it. I don’t know how many of them actually fit the stereotype (it could be that we only hear the obnoxious ones, as is usually the case), but I definitely sense that stereotype in action all too frequently. Especially in supposedly intellectual discussions. The thing that gets me the most is not so much the “I feel like” as the “I feel like… so you’re wrong.” Or the nasty silencing and censorship that comes from the politically correct mumbo jumbo they grew up with: You don’t know what it feels like to be X so you have no right to talk about it. The word microaggression comes to mind.

    Sorry about the rant. 🙂

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “Turns out he was right. I was born in 82, which makes me a millennial.”

      I think you’re a bit on the cusp. Urban dictionary says 1982–1994, although other sources put the start in the late 1970s. A key part of the definition seems to be “became an adult around 2000” which does seem to put you in the group.

      FWIW, I tend to think of Millennials as currently in their 20s, though. I see them more as the generation born around 2000. The ones who grew up never knowing a world without social media.

      But maybe that’s just me.

      “Lately I’ve been reflecting on why I so desperately didn’t want to be categorized as one, and I realized it’s in part because they’re so damned coddled and they act like it.”

      Well take heart; I think you’re too old and you definitely don’t fit the usual definition by a long stretch. (I’m reminded slightly of how I was the youngest hippie in the group (mentally older, though), but that was a group I liked, very much identified with, and wanted to be a part of.)

      “I don’t know how many of them actually fit the stereotype…”

      A definite fraction of articles about Millennials are about the fact that no such group actually exists (except as an age demographic). [In contrast to the hippies,] There’s no well-defined “Millennial lifestyle” (other than complete embrace of social media), and it’s a label that has a lot in common with “get off my lawn” sensibilities.

      That said, there does seem a driftlessness to the age group such that I’m pleased (and relieved) when I meet young people (20s or so) who are thoughtful, intelligent, and balanced.

      I read YAAAM (Yet Another Article About Millennials) the other day that was about young men dropping out of the work force and living at home and playing video games all day.

      Part of what seems to be happening is that video games are so thrilling these days, so lifelike, and so social, that they offer a wonderful, rewarding, environment to hang out in.

      Contrariwise, most don’t have the skill sets to get decent jobs, so any job they get tends to be a living wage with little, or nothing, in the way of fulfillment, reward, advancement, or future.

      Video games are acting very much like opium, something many of us have realized from the beginning. It’s just that now the buzz is getting better and better.

      It’s kind of funny that the latest Taco Bell commercial riffs on the Terminator idea of having a desperate soldier come back in time to stop that one event that led to the world’s downfall. In this case, the first winner of the Taco Bell game console contest. A game console so good it leads the world to such self-absorbed game play that aliens just waltz in and take over.

      Subversively (to my eye), the impassioned speech goes right over this waste of skin’s head. He barely pays attention. He only response: “Hey,… I won!” The reaction shot of the time-traveler is priceless. (I really do think there’s a bit of a subversive message there.)

      “Or the nasty silencing and censorship that comes from the politically correct mumbo jumbo they grew up with”

      Yep, totally. Colleges are starting to push back on some of that, but the reaction has often been very negative when they do. (I forget which, but some college put out a beginning-of-the-year notice to their students daring to suggest the college wasn’t so inclined to coddle in all cases, that freedom of ideas was important… man, did the shit hit the fan on that one!)

      The current backlash against “PC thinking” is due, in large part, to this stupidity of taking a reasonable thing too far.

      So maybe I have no idea what it’s like to be black or female, but I do know what it’s like to be excluded, humiliated, shamed, and a whole host of other things. As an intelligent being, I can actually translate those to give me a glimmer of what it must be like, and glimmer or no, I can certainly empathize with human pain.

      “Sorry about the rant.”

      Yeah, cause, you know, we really don’t go for that sort of thing around here… 😐

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