Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Peeve: Epistemic Incompetence

Our schools blur the distinctions among Knowledge, Memory, Intelligence, and Cleverness. We've invented the meaningless quality "Aptitude" and test our children for it. We test IQs and pretend we've tested intelligence, actually a broad ensemble of attributes that we know can't be assigned to a linear scale without choosing to scale the different factors against each other, which opens up opportunities to institutionalize our own culturally based values.

So for example, since losing my Hawaiian, I have never again succeeded in achieving fluency in another language besides English. This failing goes undetected in IQ tests, and my scores are off the charts.

It should be the main job of our schools to teach kids how to think and how to know. Instead we give them the impression that it's just a matter of amassing facts.

Because I have a doctorate in math and use it for comic effect in my column, and because irony-impairment is epidemic, and since the irony-impaired are also very often the epistemically incompetent, people will say the darn'dest things to me.

I had a guy suddenly, out of the blue, blurt out "εν αρχη ην ο λογος και ο λογος ην προς τον θεον και θεος ην ο λογος" to me. When I said, "Excuse me?" he said, "Surely with your doctorate in math you MUST recognize that." Turns out it's the Ancient Greek of John 1:1 "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Oh yeah, right, that Analysis 611 seminar was TOTALLY devoted to memorizing Biblical fragments in dead dialects. You simply can't expect to understand the Spectral Theorem until you know your spectra, and you can't know your spectra until you're on intimate terms with the God, the Word, Jesus, and the Holy Ghost. In Greek.

There's one guy I know who is so epistemically incompetent he should be the EI Poster Boy. I don't want to use his name because he is incredibly thin-skinned, so I will call him TS.

An example illustrating TS's severe EI, taken from my recent life:

"Hey, Wes, isn't that the new 2008 Focus?"

"What are you talking about, TS?"

"You know what I'm talking about."

"I don't. Tell me."

"You MUST know what I'm talking about, you have a doctorate in mathematics. You know everything."

"Great. Humor me. Tell me what it is I know."

"That car, parked out there. It's the new 2008 Focus, right?"

"How the hell would I know?"

"But you've driven, Wes. You used to be a cab driver. You MUST know cars."

"I haven't been behind the wheel of a car since 1987, and even then I barely noticed the differences in how cars looked. I only paid attention to how differently the ones I drove handled."

"OK, but you can look at it now. You can see the difference between that and the 2007 Focus, can't you?"

I was so pissed at that point that rather than tell him that there is no way I could tell a Focus from a late model Honda, I instead told him that there has been research done that shows that guys like him that can instantly recognize car models are doing it using the same parts of the brain the rest of us use to distinguish faces. Therefore I said, "Since you know car models so well, you don't see the variety of women I do. How sad."

In his defense he actually said, "I can tell women apart well enough. They're either pretty or they aren't."

"Exactly. So sad."

[Below: A Ford Focus. Test your Car Model IQ! Guess the year of this Focus! Check your answer by clicking on the image. If you get it right, it will mean you can barely tell women apart!]

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