Liberal Education and Disinformation

Strangely (at least to me), I’ve noticed that many of those I know who have some semblance of a liberal education, are the same people who are more likely to be influenced by recent nutty conspiracy theories.

My instinct would generally be to expect that liberal education should preserve us from disinformation, rather than making us vulnerable to it. However, there may be some factors that make my instinct wrong.

There are a few reasons I can think of for why the liberally educated may be more open to conspiratorial thinking. One might just be that a liberal education strengthens a person to be able to entertain seriously the sorts of claims that to most other people would seem ludicrous. Just because a thing is ridiculed does not make it wrong; indeed, very often in history it is precisely those who are doing the ridiculing who are in the wrong, who are missing something unfamiliar and true and vitally important.

And what could be more ridiculous than a conspiracy theory? Liberally educated people might seem then to be ideally situated to evaluate sympathetically the sorts of conspiracy theories that would be simply dismissed out of hand by many other smug educated people. This is in principle not a bad thing, although experience shows that it also represents a real danger.

Part of the problem as well might just be a profound lack of familiarity with scientific method and good study design among those with a background in liberal education. In debates within the liberal arts, there may be two or more competing views, each with merits, each with arguments and counterarguments, and the point isn’t so much to say which is right but to explore the arguments for all sides and decide which seems most compelling or defensible. To which historical figure or community is the prodigal son intended to correspond? We will never know for sure, though we can rehearse and improve on the arguments for various candidates. Our training makes us liable to think that science works similarly. We gravitate to a view of science often associated (rightly or wrongly) with Kuhn, according to which science isn’t necessarily getting better, exactly, but is passing from one dominant paradigm to another to another, thus revealing power relationships more than any independent realities about the world. Such a view of science is not entirely wrong, but it is far from the entire truth. Some liberally educated people will have a decent grasp of how science actually works and ought to work and the ways in which it can go wrong, but again, experience has suggested recently that people with such broad interests and understanding are too rare among the liberally educated.

There’s also a confounding factor to keep in mind. The people who are more likely to be exposed to or interested in liberal education seem to come from the same communities that are more likely to accept disinformation (eg faith communities). The two things aren’t directly related, perhaps, but may rather coincide because of a shared cause.

Does all of this suggest that liberal education may have outlived its usefulness? I hesitate to go that far, but I do wonder if the present circumstances should incline us to search out ways to make liberal education more robust for our era, better suited to the realities that face us in our day. I believe that a liberal education continues to serve a vital purpose in our world. We must recognize, however, that it cannot live up to its promise, and may even undercut its good work, if it does not pass on to its students the tools necessary to think well about the world as it presents itself to us in our day.

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