Authoritarian muscle memory and the twists and turns of lying
This post alone was worth this year's subscription. Thank you.
I can't help but think that another piece of the Authoritarian Muscle Memory, in addition to strategic planning and ability to discern truth from clues, is the tolerance for sitting with ambiguity. The last year has been full of ambiguity, from evolving science to leadership void. Those who are able to sit in the ambiguity and not feel compelled to jump to black or white, will do better.
This line, this: "Critical thinking is not just formulas to be taught but knowledge and experience to be acquired and tested and re-examined, along with habits and skills that can be demonstrated and practiced."
I do not personally have the experience that would give me authoritarian muscle memory, but my father's stories and memories from life under Stalin and post-Stalin in the Soviet Union (he emigrated in 1974) feel like they've given me a bit of that way of looking at the world. The disturbing part of the past few years (of many disturbing parts) that I keep coming back to is the difficulty of maintaining one's own values and ethics in a society and system that is more likely to punish them than not, which is something my grandparents faced and didn't back down from. It's something I see most people around me struggling with -- how to deal with the meta-something of living ethical or moral or whatever lives while feeling like the framework that supports that is crumbling (if it was ever solid to begin with) AND just going to work, paying bills, raising kids, whatever. It's not just learning to navigate official "information," it's also learning how to navigate a society and political system runs counter to what the stated values are while also performing the tasks of normal daily life. The question of what to *do*, if anything, is plaguing many.
(Maybe I'm just feeling overly pessimistic after reading Tim Alberta's long profile on Nikki Haley in Politico.)
One thing that might be helpful for those who've never faced this kind of reality is advice on dealing with the emotional weight of it. Trump might be gone, but the future of democracy is pretty shaky, and plenty of us live in states where Republicans have a tight grip and are doing anything they can to erode public trust, science, democratic norms, etc. Too many simply don't know how to exist in this reality.
Thinking critically takes more work and time and you burn more glucose immediately to save even more in the future and it is also fun. This kind of learned fitness seems pre-requisite to adaptive maneuvering in ambiguity and uncertainty. Fast thinking works better the more privilege and stability you enjoy.
Like David below, I found myself wanting to question the use of the term "metaepistemology" to describe what you're doing here. Not for the sake of definitional quibbling, but because such "vertical" language doesn't seem to capture the interdisciplinary (sociological, psychological, political), indeed, very *human* face you put on our search for knowledge in these settings. If anything, this strikes me as applied epistemology at its best! But also horizontal in the sense of broad and lending itself to diverse units of analysis...is there such a thing as macro and micro-epistemology? What you seem to be speaking to is the situatedness of knowledge in all its many dimensions and especially, of the very task of interpreting and translating said "knowledge" - whether that means the discursive dimensions of what was said or done, surrounding social contexts, institutional agendas, authoritarian dynamics, or what is notably left out.
You made the important observation that "there is no separating the “process” from the “substance”. To this I would add that there is no separating process/substance from the *person* who is trying to interpret information and piece together the truth of things. Along with the "institutional operation, and the status and psychological incentives of the people, [mattering] greatly," there is also personal experience and recognition of familiar patterns seen playing out over and over (e.g. from growing up under an authoritarian regime). All this requires not only sociology and psychology, but a sense of history, and even autobiography. That is also why in an earlier post I was moved to single out the unique optimism pervading so much of your work, which for me goes beyond personal style to carry real epistemic value. Your (clear-eyed and realist) attentiveness to the potentially positive aspects of a new development -- systematically dismissed by doomscrollers or agnostics -- helps to tease the whole picture into view, in the same way that optical illusion from the museum depends on the hidden corners in and around the columns to see the missing people.
I didn't see the debate you apparently had with that Balaji Srinivasan guy, but someone suggested his position basically boils down to "how do we get to truth?" and yours boils down to "how do we get to trust? [regarding matters of truth]?" This seems like a great characterization of process vs. substance in critical thinking, where the substance must take into account a middle layer of active human participation, social meanings, and all sorts of other things.
I keep returning to the issue of whether your pursuit is of metaepistemology. I believe it is, and it’s demonstrated by this blog/newsletter/whatever it’s called.
In the principle of the New Yorker’s “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a Dog,” I perceive that you know personally few of the readers/contributors; and likewise, few of the contributors know one another. While I can assure you I am not a dog, you have no real knowledge of that.
What binds the community is that all are paying members of the Zeynep fan club — meaning that all admire your analyses and expression of them; and have signed up to be sparring partners as you think through tough ideas.
In comment interactions, I perceive that most folks need to reveal something of their lives outside the blog in order to explain a perspective or to underscore a point. To me, THAT is metaepistemology at work.
When I read the account in the New York Times yesterday, it struck me that finally many of the pieces of the story were beginning to fit together. Given Trump's treatment for the virus, the updated story made sense.
To me, however, it was a question of semiotics. The use of dexamethasone and remdesevir were indirect indicators of a more serious ailment than the official version of the story let on, no different from using the Doppler effect to determine if an emergency vehicle is approaching or distancing, or that galaxies have blue shifts or red shifts.
Your piece left me wondering: so, why does Zeynep see this as an example of metaepistemology, and what's its dividing line from semiotics?
Let me give it a try. Metaepistemology in your sense does seem to be about the social context in which veiled information exists, why it exists, and how you can go about constructing the story based on fragments of information. The specific form of logic you apply is semiotic reasoning, using analogy to liken the situation to others you know and to draw inferences based on those fragments.
In the end, of course, it reinforces your point that critical thinking depends on prior knowledge, whether direct or indirect. Not all uses of semiotics are part of intentionally obfuscated stories, nor are all metaepistemological behaviors wanting some kind of indexical pointers. In this particular case, the two came together nicely.
I am just catching up with this thread because I was spending so much time finding a vaccine in an underserved area. Found it! Yay!
I'm just a regular American citizen. As soon as Covid became a "thing" I immediately stocked up so that I maintained a rolling stock of a month of toilet paper and two weeks of food, plus a stock of non-perishable food that could be just opened and eaten. I did expect electricity to be available. I began to keep the gas tanks half full.
These actions were automatic and based on my experience in hurricanes, informed by my ancestor's stories of the depression and my early memories of WWII shortages and rationing.
Then of course we prepared for the Big Freeze (southeast Texas) and electricity outage (but didn't plan for it to be that long, so we burst some pipes).
I'm just saying that experience with failed governments may well serve us well as the future unfolds, but in the present crisis I see more personal failures to cope being due to children being raised by distracted parents and disconnected families leaving the children to TV, and then the internet, with the adults who design and run school systems treating them like processed vegetables. I am not referring here to the many astounding teachers and administrators who fight against the tide. So, re-reading what I have just written, the failure of government already weighs heavily upon us.
Back to covid, I have now marked on the calendar when we will be 3 weeks past the second shot, and making plans to add just a few things to what we can do, unless the new variants overwhelm those plans.
Had not heard of SIFT until reading this (https://nyti.ms/3k0xpcn) piece in the NYT this morning. Perhaps, if Authoritarian Muscle Memory is not well distributed in the population, it's better to offer means to quickly and reliably enough sift attention-worthy wheat from the chaff blizzard we live in these days. Not gonna get you to deep insight, of course, but will help with ruminative deep YouTube mind deformation.
I know for a fact that the logical sifting of statements the author applied to Trump's physicians' pronouncements is used by people who, in the course of making important hires/offers, thoroughly parse resumes, CV's, and recommendation letters. They read between the lines of every document you give them and every action you take around them. For example, if you earned all your degrees from the same institution, a certain well-known pharmaceutical company will infer that you are probably risk-averse. Ditto if you've always lived in the same locale.
I also sometimes use judicious omission/statement of facts like Trump's docs when I write recommendation letters for my students. If you get a recommendation letter from me that fails to mention that the candidate gets along well with others, you should probably infer that he/she is not a great team player.
Do you think there's any connection here to studies showing that "lower-class" or poor people are often better at reading emotions than rich people? I'm thinking of some of my own experiences in community organizing in the U.S., where people in Black and historically oppressed neighborhoods are highly attuned to doublespeak from any outsider and reflexively skeptical of anything a government official says. Professional-class white people in the same areas tend to be reflexively trusting of government officials, or at least see them as sincerely incompetent rather than obfuscating. Though all of this may be more tied historical racist oppression and Black vs white cultural norms (at least in my area) than simply income/wealth.
(Philadelphia continues to be a great example of what you're talking about, with our FOP president saying they "didn't know" if a drunk cop who crashed his car into a family's house was coming from a police party, our city government commissioning an investigation into the vaccine scandal and then falsely claiming the investigation barred them from sharing information, and a councilman who had had the vaccine scammer privately test his family for COVID telling a reporter that that information was HIPAA-protected when questioned.)