Post No.: 0169
To clarify – what I mean here by a ‘mass media-directed’ education is an education that’s not built upon a formal study of subjects via reputable educational institutions but merely upon snippets of information picked up here and there via social media, tabloid stories, advertising, movies and uninformed gossip.
Now this blog is obviously on the Internet itself and is part of the social media realm, but I hope you can see that I have no problem criticising, in general terms, what I am a part of. Please be aware that I will be talking in broad terms though and that good and bad exists everywhere hence, when it comes down to it, we must assess each individual source of information and education on its individual merits…
I want my readers to be aware of the dangers of a social media-directed education, a self-directed or personally cherry-picked curriculum, an informal and incomplete curriculum without being aware that it’s incomplete, or an only-conversations-with-other-laypeople-on-a-subject education. These things can certainly supplement a formal education but should not be seen as a sufficient substitute for one on complex subjects such as economics, science and ethics. The web is a tricky minefield full of misinformation, nonsense and one-sided debate, as well as truth, honesty and reasoned debate.
Although not all fears are groundless or exaggerated, a mass media-led education tends to lead to more fear (e.g. regarding vaccinations, immigrants, food additives) because fear grabs attention and therefore sells – whereas a formal and direct study of the relevant subjects from reputable educational institutions tends to lead to less fear (e.g. even scientific reports about various things increasing the risk of cancer can be better put in context of the bigger picture once one learns a lot more thoroughly about what they’re saying).
If we don’t understand how something works (e.g. microwaves or mobile phones) then we’re more likely to listen to generalised fear stories about them – we try to avoid pain and seek pleasure, in that order of importance, because for most rational people in most situations it’s no good risking death for a prize. A superficial understanding of something breeds either over-pessimism or over-optimism, whilst a deeper understanding replaces fear with respect and gives us a better-informed and broader perspective. So if you really want to learn about a subject then gain a formal education on that subject. After studying a proper course or two on a subject, one can then better analyse media stories and new findings within that subject according to its fuller context. Being knowledgeable in one area doesn’t necessarily mean being knowledgeable in other areas, so if you really want to understand a subject then you must directly learn about it rather than a proxy subject or rely on your general preconceptions.
Therefore if someone who has formally studied a subject (and had at least earned enough to pass that course) tells you something that contradicts something you’ve only learnt via other sources because you’ve not formally studied that subject yourself – it’s probabilistically best to assume that you’re likely wrong and not them. Although fuzzy arrogance from anyone is undesirable, it’s surely more arrogant for an untrained person to assume he/she knows more than a trained person. If you baulk at people disagreeing with you when you’ve formally studied an issue at hand and they haven’t, then you should bear in mind how you might come across if you share strong and forthright opinions on an issue you’ve not formally studied too.
Seeking medical advice from the web is fraught with danger – many symptoms have many different causes. A person trained in medicine can ask the right questions to get the right answers, but a layperson can only ask and search for what he/she knows thus may not ask the right questions (i.e. web search terms) to get the right answers for their own individual case. Also, there are a lot of ‘remedies’ that lack scientific support and a lot of ‘advice’ webpages on the web that pretend to be impartial and independent but exist solely to promote their own or an affiliated partner’s products (some by preying on the desperate or vulnerable who are looking for treatments or cures for their troubling ailments) that may or (more usually) may not work.
There are some excellent video channels by some amazingly talented people out there but not all (marketed as) educational presentations found on popular video platforms rely on good science or information – many talk primarily to promote their own businesses, products or political interests, or they simply lack sufficient expertise on what they publish but need to constantly churn out some kind of material. And even when they’re relying on scientifically-gathered data – check the date of the presentation or article because the conclusions could be out of date i.e. overridden by a more reliable set of collected data that points towards another conclusion. Naturally, this can apply to formal educational sources too, and this is why we must cross-reference our education with other sources and courses, and remain as life-long learners to always keep abreast with the latest research and ideas. (Post No.: 0112 discusses how some things taught at school go out of date.) The posts in this blog have dates too – albeit Fluffystealthkitten and I will endeavour to update any posts to reflect any major and verified shifts in their conclusions where relevant and necessary. Your constructive comments and feedback will assist with this too.
A lot of useful or important knowledge has been discovered for many years, decades or even centuries now, yet the vast majority of people today don’t understand the vast majority of these teachings (e.g. how the scientific method works, which is important if we want to follow any science news) – and this highlights how glacially slow knowledge can travel culturally into ‘common sense’ via just the mass media; if it ever does at all. This knowledge will only be gleaned if we personally and actively look for it rather than passively wait for the mass media to feed it to us. The mass media won’t always teach us all the useful things to know in life or as a vocal member of a polity, or in anywhere enough detail to be truly useful rather than ‘just a little bit of knowledge to be dangerous’. There’s so much that one will likely never learn if one just relies on mass media sources.
This all should really be obvious – would you feel safe if e.g. a doctor who only knew all he/she knew about drugs via mass media sources prescribed you something? Having only an informal media-led education can leave people being dangerous (or at least dangerously opinionated) rather than sufficiently informed. (Something that bugs me is when I see politicians switching roles in government like they’re on a merry-go-round (e.g. health secretary one day, foreign minister the next), as if they don’t need any deep and specific expertise in their roles and it’s about how well they schmooze up to their current party leader instead of what they know! To me, it’s like someone being a camera operator one day then a sound engineer the next. Voters seldom, if ever, question a candidate’s qualifications but instead are persuaded by their charm and rhetoric too.)
Where a reputable formal education is most advantageous is when it exposes you to all manner of uncomfortable counterviews, counterarguments and counter-evidence; and with the necessity of passing exams/tests, one needs to study them carefully even though one wouldn’t have even searched for them or possibly knew they had existed if one merely self-directed one’s own education. With a self-directed education (i.e. one decides for oneself what particular sources to read, watch or listen to), we risk searching for and only spending our time being exposed to whatever we want to see and hear, which are usually things that merely confirm our existing biases – meaning that one’s potentially one-sided views become even more reinforced inside filter bubbles and echo chambers.
After watching just one or two self-selected videos from the web (e.g. based on how short the videos are or how pretty the presenters or pictures are), you might misunderstand something, miss the points, prematurely disagree with them because you lack the background knowledge to accept where the speaker is coming from, or prematurely agree with them because you have no better basis to dispute them. Testing is so crucial for checking understanding. A 20-minute video or two (never mind short sound bites asserted by a loud person on a media snippet) is not usually sufficient to truly grasp an entire complex subject in order to make an informed opinion or to fully appreciate what’s being said. So it’s best to study a complete course.
Even with an introductory course, you’ll at least learn to be aware of how little you knew about that subject, and that what you’ll now know will be understood to be just an introduction to that subject; even though you’d now likely know more than you did before and you’ll now know more than most people regarding that subject! In other words, by studying more, you’ll typically become less cocky about what you thought you knew because whilst before you didn’t know how much you didn’t know – you’ll now be more aware about how much you’ve still to learn. (A good introductory course stresses that it’s just introductory, and highlights the potential avenues one can then go to further the study of that subject. A bad course, really at any level, or a bad self-directed study programme, will make one feel like one knows everything about a subject already. But the world of knowledge in almost every worthwhile subject never stops advancing.)
The posts within this blog are, in sizeable part, borne from knowledge accrued from several years of studying well over a hundred online courses and counting, from prestigious universities across the world. Still, this blog is only intended as a supplement and not a replacement for continuing or participating in your own formal education journey and own critical thinking. Few information references are provided, plus one blog cannot know and teach everything after all – Fluffystealthkitten and I are wise enough to understand that. This blog only serves as a taster of some of the things you may be missing if you rely too much on being informed by the mass media (whose primary purpose is more often to entertain, sell something or serve a particular one-sided interest) and too little on reputable formal educational sources (whose primary purpose is to educate). Although I hope I’m wrong, I won’t be surprised if this blog never gathers a huge following because something like this is what most people arguably need but not what they seem to want in today’s diverted-attention and expectation-of-low-efforts world – because it requires a lot of reading, questioning and thinking!
…Well it’s our little secret. Although please nevertheless share it with whomever you can anyway!
(I’ll continue to promote the considerable benefits of formal education over solely relying on mass media sources to inform us – not because I get paid by anyone to say so (because I don’t) but because I know how much my own understanding of the world significantly improved once I formally studied so much myself. I, for one, wish these MOOCs existed earlier because I seized upon these opportunities as soon as they really proliferated. Not that I wish to promote certain courses over others out of the literally thousands there are out there but maybe I’ll one day publish a list of all the courses I’ve studied and from which institutions, if anyone is interested. However, the main point is for you to continue on your own formal educational journey no matter if you’ve already been to university or whatever age you are – to gain an advantage over those who don’t and to keep up with those who do.)