Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Thinking about Marshall Poe's book

In his book, A History of Communications: Media and Society from the Evolution of Speech to the Internet, Marshall Poe briefly cites a school of thought relative to the impact of literacy on thinking. He states that what he calls "the mentalists" suggest that the development of literacy changes the way people in a society think. His critique of the mentalists is based on the observation that anthropologists doing comparative studies of thinking in literate versus non-literate societies do not observe a difference in logical thought between the two.

First, it seems to me that people with more and better information from which to make logical inferences and deductions think differently than those with less information or information of lesser quality, and indeed that more and better information are likely to come to better results from their thinking. Indeed, literacy and access to printed information allow those who will utilize written resources to obtain more and better information more rapidly and easily than illiterates. I wonder if the anthropologists cited by Poe found a way to test these differences.

Having taken a couple of college courses in logic, I can attest that I have learned about logical thinking from books, and indeed our literate society has developed a body of information on logic using printed materials. Incidentally, there is also a body of literature on the biases that keep people from thinking logically, and there are clearly people who know some of this literature who use that knowledge to help avoid those biases.

I would suggest that professional scientists and engineers invariably come from literate societies, that they have learned specialized mental processes, and that they work in ways that are distinct from those of anyone in a completely non-literate society. They depend on bodies of knowledge specific to their scientific or engineering paradigms, and the knowledge and other products that they produce is important to their societies.

I have a doctorate with a specialization in operations research. I learned from books and lectures based on books, and other published materials. Indeed, more of the substance of the field was conveyed in printed or written symbols than in spoken language. For a time in my career I carried out logical analyses of problems using computer programs and quantitative techniques that I had learned in my training as an operations researcher. Those analyses and their conclusions led to significant changes in the way things were done in corporations and public institutions. I guarantee that that kind of analysis could and would not be done by most people in my literate society, much less by illiterate people in illiterate societies. The quality of my logical analysis was instrumental in increasing the efficiency of my clients.

The basic point I would make is that in a segmented society, it is not the thinking of "the average person" on the average issue that counts most on the way the society works, but rather the ways that the experts thinks in their areas of expertise that have the most important and pervasive influence on the way the society functions. Without engineers, doctors, agronomists, veterinarians, architects, and other professionals who depend not only on their own literacy (and numeracy) but also on the body of knowledge built and communicated through literature who make a profound difference in society as compared with illiterate societies.

I will point out that Poe's characterization of mentalists is not central to his argument and that I have barely started his book which looks quite interesting.

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