Tuesday, 2 July 2013

On the Matter (and Myth) of Self-Learning

Oh, MRAs, my dear MRAs... I feel like I'm becoming a mommy to some of you, or a wise old oracle of sorts, because I apparently can't shake loose the notion that you need my guidance.  Maybe I'm just one of those people who has to involve herself in a problem even when her advice isn't wanted, but I'm just going to continue being myself because it's what our heroes always taught us in those after school specials and children's programs.

I know I've already addressed the issue of MRAs like GirlWritesWhat presenting scientific research that she either doesn't understand or willfully misrepresents, which by the way is a huge no-no in the scientific community if that wasn't obvious to you.  That's the kind of thing that gets you fired from a research position or compels your thesis committee to reject your paper and your degree, maybe even kick you out of a doctoral program (or master's program... or hell, even an undergraduate program), but I digress.  What I'd like to address is the myth of the modern day Renaissance Man (or Woman).

During our little spat, if it can even be called that, GWW and her fans constantly accused me of appealing to authority by making the horrible and radical suggestion that they should look things up themselves, demand rigorous evidence from GWW before taking anything she says seriously, and, if they simply must take the side of someone, it would be wise to choose an actual expert.  Ironically, I wasn't appealing to authority, I was telling them that if THEY were going to appeal to an authority that GWW probably isn't the best authority to whom one should appeal.

Things got weird though when GWW compared herself to Galileo and feminism to the Catholic Church.  First of all, by making this analogy it only further gives credence to my constant contention that MRAs are conspiracy theorists.  Does this mean to imply that feminism, like the Catholic Church in 16th century Italy, is some powerful force that has the ability to put GWW and others like her under house arrest for heresy against... well, I don't know, heresy against feminism?  Is she really an iconoclast, presenting the TRUTH while the scientific and "feminist" establishment is trying to subvert it for the sake of some kind of "feminist orthodoxy", or just a conspiracy nut rambling on a soap box whose theories aren't compatible with established science for the simple fact that they are patently wrong?  That's something of a rhetorical question, but there's only one correct answer.  Here's a hint: it's the second case.

Secondly, it is the height of arrogance for GWW to compare herself to Galileo the Iconoclast.  I think any reasonable person should raise an eyebrow when a vlogger affiliated with a known hate site is comparing herself to an astronomer who stood up to religious dogma for the sake of scientific fact.  Since when is the factuality of GWW's theories a foregone conclusion anyway?  Do you begin to understand why I'm asking you to fact-check and look into it since GWW is too inept to be able to present her research honestly and rigorously?  Remember, the different between Galileo and GirlWritesWhat is that Galileo had incontrovertible evidence because, get this... he actual did the scientific observations and collected the data himself.

I also find it pretty ironic when MRAs compare feminism to a religion while essentially idolizing GirlWritesWhat as their popess, spinning the dogma from up on high in the MRA hierarchy.  Meanwhile, feminists are hanging out in universities discussing their research with scientists and humanities scholars, and many feminists are themselves scientists and humanities scholars.  YouTube is the Church of the MRM, and GWW is its High Priestess.

But to get back on point, a lot of people seem to have no problem with GWW as Galileo, that is, as Renaissance Woman.  I was treated to such platitudes as, "You don't NEED a degree to read books and papers (indeed... which is why I tell you MRAs to read books and papers yourself, did you miss that part?)," or, "It's possible to be self-educated in these things," and similar sentences, which I will equate essentially with the statement: One can become a modern day "Renaissance Person", a self-taught expert in any number of fields of scholarship.

Now, as quaint and comforting this assertion sounds, especially for those of us who do not have the means or the ability to acquire a formal education, it's simply dead wrong.  While I will grant that it's possible to be well-read in a topic without receiving a formal education in it, I'd like to point out that the very, very, VERY few instances where this happens usually involves a trained academic teaching himself another field.  For example, I once read a musicology text by a man who received in Ph.D. in Russian Literature, and he became a musicology authority by essentially spending 20 years reading every single musicology book and article in the library of the university he worked at.  It also didn't hurt that he was a trained classical pianist, even though he never studied music at the university level, and therefore had a strong fundamental knowledge of music in general, most importantly having already acquired the necessary skill of being able to read music notation and use musical vocabulary before even beginning his self-guided quest in becoming a musicology authority.  So can one be self-taught?  Yes, but as you can see with the above example, you're a completely deluded fool to think that any old person can do it.  Keep in mind that, assuming you have to work 40 hours a week to support yourself, that most academics have almost a ten year head start in researching these things because they spent most of their 20s in school, often exclusively by the time they're at the graduate level.  They have infinitely more time and professional resources to self-teach themselves these things than you do.  I've known grad students who spend 40 hours a week reading and researching because while your job might be manning a cash register, their job is knowing what the fuck they're talking about.

One needs to take into consideration how much material is out there when one proposes to be a self-taught modern day Renaissance (Wo)Man.  As one of my professors once joked with me, "Sure, it was EASY to be a self-taught expert in the 16th century.  You could read 50 books and truthfully assert that you've written all of the relevant literature to a topic that is in print, perhaps in several topics, perhaps even in ALL scholarly topics, because in that time there really weren't a lot of things that were known.  Nowadays I have 50 books on my shelf at home that are just on modern algebra.  With the same effort you can't even be a self-taught expert in a sub-branch of a branch of a single field of discourse, so how the hell can anyone but the most extraordinarily intellectual person with copious amounts of spare time become a legitimate self-taught expert in anything?"

So I have to ask: is GWW an extraordinary intellectual with copious amounts of spare time?  I'd be curious to view her complete reading list in evo psych or anthropology or whatever so we could quantitatively make that judgment, and that's assuming she actually understands what she's reading, which is the fatal flaw of declaring oneself self-taught.

Being self-taught is essentially no more than a libertarian pipe dream, and idealist view that someone with the drive and tenacity can become self-made.  As I said to one of her fans, it's like thinking that reading automobile manuals can put you on par with trained mechanics, or even the engineers who designed the actual cars.  Everyone should have serious doubts that someone like GWW is able to even understand most academic literature, which can be notoriously inaccessible to people who haven't literally spent years of their lives learning about the topics.  I have a degree in mathematics and yet I have a physics book that I literally can't understand after the first chapter because the mathematics become too complex and specialized for me to easily follow.  Anything that GWW understands is likely the kind of "pop science" distillations that anyone could read without using her as a middleman, or I would imagine she'd be forced to restrict herself only to that which she can understand.  And given that most real science articles are full of statistical analysis, you practically have to be a statistician to understand some of them and be able to interpret the data accurately.  This is why we leave it to the trained experts to do, and tend to take their word for it, because sometimes appealing to authority is the only way we will ever receive the knowledge that they acquire through complicated and esoteric research.

Really, I could go on, but if you're still not convinced then I invite you to go to a university library and have a librarian help you access a journal database and just casually browse through some scientific papers.  Or, if you're a university student already, go to the library and access a database, assuming you know how to use it and you're not one of those students trying to glide through and waste an over-priced education.  Consider it a challenge to yourself.  Look up something you know little about and try to see how much you can figure out on your own.  If you aren't more confused after trying to read that stuff instead of less, then I'll mail you a dollar.

I think trying to become educated is noble, even if you don't have the means to pursue a formal education.  I wish you would actually do it and not pretend that whatever shit you can find in small quantities will ever make you even remotely close to being a self-taught expert.  Demand more from your MRA propaganda mouthpieces and stop taking the shit of non-experts as gospel, especially when you can prove to yourself just how suspicious it is to try and learn these things on your own and see how far you can actually get without the help of someone to guide you and explain it all to you in an organized, graduated (i.e., increasing in difficulty and scope) way.

In the very least if you're going to eschew a formal education and professional training for whatever reason, have some fucking humility and don't tirelessly defend someone when it's so staggeringly clear that if she ever even gets anything right it's probably a fucking accident.  LOL!

*Thank you to for allowing me to re-post her article here on Menticulture.