Monday, June 26, 2006


"The thoughtful, learned polymath has been replaced by the glib, trendy hipster who spouts the latest PC pieties."

When I was young, my doctor once said that as a society, we've created an artificial phase in life called "teen-agers" that never existed in times past. Where people were children, then graduated to adulthood (usually with some sort of coming-of-age ceremony such as Bar or Bat Mitzvah). Now we have a transition period where one is neither adult nor child, an in-between period where one attempts to have the advantages of both with the drawbacks of neither - freedom without responsibility.

How this developed and came about is another topic, but the Discovery Channel website has an article by Jennifer Vlegas called Immaturity Levels Rising which includes these quotes:
The adage "like a kid at heart" may be truer than we think, since new research is showing that grown-ups are more immature than ever.

Specifically, it seems a growing number of people are retaining the behaviors and attitudes associated with youth.

As a consequence, many older people simply never achieve mental adulthood

Among scientists, the phenomenon is called psychological neoteny.

The theory’s creator is Bruce Charlton, a professor in the School of Biology at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, England. He also serves as the editor-in-chief of Medical Hypotheses, which will feature a paper outlining his theory in an upcoming issue.

The faults of youth are retained along with the virtues, he believes. These include short attention span, sensation and novelty-seeking, short cycles of arbitrary fashion and a sense of cultural shallowness.

Professor Charlton's thesis is that modern society requires more flexibility and ability to adapt and change to environment than days past due to a rapidly changing world. My parents and grandparents would be baffled by this revelation, having seen in their lifetimes a shift from horses and gas lanterns to computers, atomic power, and the space shuttle. He says

A “child-like flexibility of attitudes, behaviors and knowledge” is probably adaptive to the increased instability of the modern world, Charlton believes. Formal education now extends well past physical maturity, leaving students with minds that are, he said, “unfinished.”

“The psychological neoteny effect of formal education is an accidental by-product — the main role of education is to increase general, abstract intelligence and prepare for economic activity,” he explained.

“But formal education requires a child-like stance of receptivity to new learning, and cognitive flexibility."

"When formal education continues into the early twenties," he continued, "it probably, to an extent, counteracts the attainment of psychological maturity, which would otherwise occur at about this age.”
"People such as academics, teachers, scientists and many other professionals are often strikingly immature outside of their strictly specialist competence in the sense of being unpredictable, unbalanced in priorities, and tending to overreact.”

Charlton added that since modern cultures now favor cognitive flexibility, “immature” people tend to thrive and succeed, and have set the tone not only for contemporary life, but also for the future, when it is possible our genes may even change as a result of the psychological shift.

I dispute this analysis, although his conclusions are valid: modern culture is fixated on youth, is largely immature, and suffers from a fixation on the new, the trendy, and has a short attention span while rejecting tradition, wisdom, and stability.

Tim Blair saw this article and quips

Biology professor Bruce Charlton identifies why so many academics, teachers, and scientists are total wads... I can think of one or two locals who validate Charlton’s theory.
Commenters at the site responded about academics:

Bravo, Charlton! So admirably phrased, so keenly relevant to what we see around us everyday in the MSM, Kos, among the Hollywood activist hive, etc, etc. I have often wondered how people, otherwise intelligent and acomplished in their fields of professional endeavor, could wind up walking on all fours and eating grass when it comes to some newsworthy event or some grand political or social theme.
-by paco

I ain’t buying it. Academics are some of the least flexible thinkers around. They are immature because they’re in a safe, no-change, no-risk environment. The people out there, that he describes as ‘cognitively flexible’, that are ‘thriving and succeeding’ sound, to me, like entrepreneurs, investors, inventors and business people. Conservatives, in other words.

This whole theory is yet another academic’s crock.

Poor Charlton is just trying to explain why so many of his colleges are such infantile tw*ts, in such a way as to avoid the obvious explanation: that useless, juvenile wankers gravitate to professions (teaching, academia etc) where they will never have to answer to market forces, be competitive, or survive on their own merits.
-by Amos

It sounds like Charlton is saying you should stop thinking in your late twenties. That it is perverse to display flexibility in thinking beyond that age.

Academics earn their crust teaching and doing research - how on earth can they do that if they don’t think anew about issues?

I work as an academic and I can see sense in his argument - academics can be rather unworldly. But specialisation is inevitable in a university.

BTW, are you a generalist if you stop thinking young and then rely on your wits to ‘hunt’ and survive in non-secure habitats? Maybe - but maybe you become just a cheerleader and remain forever a bit of a dill.
-by harryc

While I agree with his thesis--

"People such as academics, teachers, scientists and many other professionals are often strikingly immature outside of their strictly specialist competence in the sense of being unpredictable, unbalanced in priorities, and tending to overreact.”

--I don’t necessarily agree with his conclusions. I would argue that expertise, flexibility and vitality are important components of a mature mind. In fact I would argue that those in his study group are noteable for a lack of any real expertise and a dearth of flexibility and vitality in their critical thinking skills. I’m with Amos.
-by Kyda Sylvester

I don’t see the attraction in a youthful and flexible mindset, I hated being young. Every year that passes brings me closer to my dream, being a grumpy old bastard. Bah humbug.
-by Daniel San

[me too. I want to be old and grumpy and have a long white beard]

This Discovery article seems to suggest Charlton considers neoteny (as he defines it) to be a bad thing. Maybe so, but the value-judgments are missing or much softened in his own published article .

To sum up:

1.There is an observed phenomena in the mid-20c of the rise of the boy-genius
2.The characteristics of a boy-genius include youthfulness
3.Youthfulness is an advantageous adaptation to modern culture
4.The neoteny trend will continue

But don’t worry, Daniel San. There’s still a place for you in this brave new world:

But even as whiz-kids dominate mainstream culture, the popularity in modern societies of traditional sources of insight and integration – from Rembrandt and JS Bach to Einstein and Tolkien - implies that a niche will surely remain for the profound repositories of ancient wisdom
-by debo.v2

I “work” as an academic also, and there has been a real change in expectations since the golden age of the academic (arguably the 1920s-50s). Academe has been corrupted by the confusion of scholarship and identity politics (see Ward Churchill) and the pressure to publish meaningless twaddle to ensure tenure. The thoughtful, learned polymath has been replaced by the glib, trendy hipster who spouts the latest PC pieties. That’s what the academic market generally rewards, sadly.
-by Mr. Bingley

Many academics have limited life experience because unlike most people they have not had the career changes that develop the cognitive flexibility Charlton identifies. They go from Bachelor’s degree to postgraduate qualification to academic appointment, sometimes all within the one institution, while at the same time their focus of expertise becomes increasingly narrower.

More work experience exchanges with the private sector are necessary. Better still, Mao had the right idea. Send them out to work with ordinary people every few years,
in factories or on farms especially for the lefties who profess to be concerned about the workers’ conditions.
-by Mr Magoo

Let’s not tar all academics with the same brush.

Some of the comments sound like canned, cliched conservative opinion.

For every self-indulgent arts wanker there is a connected engineer/scientist who is passing on the benefits of pure research into commercial enterprise. The benefits of this to the community are enormous.

Consider Fourier (1768 - 1830) who showed that you can approximate any function arbitrarily well by summing the right combination of sinusoidal functions. That was pie-in-the-sky “twaddle” at his time, done purely for its own sake.

Today, Fourier Theory underpins ALL electronic communications devices, including satellite and internet, to name just two. The fruits of this knowledge sit inside every home stereo system and DVD player, inside every piece of electronic medical equipment. The list goes on.

But I agree that Charlton hits the nail on the head for a certain type of academic.
-by closeapproximation

I agree that not all academics are fools and it’s a diverse population etc etc but that kind of goes without saying.

What we consistently see is manifestations of a deluded leftist academic culture that insists in meddling in politics outside it’s technical specialties. Stupid, murderous ideas like Marxism linger in these institutions because, as Sowel says, bad ideas tend to survive where they can insulate themselves from reality.

But there’s an element of Conservative prejudice too, so whatever. The point is this ‘mental flexibility’ theory is bunk. The most aggressive, adaptable, flexible and innovative thinkers who are ‘thriving and succeeding’, as Charleton puts it, are not in academia. They’re out there in the big bad world, and they’re a lot more likely to be conservatives, ie. People with a mental map of the world and human nature that matches actual reality instead of some pleasant theoretical utopia.
-by Amos

Amos, That Marxism survives in social science departments is a sign of a university illness. I assume its partly for Sowell reasons but also because Marxism identifies a class of villains and provides a basis (however deluded) for social policy.

But it is also a sign that people working in these departments have very little knowldge of economics - many think that the only theories of society that involve economics are Marxist which is wrong.
-by Kalimna

wankers in humanities departments? Surely not. Here’s a comment on a paper of multiskilled one who has no difficulties escaping her academic humanities box and applying her expertise to pressing problems in theoretical physics.

"The privileging of solid over fluid mechanics, and indeed the inability of science to deal with turbulent flow at all, she attributes to the association of fluidity with femininity. Whereas men have sex organs that protrude and become rigid, women have openings that leak menstrual blood and vaginal fluids. ... These idealizations are reinscribed in mathematics, which conceives of fluids as laminated planes and other modified solid forms. In the same way that women are erased within masculinist theories and language, existing only as not-men, so fluids have been erased from science, existing only as not-solids." A comment on the paper - Hayles, N. Katherine. (1992) Gender encoding in fluid mechanics: masculine channels and feminine flows. Differences: a journal of feminist cultural studies. 4 (2), 16 - 44.

Another spoke of the need for a “feminist algebra”, but I can’t find the reference.

But the best is still Alan Sokal’s hoax paper

Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity published in the postmodernist journal Social Text #46/47, pp. 217-252 (spring/summer 1996).

And the anguished bleats from the humanities trendies once they discovered they had been conned.
-by whale spinor

as someone who is involved in hard science, I can say that there are ambiguities at any level of inquiry.

It is often possible and indeed desirable to argue with a mathematical solution, in as much as the initial problem formulation and modelling (and maybe the solution method) involve decisions and value judgements, eg: what to include and what to leave out. This becomes important for real-world applications of physics, mathematics, etc. as opposed to high school maths experience which involves doing a mass of problems and then checking your answer against the one at the back of the book.

What I mean to say, is that even though, yes, there is only one correct solution to the equation

x^2 + 3 = 0

(no, hang on, there’s more than one, isn’t there...and only if we invent a new type of number, should we really do that ?), the process of modelling, which is the only way that mathematics can be turned into real-world application, is not always so clear-cut.

A good example is climate modelling.

None of this detracts from the fact that postmodernists are wankers. Humanities departments deserve all the sh*t they get for inflicting this upon the academic landscape.
-by closeapproximation

"A good example is climate modelling" It’s also a good example of how climate scientists (or more likely their apologists such as Lambert) have forgotten the nature of science. “The debate is OVAAAHH!” Straight from the Iron Chef. Aristotle may have said the same in 300BC to advocates of heliocentricity but then came Copernicus. The debate continues until the theory is validated by experiment or observation. This still doesn’t make the theory correct, it just means it fits the data at the time of observation. And it’s a smart scientist who can set up a trial to make in situ observations 10 or 20 years hence and report the results today.

I read on some climate catastophe blog that the predictions are based on complex but well validated mathematical models. Does anyone have any links to what these mathematical models are? The climate changy papers I’ve read only mention outputs and inputs - nothing about the underlying maths. Is it the standard continuity and conservation equations? 19th century maths, nice but hardly complex. Or is it more?

Interested, but don’t want to pay out lots of $’s to Springer etc collecting them
-by whale spinor

The problem is that this professor is defining maturity as "inflexibility and stolidity" and immaturity as "flexible, changing, adaptive." With that as your basic model for life, all manner of confusion and poor conclusions may be reached. The fact that this man is labeled an "evolutionary psychologist" might explain some of the way he understands maturity.

The theory postulates that an evolved creature is further along than it's predecessors and is established in a niche in the world, no longer needing to change. Change comes when the world becomes impossible to be successful in and the creature mutates to face this (or just dies), which means new and youthful creatures are changing to fit their world and old and unchanging creatures are unable to deal with the world.

I think maturity has to be defined a bit differently to make sense of people. Very mature, older and stable people can be very adaptive, in fact when someone gets so old they adapt poorly, they often take on less mature characteristics and seem more childish. Maturity is not a lack or abundance of flexibility and adaptability, it is wisdom, discernment, experience, and the ability to make appropriate choice and react properly to situations. I can't argue with the idea that people are more immature today, but for those very reasons, not what Professor Charlton brings up.

1 comment:

Anna Venger said...

"As a consequence, many older people simply never achieve mental adulthood"

I'd agree with that. People are more immature today.

The question is why?

I'd point to cultural changes. Greater prosperity and more leisure possibly encourages more selfishness, more "me, me, me" attitudes.

A greater obsession with youth and beauty so that we concentrate more on the external than the internal.

More sexual liberties. Whereas before the sexual revolution it was generally understood that to have sexual relations, one had to win someone's heart and partner permanently and soon start a family, now people can put off those adult responsibilities or throw them off if they become too cumbersome.

Positive adaptation? I don't think so.