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Reading in the Age of Coronavirus

Notably, during these times of self-isolation, it should be a near-requirement to use our time to delve into certain subjects.”

“It is my experience that it is rather more difficult to recapture directness and simplicity than to advance in the direction of ever more sophistication and complexity. Any third-rate engineer or researcher can increase complexity; but it takes a certain flair of real insight to make things simple again. And this insight does not come easily to people who have allowed themselves to become alienated from real, productive work and from the self-balancing system of nature, which never fails to recognise measure and limitation.”  E. F. Schumacher in Small is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered 

Immanuel Kant’s eminent  1784 essay “Answering the Question: What Is Enlightenment?” begins with an introduction of the Enlightenment’s motto: “Have the courage to use your understanding.” Many recent intellectuals, such as Sam Harris, Steven Pinker, and Richard Dawkins, have advocated for bringing back the Enlightenment’s values in an era supposedly lacking in the courage to “use [our] understanding.” Whether we actually live in an era lacking this courage is debatable. It, nevertheless, is not harmful to evaluate the degree to which we, as a society, currently choose to exert ourselves and engage with difficult ideas. Notably, during these times of self-isolation, it should be a near-requirement to use our time to delve into certain subjects. Unfortunately, compared to the contagiousness of the Coronavirus, the “fun” of engaging with certain challenging ideas is much less communicable.

In what follows, I will try to make the case that immersing ourselves in complex ideas is anything but natural to us. In addition, several internal and external influences often seek to suppress actual engagement with “complexities.” (I define complexities as ideas, subjects, concepts and theories with a higher than average difficulty and that are mostly discussed in non-fiction literature.) However, I will argue for engagement. This is in contrast to those, who seek to stifle engagement, often for political purposes. As such, certain populist politicians, including in my home country of the Netherlands, have sought to capitalize on the difficulty that some people have when it comes to engaging with complexities for their political gain. 

The cost of exchanging your leisure time for an activity that is more cognitively demanding seems, at first glance, a terrible trade. 

One important method to gather information about complexities is the technique you are using right now: reading. Reading (for pleasure) about a complex subject is, as Jordan Peterson rightly  noted, “a speciality market.” Some might be inclined to see the similarities with school work, which might induce less than stellar memories of being forced to read complicated books. Yet, I disagree with Peterson’s unconcern regarding the  decline in the number of people who read for pleasure—and in the amount of time they spend reading. As reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2018, the average American spent just over 15 minutes a day reading for pleasure. According to the BLS, this number has been steadily declining for the last two decades; it was 23 minutes per day in 2004, for example. The rise of audiobooks, podcasts and Youtube videos seems to Peterson to be the second-best approach for gathering knowledge, following reading.

The beneficial element of engaging with ideas though these digital mediums cannot be disputed ;  for this reason, I won’t attempt to either. What can be disputed, however, is whether these means have the potential to substitute for the decline in reading consumption. However, there is some evidence to support the large demand for both  audiobooks and  podcasts. The same goes for the ability to comprehend ideas via  listening, instead of reading. Education professor Beth Rogowsky  studied this issue with her colleagues in 2016. To begin with, Rogowsky and colleagues assigned each of the 91 participants a group their own technique to absorb a non-fiction text (reading, listening, or both). Rogowsky and her colleagues could subsequently compare the effectiveness of these techniques by handing out identical tests that measured both their retention and comprehensibility. Surprisingly to me— and Rogowsky  herself — the findings concluded that there were no significant differences in retention or comprehensibility, depending on whether the text was read or listened to. Case closed, you might say.

Despite this evidence, I’m still skeptical. Not about the degree to which people interact with information—but rather about the degree to which people interact with difficult information. We are well-aware that scientific complexities (and the engagement with these ideas) are not for everyone.  Arguably, we should not judge people by the degree to which one engages with these complexities. There are numerous factors that come into play when assessing the likelihood of engagement (many which are not in the power of the individual to control or alter in any way). As a 2016  Pew research found, the people who are less likely to have consumed a book (audio, digital or printed) in the last twelve months tend to be to be less educated (high school diploma or less), live in a rural area, be non-white or non-Asian, have a relatively low income (less than $30,000 annual), and be an adult male. Findings show that 27% of American adults have not touched a book in the last year. 

As such, what seems to be unclear to some, who neglect reading, is the actual benefit of engaging with complexities. Perhaps some perceive such exercises as a chore— not leisure. When we measure what economists call opportunity costs, most of us (not frequent readers of journals like Merion West, however) put engaging with complex subjects on the chore side of the equation. Keep in mind, this is, of course, subjective. Many also find issue with this activity because of its direct compensation , which is mostly non-existent. Compared to actual labor, we do not obtain any (relatively) short-term monetary reward by, for instance, reading an article or listening to a podcast. Yet, there is an opportunity cost, of course, and, unfortunately, many  nowadays prefer not to pay this price. 

The lack of observable benefits makes engaging with complexities, at best, evidently undesirable. Yet, we observe complexity all around us. And because of its large continuing availability, it could be said that we are born to be scientific. However, Steven Pinker asserts in his book How the Mind Works that natural selection “did not shape us to earn good grades in science class or to publish in refereed journals.” The involvement with complexities is not included in mother nature’s list of qualifications, unless it actually “shapes us to master the local environment.” Besides that, Pinker describes how science is a costly (and enduring) endeavor. Thus, “[f]or the provincial interest of a single individual or even a small band,” Pinker argues, “good science isn’t worth the trouble.” 

Instead, our (nearly) second nature, according to Kant, lies in our nonage: “the inability to use one’s understanding without another’s guidance.” This means that we would rather rely on other people telling us what information is important, as opposed to constructing our own narrative by immersing ourselves with complexities. 

If this is the case, holding onto the scientific attitude might be as difficult as Kant described. Consequently, we will have people who mock science. In Enlightenment Now, Pinker talks about how science, which consists of many complexities, is “increasingly and beneficially embedded in our material, moral and intellectual lives.” However, “many of our cultural institutions cultivate a philistine indifference to science that shades into contempt.” The distaste for the scientific complexities is not solely derived from cultural institutions. 

Presently, there are numerous politicians or journalists who take part in fostering or furthering this contemptuous stance towards science itself. They, furthermore, make use of our dependence on the information they provide us by being well aware that most of us will not do the work for ourselves. This lack of engagement gives room to transmit any information with the minimum amount of disbelief. In other words, the largest share of society would not have done the research to invalidate (or be skeptical about) the claims these politicians or journalists are making. One of these individuals fostering a mistrust of science is a Dutch, right-wing populist by the name of Thierry Baudet. He is the chairman of the party Forum for Democracy. During the last four years, Baudet’s party has increasingly been receiving a larger chunk of the voters of Dutch citizens. Last year, Baudet’s party received just over 17% (more than any other party) of the overall votes during the provincial state election. When we  observe the traits of this party’s average supporter, we identify similar traits that I’ve mentioned when discussing the rates of people who are less likely to read books. That is, they are predominantly male and less likely to be highly educated. (It should be noted that the Dutch left-populist party, besides having predominantly female supporters, has almost identical statistics). Nevertheless, Baudet is well-aware of the socio-economic features of his supporters and uses this “advantage” to inform his supporters about his views on climate change, the dangers of the media, but, most of all, he emphasizes the decline of Dutch identity currently accelerating in the country. 

Baudet often refers to Roger Scruton’s meaning of oikophobia — “the felt need to denigrate the customs, culture and institutions that are identifiably ‘ours’”— as a way to characterize (for him) the hellish nature of the European Union. He applies this also to modern art and multiculturalism. By the means of his party, Baudet tries to “restructure” the Dutch identity back to the Golden Age. Pinker explains how these figures see problems “not as challenges that are inevitable in an indifferent universe but as the malevolent designs of insidious [in Baudet’s case] foreigners.” Forum for Democracy—and parties like it—not only diminish the tremendous amount of progress we have made as a  nation; they additionally  ridicule scientists and the complexities they engage with. Likewise, Baudet spreads lies to seemingly denigrate his own country. In a May, 2019  essay in American Affairs, Baudet discusses how in the Netherlands “suicide is facilitated to ensure that here, too, no constraints — such as the duty to care for your parents — are placed on the individual.” With much confidence, I can tell you that we, in the Netherlands, do not let our parents kill themselves to relieve us of our responsibilities. The word Baudet should have used is euthanasia, not suicide. 

All and all, populist politicians seem to make use out of the nonage of men and women. They set themselves up as intelligent, competent leaders. But, instead of encouraging intellectual “freedom,” populism is occupying itself with scorning, as Pinker puts it, “the rule-governed institutions and constitutional checks that constrain the power of flawed human actors.”

We’ve already settled on the idea that engagement with complexities has been (almost by definition) a minority occupation. However, I’m rather optimistic about the extent to which people are able to integrate complex subjects into their daily lives — irrespective of the forces that suppress this engagement. In his February Quillette  article On the Study of Great Books, Andrew Gleeson asserts that books — primarily “Great” books —can be simplified when we give into, what Gleeson calls, the academic fallacy. That is, the notion that “the most important reading is the highly specialised type found in academic journals.” According to Gleeson, because of this fallacy, we overshadow the actual complexities that are part of “great” literature. 

Similar to needlessly inflating the difficulty of simple ideas, we should dwell on the notion of overly simplifying complexities to the extent that these complexities lose their name. That does not take away from the fact that people might start off at the bottom (at a reduced level of difficulty) and gradually move up. This process is where part of the fun lies. We should bear in mind that when a large number of people get involved with scientific complexities, this might result in a phenomenon I’ve called “the Curse of Interest.” This bias tells us we are susceptible to the intense need to share the information related to our interests. It has the possibility to affect our social interactions because of people’s common disregard for the interests and occupations of others. Essentially, this describes the opposite of nonage; in this scenario we only rely on the information we gather ourselves after engaging with the associated complexities. Even so, we keep informing others about our findings. 

Nevertheless, we probably will not get to this point—precisely because politicians like Thierry Baudet won’t let us. No matter how great my optimism might be, most of us will keep their dependency, and most institutions or individuals who benefit from the dependency of others will continue this trend for political gain. Whether this is changing (in the long term) as a result of our large-scale isolation is hopeful, but unlikely. The cost of exchanging your leisure time for an activity that is more cognitively demanding seems, at first glance, a terrible trade. However, its benefits are numerous. This might be the change in mindset we need to win over people who doubt the benefits of engaging with complexities. For some of us, this activity comes naturally. For others, it is a challenge to figure out who actually possesses the courage and thereby, as Kant put it, “Dares to know”.

Alessandro van den Berg is an economics teacher in the Netherlands.

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