One of the 16th century reliefs still existing at the monastery of “San Vivaldo,” in Tuscany. It is an example of purely image-based communication: an attempt to tell complex concepts, the stories of the gospels, to people who couldn’t read. It was a failure, but also a remarkably innovative approach. The time for image-based communication may return with the rapid loss of literacy affecting our times. The problem with this evolution is huge in science, with fewer and fewer people able to read the scientific literature. We are now depending on professional interpreters to tell us what “Science” is, just like long ago illiterate Christians were forced to rely on professional interpreters (“priests”) to tell them what the scriptures said. The result is that Science is becoming whatever these scientific priests say it is.
Let me start this post by citing a fascinating article written by “Marty Mac’s and Cheese” I don’t know who Mr. Marty Mac is, but he clearly has a remarkable cultural vision. He notes how Catholicism and Protestantism evolved along separate lines of thought. Protestantism was born as a literature-based religion: Protestants were “people of the book.” Conversely, Catholicism catered more to the illiterate.
You can see the difference in the respective churches: Protestant churches are normally austere, while Catholic churches are highly decorated and full of images. The image below is from Marty Mac’s post, and you don’t need to be told which church is which: you immediately see it.
The idea of using a visual language was exploited in full by the Catholic Church. The multi-colored reliefs of the San Vivaldo monastery, in Italy, are one of the few remaining examples of the attempt to create a completely new visual language that would bypass the Babel of spoken languages that Europe was in the late Middle Ages. It did not work because of the development of the printing press and the gradual expansion of literacy in Europe. Universal literacy would not arrive before the 20th century, but already during the Renaissance, the European elites were able to read and write in their national languages. A text was a much more sophisticated and flexible tool than the reliefs of San Vivaldo, no matter how impressive they looked.
But literacy is not a fixed concept. It evolves. Marty Mac makes some very interesting points about the transformation of literacy in our age. Even those who are still able to read, no longer have the ability to follow an articulate and complex discourse as one might find in a book of hundreds of pages, to say nothing of the 1400+ pages of the English version of the Christian Bible. The Protestant Church, nowadays, is changing as the result of this evolution. The Pentecostals are a manifestation of this trend with their spectacular services, people singing, “talking in tongues” and the like. They are no more “people of the book.”
I think it is worth reporting an extended excerpt of Marty Mac’s considerations: remarkably sharp.
A mind trained with the written word is different from a mind without it. The organization of thought required for reading is very different from that in an oral environment. The differences come entirely from communicative form.
Oral communication is nearly always discursive. Even when someone gives a monologue, it is to an audience, which reacts (perhaps silently) and participates. But monologues are rare and nearly always have a particular social purpose: relating important cultural narratives, or persuading people or expounding to them from a position of authority (what the ancients called rhetoric). But discourse is more typical of oral communication.
Discourse is by its nature unstructured. When you speak with someone, the other person can disagree, change the subject, extend your thoughts in a new direction, or bring up something new. Discourse is extremely unlikely to follow a set of logical presuppositions and explore them all the way to their end. By its nature it jumps around, assembling different ideas from multiple people in a back-and-forth which may or may not represent a coherent whole.
None of this is bad. It is just the nature of having multiple minds in real-time communication with one another through the medium of linear speech. Valuable knowledge can be imparted and also discovered in this process. A single mind following a single set of logical presuppositions cannot arrive at complete knowledge. But oral communication is by nature unstructured.
Not so the written word. Writing forces communication to be continuous and follow some particular path. There is no interlocutor to correct, derail, or add to the argumentation. If discourse is by nature a hodge-podge, with different thoughts from different minds combining to make a gestalt, writing has the ability to unmask whether the thought itself, expressed in language, has internal coherence. The act of writing forces the writer to pay attention to this. The act of reading brings to the attention of the reader whether what is being said has structure and consistency. Literacy is an avenue to greater coherence and precision of thought.
Literacy changes the way people think, or rather it opens up a new manner of thinking. It doesn’t necessarily supplant the discursive oral communication (elite Ancient Greek society, existing on the bleeding edge of the novel technology of writing, considered both oral and written language, in their proper uses, to be learned forms of culture). However, literate cultures have different qualities from illiterate ones. This kind of research is inevitably controversial, but it appears to be the case that written languages (even when they are spoken) more frequently use conjunctions and have more types of conjunctions. Many languages around the world lack a word for ‘or’, not to speak of ‘however’, ‘nevertheless’, or ‘yet.’ You can get on just fine with no conjunctions, or with a smaller number of conjunctions, or just a single generic conjunction that means ‘mostly and.’ This should not be surprising. If language occurs mostly in a context of unstructured discourse, there is less need for lots of connectives that link one set of thoughts to the next (contrariwise, there is more need for discourse elements acknowledging and addressing the interlocutor!). The increased attention to internal coherence in writing seeps back into the oral language here it is in an unexpected way: a multiplication of conjunctions.
Complex mathematics do not arise in oral cultures. This is not to say oral cultures cannot do math — you can find oral cultures comfortable with surprisingly high multiplication baked into their number systems. However, no purely oral culture has developed algebra or complex geometry. This kind of lengthy, step-by-step algorithmic process is something our brains are not naturally very good at. We seem to require an external aid for structuring, in the form of writing, to jump-start higher mathematics. After people are taught step-by-step mathematical processes, they can become quite adept at doing (some limited amount of) math in their heads. It just seems to be true that to take that first step requires writing the mathematical formulae.
Literacy is not just a communicative tool, although it is that too. Literacy causes a shift in how people think. It enables and enforces certain kinds of structured thought and is a step away from the gestalt, ad hoc compositional thought of discursive or oral communication. We all begin our linguistic lives with only oral1 communication, and only later learn to be literate. Literacy is not a replacement for oral language: it is built on top of it, both historically and in each person’s personal development.
The loss of literacy skills has been impressive during the past few decades. I note that from my students. They can repeat what they read, or the notes they took in class. But in terms of understanding a complex matter, it is a disaster. I note the same trend with my colleagues. When I was a student, I was impressed by the ability of my teachers to go through complex mathematical calculations with just pencil and paper. Nobody does that anymore: when successful scientists need to make a complex calculation, they pay someone to do it for them.
That may be just an impression of mine, but there is clear evidence that literacy is declining everywhere. We are losing what Marty Mac defines as “The kind of lengthy, step-by-step algorithmic process.” In religion, it is the defeat of Martin Luther’s approach, who had been maintaining that everyone should be able to read the Bible by him/herself. There follows that today in a sense we are all Catholic (or maybe Pentecostals). You may argue that this is nothing bad in itself. Indeed, it is not: it is just that things are different than they used to be, and that’s the normal way the world works.
The problem — the very big problem — is with science. Science normally used the Catholic approach, in the sense that ordinary people were not supposed to read the original sources in the scientific literature. That may have been the reason why scientific “papers” are normally written in an obscure and hyperspecialized language — understandable only by those who work in the same field as the authors. Not just that, but scientific papers are inaccessible to the public, hidden behind paywalls for the profit of publishers.
So, you need an interpreter, a scientific “priest” to tell you what “Science” (with a capital “S”) says (Tony Fauci has recently reached the status of “Scientific Pope”). This is a disaster because the “scientific literature” is so huge that any scientific priest with a veneer of expertise in a certain field can claim more or less anything without too much fear of being contradicted just because so few people can really understand that field.
That does not normally happen with religions: Imagine that your local pastor tells you at the Sunday service that Jesus Christ recommended human sacrifices. You may not be a theologian but you are justified to suspect that you are not told the truth. That makes Martin Luther’s approach viable: the Bible is a huge book, but its main points are understandable more or less by anybody.
But when the director of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), Rochelle Walensky, tells you that “Masks can help reduce your chance of Covid19 infection by more than 80%” how do you react? Would you believe that she invented this number from whole cloth?
Yes, she did.
There is not a shred of evidence in the literature that face masks of any kind can attain that level of protection, surely not the kind of masks that people buy and wear. I can tell you that from my own analysis of the literature. You may also check the opinion of Vinay Prasad (Epidemiologist at the University of California San Francisco) and of many commenters to Walensky’s tweet.
Fine, but why should you trust me or Prof. Prasad instead of Dr. Walensky? In the Protestant approach, you would check the literature yourself. But do you have the capability to look up the relevant papers? Do you have access to the literature without having to pay the exorbitant prices charged by scientific publishers? And even if you locate and have the relevant papers, can you understand them, written in the kind of heavy, involved, purposefully obscure style, typical of scientific papers? And do you have the capability of filtering away the evident frauds resulting from corrupt scientists publishing to please their sponsors?
You see what is the problem. Science has become so huge that it has gone beyond the human capability to understand it. Outside one’s hyperspecialized field, scientific truth has become little more than what you read in the slip of paper you find inside a fortune cookie in the Chinese restaurant. Maybe you read, “You have a secret admirer.” Oh, yes? And where does that come from? You are not supposed to know. It is the same problem you have when listening to your TV scientist appearing on the screen to tell you “wear a mask,” or whatever. Where do those statements come from? You are not supposed to know that. Science has expanded itself beyond existence.
Now, pause for a moment to breathe after realizing that more than two centuries of scientific research have led us to a dead-end street. It has been said that a scientist is someone who knows a lot about very little and who aims at knowing everything about nothing. If we keep going like this, it is a prophecy that’s going to come true.
And now what?
At this stage, the normal proposal is that we should do something to improve our schools and, in turn, that is supposed to improve the average literacy, scientific and otherwise. But the loss of literacy, in the sense of the capability of understanding complex texts, is probably irreversible. The idea of public schools financed by the state is modern: those schools have existed only for less than two centuries, from mid 19th century. They came into existence as tools for the linguistic and cultural homogenization of the newly formed nation-states. But, with the coming of image-based communication, mainly TV, they became obsolete.
Things change fast in our world: in little more than one year, we saw schools turned from a central element of our society into dungeons inhabited by little plague-spreading monsters to be kept masked all the time. How our society could turn so nasty, so fast against its children was an unexpected confirmation of Seneca’s observation that “ruin is rapid.” But it is also true that ruin occurs when evil meets opportunity and there is no doubt that the powers that be were bound to discover, sooner or later, that schools were not needed anymore. Why spend money to teach people how to read and write? Just let them sit in front of the TV.
History moves always onward and if this is what is happening, there is a reason for it to happen. Think that for most of humankind’s history, spanning at least a few hundred thousand years, there was no such a thing as “written text.” It appeared some 5000 years ago and up to very recent times, it was a skill of a tiny minority of people. We tend to see “universal literacy” as an achievement of our civilization. But it is not obvious that knowing how to read and write makes people better. You could argue for exactly the opposite (Verily I say unto you, except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 18:3). So, we are simply returning to something that was the normal way to be in earlier times, except that, by now, the exchange of ideas is done over the Web rather than physically face to face. Maybe it is an important difference, maybe not. We’ll have to see that.
In any case, Visual languages made a comeback, pushed by the new tool of Internet-based communication. We are not anymore limited to exchanging translated text: we have a wide variety of image-based communication tools, starting from the simplest “emoticons,” smiling faces, and the like, to the capability of making elaborate video clips at low cost. This new range of communication tools was going to have a profound effect on the ways people speak to each other. And it is happening.
And how about Science? Well, science has been an offshoot of our text-based civilization. As it is now, it does not serve a useful purpose anymore, having become mostly a money-making tool for corrupted people and corporations. It will change, too, not because we want it to change, but because it has to. Science will use a different kind of language, it will aim at different purposes, seeking different kinds of knowledge. But we will still recognize it for what it is, we humans were born to seek for the truth. And we’ll keep doing that.