Is real world knowledge inert when acting politically?

I have come to the use of the concept of inert knowledge as a way to understand political thinking and conceptual change theory as a remedy. I recognize that these ideas may be foreign to most, but if you are willing to tolerate a little background information I will get to my application of these ideas.

Different settings serve as memory retrieval cues for different information and conceptual models. This claim has been most thoroughly investigated when it comes to “common sense” understanding of various scientific phenomena versus formal science as taught in school.  So, think of the “real world” as a retrieval cue and “the classroom” as a retrieval cue.  One cue activates common sense and one formal knowledge. The interesting thing and frustrating thing to those of us who study learning is that inconsistent beliefs can be held by the same person and the beliefs that seem to be in play outside of the classroom are not those that reflect what might be described as the best representation of “the truth”. In other words, people can act in the real world in a certain way even though they “know better”. This is not necessarily a purposeful thing as might be implied when truth does not serve personal needs (e.g., climate change representing an inconvenience to actions a person wants to take), but rather that relevant information is simply not available to consciousness when it might be applied. The phrase inert knowledge is sometimes used to describe this situation. A person has relevant knowledge but fails to think of it (remember it, be aware of it) when it should be applied.

Researchers demonstrate some of these issues in interesting ways. If people are approached with a real world science problem without reference to what they have learned in school, they might give an incorrect response to a related question. If, however, they are simply told that “you might have studied this when you discussed electricity in high school or whatever the appropriate field of study might be” and then asked the same question, their answers change to be more accurate. So, it is clear they knew better but failed to use the information they have when it would have been appropriate.

So, one of the problems in education is that it is not enough to teach accurate information and ways of understanding the world. You have to somehow get rid of the flawed information and models that may exist because of personal experience and personal interpretation of such experiences. This clearly does not happen just because more useful information is provided. This is where the idea of conceptual change theory becomes useful. This theory proposes that it is necessary to activate existing flawed information before presenting contradictory information. If learners are not forced into a situation that makes clear their flawed existing knowledge, they will likely continue to held such flawed beliefs and if this flawed information is more likely activated by real world situations continue to apply such flawed beliefs.

I think these concepts can be applied far more broadly than science education. I started thinking about inert knowledge and the lack of conceptual conflict as a way to understand political behavior. For example, how could “conservative Christians” possibly accept a candidate with sexist, racist and misogynistic attitudes and behavior. Would they be willing to exhibit such behaviors themselves or tolerate them in their spouse or children? Would they even be willing to utter the phrase “I grabbed her by the pussy”? Would they be comfortable should such comments come up in conversations with their friends? Would they dismiss such attitudes as irrelevant in family members or friends or would the openness of such attitudes change the nature of their relationships?

Trying to work this out for myself, I came up with two options. The first is a willingness to ignore such traits and to assume such traits have nothing to do with values that influence political action. Taking this position implies a willingness to tolerate and accept such behavior because there are bigger and more important issues to consider. The political opponent represents such a terrible set of personal characteristics and proposed actions that a person with attitudes of a sexist, racist, misogynistic person is still the lesser of two evils. This makes no sense to me personally because even if I could ignore the personal behavior I believe the core values such behavior indicates are quite troubling and will be related to actions taken. Personal values predict behavior.

The second option is the inert knowledge model I have attempted to explain. This proposes that politics represents one mind set and real life another. Activating the political perspective brings with it values and priorities that are different than the values and priorities that are personally applied in daily life. This interpretation allows a way to interpret such behavior, but like the flawed belief systems educators must address in the classroom, this interpretation does not suggest that this separation is ideal. It may be personally useful as a self-protection mechanism, but I believe that personal beliefs and political beliefs should be consistent. Again, raising flawed beliefs and showing the inconsistencies with real life beliefs would seem the appropriate approach to change.

I do think like a psychologist and this influences how I understand and explain issues. Still, we all need to understand rather than avoid important issues and challenging others to explain the basis for their behavior seems a good way to start. Your explanations may be quite different than mine, but my challenge to you is that you generate some explanation you are willing to express.

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