The trouble with ignorance is that it feels so much like expertise
October 28, 2014 7:22 AM   Subscribe

David Dunning, professor of psychology at Cornell, writes for the Pacific Magazine on how confidence and incompetence often go hand in hand: We Are All Confident Idiots
posted by tykky (74 comments total) 72 users marked this as a favorite

 
Is he so sure about that?
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:33 AM on October 28, 2014 [27 favorites]


"But our genius for creative storytelling, combined with our inability to detect our own ignorance, can sometimes lead to situations that are embarrassing, unfortunate, or downright dangerous—especially in a technologically advanced, complex democratic society that occasionally invests mistaken popular beliefs with immense destructive power "

This is why we can't have nice things
posted by Annika Cicada at 7:35 AM on October 28, 2014 [14 favorites]


Dunning: "And over the years, I’ve become convinced of one key, overarching fact about the ignorant mind. One should not think of it as uninformed. Rather, one should think of it as misinformed.

"An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge."
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:36 AM on October 28, 2014 [44 favorites]


I came across this article over on Hacker News and found it tremendously interesting.

My favorite citation from the article was the one attributed to Benjamin Franklin that "a learned blockhead is a greater blockhead than an ignorant one" (shades of Peanuts there).

Of course, I don't "know" that Franklin actually wrote that, and I'm sufficiently skeptical to start to question the rest of the sources in the article and then...

Well, as Annika Cicada said earlier, this is why we can't have nice things.
posted by giantrobothead at 7:46 AM on October 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


"An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge."

Unfortunately, I suspect the reason it's so confusing to us is that this is probably not that different on a purely formal level from what a well-informed mind looks like. Knowledge really is kind of just a form of ignorance that happens to comport better with reality functionally, because all our knowledge is ultimately symbolic and indirect and formed by way of analogy and comparison and statistical guesswork. And all our signs and symbols for communicating and expressing ideas are forever in flux, subtly changing in meaning and rearranging their logical relationships with one another through various cultural processes that shift the meanings of our signs over time.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:48 AM on October 28, 2014 [18 favorites]


wait wait, and this one:

Metafilter: "...intense opinions on topics we know virtually nothing about"
posted by Annika Cicada at 7:49 AM on October 28, 2014 [24 favorites]


This would be David Dunning, of the internet popular Dunning-Kruger Effect.

The more I read from him, the more I love his work.
posted by daq at 7:50 AM on October 28, 2014 [6 favorites]


It's unfortunate that saying something as useful as "I don't know" is often punished so severely in our culture.

The flip side of this is, of course, imposter syndrome, where the most capable are full of insecurities because they (unlike their moron comrades) can see all of the known unknowns in front of them.

"The fundamental cause of trouble in the world today is that the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt" - Bertrand Russell
posted by leotrotsky at 7:52 AM on October 28, 2014 [35 favorites]


I know how dumb I am. It's what makes me so smart.
posted by Drinky Die at 7:57 AM on October 28, 2014 [5 favorites]


I have a Professional Engineer license (It's inactive at the moment.) However, meeting so many blockheads in industry with a P.E. completely devalued the achievement to me. I now feel qualified only to be an auto mechanic because at least with a car, it's ok to say, "I don't know" instead of confidently spewing absolute nonsense.
posted by notsnot at 8:02 AM on October 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


Ask a linguist some time how many linguistics-ignorant things s/he hears in any given week. "I speak a language, therefore I am an expert in language use.". Which is both truthy and not at all true.

This also reminds me of my favorite logical doodad: not even wrong.
posted by readyfreddy at 8:02 AM on October 28, 2014 [6 favorites]


Again - another reason why i am glad the internet was not around in my 20's to document all of my strongly held beliefs over economics ("unfettered capitalism will save us all!"), arts ("a monkey could have drawn that!") and social justice ("gay marriage? good luck with that!").

I glad me much smarters now!!!
posted by helmutdog at 8:04 AM on October 28, 2014 [8 favorites]


Knowledge really is kind of just a form of ignorance that happens to comport better with reality functionally ...

You're mostly right about the problems inherent in trying to fit a model of the universe into your head, but this part sounds backwards to me. Surely knowledge doesn't just happen to comport with reality—you can only call it knowledge because it comports with reality in some meaningful way.

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”—Isaac Asimov
posted by Flexagon at 8:06 AM on October 28, 2014 [7 favorites]


"The fundamental cause of trouble in the world today is that the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt" - Bertrand Russell

in b4 The Second Coming
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 8:11 AM on October 28, 2014 [16 favorites]


The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity. - W. B. Yeats, "The Second Coming"
posted by giantrobothead at 8:13 AM on October 28, 2014 [17 favorites]


I know I was a walking ball of unearned confidence in my 20s and have slowly but steadily morphed into a sentient cloud of self-doubt as my 30s have progressed.
posted by COBRA! at 8:17 AM on October 28, 2014 [11 favorites]


I came across this article over on Hacker News and found it tremendously interesting.

Nobody needs this article more than the Hacker News crowd.
posted by mhoye at 8:18 AM on October 28, 2014 [12 favorites]


There are a lot of career advantages to appearing confident and informed, but I try to limit it to things of low consequence and be honest about uncertainty when things really matter.
posted by Dip Flash at 8:23 AM on October 28, 2014


Metafilter is a seething animate mass of imposter syndrome. We may be ignorant, but calling us confident is wildly presumptuous.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 8:24 AM on October 28, 2014 [15 favorites]


The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity. - W. B. Yeats, "The Second Coming"

good troll, I'm pretty mad. voted 4
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 8:27 AM on October 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


The one thing that puzzles me a little bit in this article is the way that it conflates pre-existing ethical/philosophical beliefs with other "mistaken" approaches. It seems like he is saying that having any set of pre-existing beliefs that structure how you interact with the rest of the world is a priori a form of ignorance/over-confidence. Let's say, to choose something less likely to push anyone's buttons, that you are a Quaker, and therefore when you consider nanotechnology question, your Quaker beliefs shape how you believe nanotechnology will effect society. To Dunning, that is set up as a mistake - you're bending the "true" information about nanotechnology so that it seems to support your Quaker beliefs. And yet, where is this "authentic", pre-ideological self? What makes a self into a self except believing things about the world? There isn't some kind of accurate, rational mirror-self that gets clouded by beliefs, or some way to think about nanotechnology that is purely factual, etc. There would be no one there to do the thinking.

I mean, it would be different if there were a pre-ideological rational self that we could access - if the self weren't constituted by beliefs, if we could access some kind of fact-only view of the universe. It's not that there isn't any factual reality, or that some ideas aren't more accurate than others; it's that we don't have the option of being pure rational actors.

I feel as though underneath this essay is the idea that we can "hack" subjectivity and get something better out of it.

Admittedly, it's kind of freaking me out because I was thinking that I probably did fairly well on my accounting midterm and so I suppose that means that my overconfidence means I'm likely to have flunked it.
posted by Frowner at 8:27 AM on October 28, 2014 [9 favorites]


Fake it til ya make it. Isn't this the North American way?
posted by Artful Codger at 8:28 AM on October 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


I feel like he needs to add another effect, the "I just read the article on the topic on Wikipedia so now I'm basically an expert" effect so beloved on the internet.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:33 AM on October 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


I'm wondering if sometimes ignorance is a feature rather than a bug. Many people who have made some impressive achievements in life have said they never would have started such-and-such a project if they had understood what they were getting into.
posted by Longtime Listener at 8:35 AM on October 28, 2014 [8 favorites]


my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge

Ignorance? If I don't already know about X, that's not a fact about me, it's a fact about X: and a damn discreditable one too, let me tell you.
posted by Segundus at 8:35 AM on October 28, 2014 [7 favorites]


The one thing that puzzles me a little bit in this article is the way that it conflates pre-existing ethical/philosophical beliefs with other "mistaken" approaches. It seems like he is saying that having any set of pre-existing beliefs that structure how you interact with the rest of the world is a priori a form of ignorance/over-confidence.

I think his point, in that particular example, is that the brief summary of facts about nanotechnology that the test participants had been given was simply not an adequate basis on which to arrive at the conclusions they did. He's not saying the "worldview" itself is a form of "ignorance"--he's saying that it encourages one to confidently adopt positions that are not supported by evidence.

As always, of course, this is a lot easier to see in cases where you disagree with the "worldview" in question (e.g., Republicans who are convinced that Obamacare is causing the deficit to skyrocket) than in cases where you don't.
posted by yoink at 8:36 AM on October 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


Look at the Wallet Wars thread. People walk in, confident as balls, with "why would I want this? this is stupid" and the reply from people who actually have a clue about the situation is "no, actually, the system is broken but you don't realize just how broken it really is and this fixes it".

Followed shortly by "well my bank covers the liability so I don't give a shit". BUT I'M ON MY 4TH CC NUMBER IN THREE YEARS UGH
posted by Talez at 8:36 AM on October 28, 2014 [4 favorites]


Where does arrogant anti-rationalism fit in all of this? It's a full self-awareness of ignorance but combined with an dismissive over-confidence.
posted by guy72277 at 8:37 AM on October 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


I feel like he needs to add another effect, the "I just read the article on the topic on Wikipedia so now I'm basically an expert" effect so beloved on the internet.

That's essentially the one he's describing in the nanotech example.
posted by yoink at 8:37 AM on October 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


Richard Feynman spoke about something that happened to him while he was working in Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project that seems a bit relevant here. It's from his talk 'Los Alamos from Below,' which is a really great collection of his experiences working as a young physicist amongst all these great scientific minds. The segment I'm linking to is about what happened when Oppenheimer sent him to the Oak Ridge facility in Tennessee where they were collecting and processing the uranium for the atomic bomb, and there were serious concerns about how they were handling the material, since the operators of the facility were at first not allowed to know all the facts about what they were dealing with. This eventually leads to Feynman, who impressed the Oak Ridge staff so much that they overestimated his knowledge and causes Feynman to pull off one of the most lucky and cinematic 'faking it' moments I've ever heard.

Here's the talk, and the relevant parts are from 39:11 to about 46:40.
posted by chambers at 8:40 AM on October 28, 2014 [16 favorites]


I read this recently, which is perhaps more disturbing than simple ignorance of being misinformed. "The problem is not just the things we do not know (consider the one in five American adults who, according to the National Science Foundation, thinks the sun revolves around the Earth); it's the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place. Call this anti-rationalism"
posted by guy72277 at 8:40 AM on October 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


I also think this is an interesting article in relation to the one posted yesterday that discussed how our political bias is stronger than our racial bias.

I think it's really important to strongly consider the lens through which we view the world. Is it possible to always view the world with no lens; pure beginner mind? I doubt it. But maybe I'm wrong...
posted by rebent at 8:42 AM on October 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


I think this type of thing is at the core of a lot of the problem with people who see themselves as big proponents of science, generically. Their endorsement of 'science' becomes an important aspect of the way they perceive themselves, so you have manipulative studies and PR campaigns casting issues in terms of the confident and knowledgeable science supporter vs. the irrational, uninformed opposition, and people identify with those.

But the fact of the matter is that 'science' is all about being uninformed. You have to be uninformed and you have to know it. And ironically, the laypeople whose self-image is wrapped up in being a science endorsing person* tend to be the least open to considering unproven or unpredictable effects. The real, working scientists I know mostly tend to fall in the 'alarmist, irrational hippy' camp when it comes to their areas of expertise. They know they don't know, and they know that none of the confident buffoons don't, either.

* I think it's possible I mean 'scientism' but I'm not totally sure.**

** Hey, I know I don't know! That means I'm right about everything!
posted by ernielundquist at 8:43 AM on October 28, 2014 [7 favorites]


Surely knowledge doesn't just happen to comport with reality—you can only call it knowledge because it comports with reality in some meaningful way.

This assumes you confidently know what is real.
posted by localroger at 8:44 AM on October 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


"An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge."

And that, in a nutshell, is what's wrong with everything from Fox News and the Tea Party to anti-vaxxers and #gamergaters. These cargo cults of thoughtful discussion all exist in closed systems of stupidity, in which their preferred errors and falsehoods are recycled endlessly in what appear to the outside observer to be a parody of rational discourse.

No wonder Dunning is so popular on the Blue.
posted by Doktor Zed at 8:46 AM on October 28, 2014 [3 favorites]


This is something cats have known forever.
posted by srboisvert at 8:46 AM on October 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


Hmmm, I don't know. I find science often offers "the most likely explanation we can come up currently based on the facts at hand", which casts doubt on a proposed theory, whereas the "non-scientifically arrived at conclusion" will often be an "absolute statement of fact". No doubt there, so many people (who don't want to or can't think for themselves) will believe it.
posted by guy72277 at 8:51 AM on October 28, 2014


I read this recently, which is perhaps more disturbing than simple ignorance of being misinformed. "The problem is not just the things we do not know (consider the one in five American adults who, according to the National Science Foundation, thinks the sun revolves around the Earth); it's the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place. Call this anti-rationalism"

This is what kills me about many of the people I've met in my life - they don't want to learn things that they don't feel immediately apply to their circumstances. I have had so many opportunities in life not because I was any smarter than anyone else, but because I was willing to learn things that might not have any direct relevance to things I was doing then, but ended up doing later.

It never hurts to learn things that you don't know and it's always better to admit when you don't know.

As far as admitting ignorance goes, I don't really respect people who never admit they don't know something. I only trust things told to me by people who can say 'look, I am not sure on this, but I think X based on Y and Z' or even 'I have no clue - let's look it up'. It speaks to their integrity and their self-confidence that they are willing to admit to not knowing things. People who never admit to not knowing something are usually dangerously blind to how little any of us really know.
posted by winna at 9:05 AM on October 28, 2014 [8 favorites]


"There are a lot of career advantages to appearing confident and informed..."

...which explains why so many of the people I work with are incompetent fuckwits. At least I know I have no clue about whatever it is they do.
posted by qcubed at 9:09 AM on October 28, 2014 [3 favorites]



Interesting. I suppose it's an echo of the Enlightenment, but when we assess the mental capabilties of ourselves and others, we tend to value these scales:
  Ignorance  >  Knowledge
  Stupidity  >  Intelligence


They're attractive and useful; especially if you are part of a society intent on constantly measuring things (and measuring people).

But is seems that other cultures -- and our own in the past -- valued this scale more highly:
  Folly  >  Wisdom

You don't hear much about folly and wisdom nowadays, though there's certainly no modern shortage of the former. I think people are embarrassed to use the terms in public. Wisdom isn't a modern concept and does not admit of metrics. But I tell you this, we could sure use a few people in positions of influence who are wise enough to understand the limits of knowledge and intelligence, their own and others'.
 
posted by Herodios at 9:13 AM on October 28, 2014 [8 favorites]


This all feels closely tied, somehow, with our tendency to accept satisfying narratives of success, creativity or conflict over the more complicated chain of events that actually took place.

e.g. -- No one wants to hear about how your book was actually the product of a decade of false starts and rewrites and would never have reached its current form if your editor and your wife hadn't both independently sat down with you for many many hours and hammered out the problems with your manuscript. They want to hear about how you're a genius and your book sprang from your head fully-formed, like a literary Athena.
posted by Narrative Priorities at 9:22 AM on October 28, 2014 [10 favorites]


you can only call it knowledge because it comports with reality in some meaningful way.

I'm sort of taking the Humean skeptical line here: that apparent comportment with reality, in terms of our ability to demonstrate an empirical basis for it, is epistemologically indistinguishable from mere coincidence. That's Hume's argument, and I think as far as it goes, the argument is pretty persuasive, even if its results are also completely useless.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:36 AM on October 28, 2014 [4 favorites]


One very commonly held sacrosanct belief, for example, goes something like this: I am a capable, good, and caring person. Any information that contradicts this premise is liable to meet serious mental resistance.

I agree that one of the hardest life lessons to learn is that you are not always the hero of your own story.
posted by C'est la D.C. at 9:37 AM on October 28, 2014 [12 favorites]


I find science often offers "the most likely explanation we can come up currently based on the facts at hand", which casts doubt on a proposed theory, whereas the "non-scientifically arrived at conclusion" will often be an "absolute statement of fact". No doubt there, so many people (who don't want to or can't think for themselves) will believe it.

True enough, but it becomes much more complicated at times to move to the scientific side when what your experience alone seems to tell you something different. Take geocentrism, for example. If the universe somehow actually worked in a geocentric manner, it would look the same as a heliocentric one. Until humans developed enough precision tools and cataloged enough puzzling data that new ideas were formed that the former view couldn't compete with, the geocentric model was an observable scientific fact with more than 1500 of years of astronomical records and the development of complicated formulas explaining retrograde motion for each planet. Geocentrism was backed up by very dedicated people who could certainly 'think for themselves,' but were simply proceeding from an assumption that only fails on extremely close observation. I'm speaking of a much wider time frame of change than what most of the discussion is focusing on, but I think it's relevant as the rate of change has accelerated to such a degree that it seems to make 'absolute statements of fact' much more appealing to some as something to desperately hang on to in a whirlwind of change.
posted by chambers at 9:38 AM on October 28, 2014


And don't forget misinformation's psychopathic terminator cyborg cousin "Disinformation." (Sheeple!)
posted by aydeejones at 9:46 AM on October 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


I agree that one of the hardest life lessons to learn is that you are not always the hero of your own story.

An even harder lesson may be that life is not a story in the first place, though it may make sense and be beneficial to use stories to relate to life and the world.

There are no pure heroes or villains of the kind told about in story books. Real people are more like storm systems than like the simplified cardboard cut-out mental representations of ourselves we use to make sense of our just-so stories and to function. And nothing in the world ever really looked like it does in a still photograph because nothing in the world has ever stood as perfectly still and lifeless as in a photo--life has a flow to it, it moves, it changes paths.
posted by saulgoodman at 9:54 AM on October 28, 2014 [12 favorites]


I had an interesting conversation with a colleague recently where we discussed a student who kept re-asking the same questions when I told him I didn't know the answer (this was a research question, the answer really is "no one knows that, and when you figure it out, that will be part of your Ph.D.") we realized that he thinks a scientist knows everything, and if I said I didn't know it was because I was HIDING the info from him. This made sense of the continued asking, and also of the way I watched this student be really cavalierly confident about utter wrongness.

Dude's gonna have a tough row to hoe. All kinds of cultural strangeness comes out of our storytelling brains.
posted by tchemgrrl at 10:02 AM on October 28, 2014 [9 favorites]


I know how dumb I am. It's what makes me so smart.

As flippantly phrased as that is, it represents an absolutely essential principle. In the ongoing debates, if you want to call them that, with creationists it's important to realize that it's the scientists who don't claim to know everything. You can't actually be intelligent if you're unable to honestly assess the degree of your ignorance. A working scientist relishes not knowing, because it informs everything they do.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:10 AM on October 28, 2014 [6 favorites]


I knew it.
posted by walrus at 10:14 AM on October 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


I agree that one of the hardest life lessons to learn is that you are not always the hero of your own story.

An even harder lesson may be that life is not a story in the first place, though it may make sense and be beneficial to use stories to relate to life and the world.


I saw Birdman (or the unexpected virtue of ignorance) sunday night, this article and these two comments are pretty much, the whole plot in a nutshell.

And given my current situation, let just say the idea that I am an ignorant fool in the middle of a storm really does make a hell of a lot more sense than any other metaphor nowadays.
posted by Annika Cicada at 10:19 AM on October 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


And that, in a nutshell, is what's wrong with everything from Fox News and the Tea Party to anti-vaxxers and #gamergaters. These cargo cults of thoughtful discussion all exist in closed systems of stupidity, in which their preferred errors and falsehoods are recycled endlessly in what appear to the outside observer to be a parody of rational discourse.

This, though, is precisely the kind of reaction to this piece that strikes me as most troubling: "yeah, those people we are predisposed to disagree with sure are stoooopid, aren't they?" I think the message of this piece is completely useless if it doesn't make you ask "what are the beliefs I and my peer groups have that are similarly unfounded?"
posted by yoink at 10:54 AM on October 28, 2014 [17 favorites]


I'd be really curious if his research would be able to replicated across cultures. This seems like the type of thing that could be really susceptible to cross-cultural variation. Would a culture that valued humility highly be as prone to having people claim knowledge they don't have? I doubt it.

Also, I wonder how gender plays into this. Women seem a lot more prone to things like imposter syndrome than men do, which seems like the opposite of the Dunning-Kruger effect.
posted by eternalstranger at 10:55 AM on October 28, 2014 [4 favorites]


Also, I wonder how gender plays into this.

This piece in the Atlantic talks about this a bit. Women tend to be less self-confident than men, so per the original theory they should be less susceptible to the Dunning-Kruger effect.
posted by yoink at 11:03 AM on October 28, 2014


Can I put in another plug for Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking Fast and Slow? Because he goes into a lot of the detail around the mental processes that lead to poor self-assessments of expertise in a series of contexts. It's interesting and scary. But I think he does answer (or maybe suggest answers to...) a bunch of questions about how humans learn to live with brains that are imperfect machines.
posted by sneebler at 11:05 AM on October 28, 2014 [7 favorites]


I agree that one of the hardest life lessons to learn is that you are not always the hero of your own story.

Mistakes - It could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others.
posted by chambers at 11:15 AM on October 28, 2014


I'm sort of taking the Humean skeptical line here: that apparent comportment with reality, in terms of our ability to demonstrate an empirical basis for it, is epistemologically indistinguishable from mere coincidence. That's Hume's argument, and I think as far as it goes, the argument is pretty persuasive, even if its results are also completely useless.

I don't take anything away from Hume, but I think that if he could have seen the last 238 years of scientific advancement, it may have affected his ideas about how best to gather knowledge of the universe.
posted by Flexagon at 11:17 AM on October 28, 2014


I don't take anything away from Hume, but I think that if he could have seen the last 238 years of scientific advancement, it may have affected his ideas about how best to gather knowledge of the universe.

The very last thing Hume was suggesting was that we should give up on the pursuit of scientific advancement or that he had access to some better method that would yield more reliable results. He wouldn't have been remotely surprised at our vastly increased scientific and technical knowledge.
posted by yoink at 11:23 AM on October 28, 2014


People really hate problems without solutions and questions without answers, and they hate stories without endings or morals. And that's kind of inevitable. We can't know everything we'd need to know to be successful or to live a fully examined life. We need patterns and clear explanations, and at some point, we all need to trust some authority or another. And lots of the time, the only tool we have to determine whether someone knows what they're talking about is whether they seem confident.

And because of that, outright acknowledging that you don't know something can be very much detrimental, especially in the workplace. People want assurances and they want someone else to give them concrete answers and solutions and explanations, and they tend to ignore the people saying that they don't have those.

[This is where I put the solution to the problem and the moral of the story.]
posted by ernielundquist at 11:24 AM on October 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


Doktor Zed: And that, in a nutshell, is what's wrong with everything from Fox News and the Tea Party to anti-vaxxers and #gamergaters. These cargo cults of thoughtful discussion all exist in closed systems of stupidity, in which their preferred errors and falsehoods are recycled endlessly in what appear to the outside observer to be a parody of rational discourse.

yoink: This, though, is precisely the kind of reaction to this piece that strikes me as most troubling: "yeah, those people we are predisposed to disagree with sure are stoooopid, aren't they?" I think the message of this piece is completely useless if it doesn't make you ask "what are the beliefs I and my peer groups have that are similarly unfounded?"

I'm not sure that one precludes the other. I can (and, hopefully, continually do) examine my own beliefs, but that doesn't mean I can't also look at anti-vaxxers or gamergaters and recognize something seriously wrong with their thought processes. I mean, one doesn't have to read everything ever published before one can come to any conclusions whatsoever (I'm not seriously suggesting you're saying that, just using hyperbole to get my point across). I've done my fair share of thinking about the world and my place in it, enough to recognize -- as an outside observer -- that there's a closed-loop feedback system fueling those types of groups. I recognize at the same time that I tend to prefer echo chambers that repeat to me the types of things I already believe because that's how humans work, but I'm critical enough of media and the world in general to have my default approach be skepticism, with a willingness to do my own research, and to consider information from multiple sources. I know enough not to take anything on faith, or just because it sounds good, even though that's way easier than the alternative.
posted by axiom at 11:46 AM on October 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


I wonder if this could be something of a teaching aid to religious fundamentalist.
posted by RedShrek at 12:22 PM on October 28, 2014


In the vaccination example, though, I know someone whose kid had a severe reaction to vaccinations, and according to her, it's very very common for people to a) "rebut" her, insisting that vaccines are 100% safe and never cause adverse reactions, and/or b) assume that she is claiming they gave him autism and then "rebut" that.

So there are apparently plenty of pro-vaxx people who are very confident in their mistaken beliefs as well.

(I'm sure everyone will be shocked to learn that the father has never experienced either of those responses.)
posted by ernielundquist at 12:23 PM on October 28, 2014 [6 favorites]


leotrotsky: It's unfortunate that saying something as useful as "I don't know" is often punished so severely in our culture.
In most places, if you ask for directions the least likely reply you will hear is, "Sorry, I don't know." People want to help.

In small towns (IME), that desire to help is accentuated. There, the sentence evolves a bit: "I don't know. Go down this road until..."

They begin by admitting they have no idea where Franklin Street, or County Highway 503, or the Rufus-Schuyler wedding is, and then they begin giving you directions.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:05 PM on October 28, 2014


mhoye: I came across this article over on Hacker News and found it tremendously interesting.

Nobody needs this article more than the Hacker News crowd.
Nobody needs this article more than someone who thinks those guys need this article.


;)
posted by IAmBroom at 1:09 PM on October 28, 2014 [4 favorites]


That's Hume's argument, and I think as far as it goes, the argument is pretty persuasive, even if its results are also completely useless.

It's not at all useless, but some people have a remarkably persistent mental block about what it is useful for.
posted by localroger at 1:45 PM on October 28, 2014


If you mean it's useful as a foil against that innate tendency to prefer and overstate the case as one air-tight certainty, maybe I agree with you there, but if you have something else in mind I may not be following you.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:12 PM on October 28, 2014


Didn't we just have a thousand comment meta thread about this sort of thing?

Oh well. We cannot say with certainty that the Universe is made up of atoms and molecules, that things like the laws of gravity and relativity are absolutes, or that everything will work by the same rules tomorrow that it does today. We can say all of those things are extremely likely, and that they have proven very useful and that it is a really good idea to act as if they are consistent, but we cannot know that they are. We can, in fact, actually know only that knowing such things is impossible.

And as a practical matter more than half of the people around us don't really believe those things. They may not realize they don't believe the universe is consistent but if they casually believe in things like a God who does miracles, ghosts, or ESP, then they are implicitly believing that the world described for us in such precision by the tools of science is really an elaborate fraud that permits wild exceptions.

Such a world isn't impossible, and isn't even terribly unlikely under some assumptions, and Hume et al pretty much proved that we can't prove what the universe is at all.

Some people cannot wrap their heads around this though. They are convinced that scientism is proven, and get very hostile at the suggestion that it isn't (much less that it can't be). The mere suggestion that the Universe might not be the way they think is so threatening that they regard the mere suggestion of even an admittedly unlikely alternate possibility is heard as insistence which cannot be tolerated.

As Richard Brown and Gregg Caruso discussed after my segment of the podcast nobody listened to, these people are the reason Neil de Grasse Tyson doesn't like to describe himself as an atheist; not that he believes in God, but because the word now carries baggage. To paraphrase Richard, their ideas aren't as new as they think (Hume wasn't directing those arguments at the Church), they're ignorant of philosophy, and they are belligerent about insisting on the demonstrably unprovable truth of their beliefs.

And now that I think about it, this isn't even a derail because it goes to the center of the topic of the OP.
posted by localroger at 3:17 PM on October 28, 2014 [2 favorites]


We can say all of those things are extremely likely, and that they have proven very useful and that it is a really good idea to act as if they are consistent, but we cannot know that they are. We can, in fact, actually know only that knowing such things is impossible.

That kinda destroys the usefulness of the word "know," innit. What word would you propose in its stead?
posted by Mental Wimp at 7:21 PM on October 28, 2014


That kinda destroys the usefulness of the word "know," innit.

Only if you define "know" as "supports my worldview." Really philosophers had that shit worked out pretty well 150 years ago, you should read some of them.
posted by localroger at 8:08 PM on October 28, 2014 [1 favorite]


Only if you define "know" as "supports my worldview." Really philosophers had that shit worked out pretty well 150 years ago, you should read some of them.

Well, someday I may attain your exalted status of knowledge, but my puny understanding still leads to a conundrum. If "knowing" is impossible, it kinda makes the word "know" useless. Yet we use it all the time to mean something. Apparently, though, because of your exalted knowledge (heh) you can't be bothered to explain how to express that idea in other words.
posted by Mental Wimp at 9:06 AM on October 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


Well, someday I may attain your exalted status of knowledge

Well you have this exactly backward. It's thinking that you have an exalted status of knowledge that is demonstrably wrong.

There are things most philosophers would agree that you can know. For one thing, you exist. Descartes put that one forward long before anyone heard of computers and it gets very little argument. I personally think there are some other features of the universe that can be described in more certain terms, such as the fact that it contains information and performs processing on that information according to some common if not absolute rules, but that's a rabbit hole that would get me in a big argument with some philosophers, who would start by wanting to argue about what information is, exactly.

I also think a lot of folks would agree that the existence of other people and their similarity to your positively existing self is on a stronger footing than any particular theory of how the universe itself works. But that varies, of course.

As for the usefulness of these thought experiments, in general, we would not have science today if it hadn't all got started with those thought experiments. Any ground you think belongs to physics or engineering was scouted first by philosophers.
posted by localroger at 10:09 AM on October 29, 2014


localroger: There are things most philosophers would agree that you can know. For one thing, you exist. Descartes put that one forward long before anyone heard of computers and it gets very little argument.
See, here's the problem with your explanation on one level, and the eponysterical questions from Mental Wimp on a mostly non-intersecting plane: You're trying to explain in a very few words existential and epistemological issues, but your words have already created inconsistencies and errors.

Most philosophers do not agree you, nor Mental Wimp, exists.

Philosophers, including Descartes and myself, agree that I exist (each for our own definition of "I").

But one really can't easily discuss either topic - existentialism or epistemology - without a thorough agreement beforehand on what the words like "know" even mean. Since you didn't start with that, you're just making a "Well, I read a book so I know much more than you about this" claim. [EDITS: spelling]

Mental Wimp is 100% correct, to all significant digits, about what is "known", at least until he contradicts himself or changes his mind.

So are you. But that doesn't make Mental Wimp wrong. It simply means you two aren't using the words in the same way.

"Who is on first base."
"That's what I'm trying to find out!"
posted by IAmBroom at 11:57 AM on October 29, 2014


Well IAmBroom I at least understand that there is such an argument and that it's worth taking seriously. The fact that we have different values for the word "know" does not mean that either value is "useless," implying that one might as well retreat to the obvious harbor of scientism.
posted by localroger at 12:26 PM on October 29, 2014


Good for you.
posted by IAmBroom at 12:36 PM on October 29, 2014


Well thank you, and thanks for taking the time to demonstrate your expertise so pertinently.
posted by localroger at 3:03 PM on October 29, 2014


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