The Modern Survival Guide #91

This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. I like to consider myself a reasonably informed and enlightened person, and that (combined with an ego two sizes too large) is why I feel reasonably comfortable writing something called “The Modern Survival Guide.” But the truth of the matter is that on a staggeringly vast number of topics, I am remarkably ignorant.

So are you. And so is everyone else. This is something we should all be comfortable admitting; none of us are all-knowing, so of course there are things that we don’t know. If you run across anyone who claims to be an expert on everything, you have found a fool. That being said, for the purposes of this article, I’m assuming that you are in possession of good information; I have other articles on how to get to that point. This is going to be about how you deal with other people being ignorant.

We live in the Information Age, and the sum total of human knowledge is theoretically at each of our fingertips. But there’s a problem: the Information Age isn’t choosy about the quality of the information it transmits. This leads to two other problems: some truly ignorant ideas now have a huge opportunity to spread, and people are not particularly well-trained to filter out good information from bad.

The end result is that, as a direct result of the Information Age, ignorance of factual information and poor interpretations of important events are arguably on the rise. Everyone has a microphone… even the people who probably shouldn’t.

Ignorance never helps in our lives. It only hurts, especially in a democracy where the will of the people has meaning, and especially in an economic system where “let the buyer beware” is once again becoming the rule. I’m ignorant on some things. So are you. And sadly, that will have consequences.

This is a serious survival issue in the modern world. Whether the subject is the rise of measles, your credit card debt, the student loan crisis, climate change, the impacts of the subprime mortgage crisis on your home loan, the role of church and state, or the outcomes of macro-economic crises such as trade wars (just to name a few relevant subjects), we are surrounded by complicated problems.

For each of these problems, there are ignorant explanations that come with ignorant solutions. These are doomed to failure. There are also good explanations and good solutions, which might just work. It is to our benefit to ensure the good explanations and solutions win the debate.

So, what do we do about this? As the old saying goes, you can’t fix stupid, but you can fix ignorance. Let’s talk about how to deal with that. We’ve got a few options, and some of them are better than others:

  • Censoring information that is mind-numbingly wrong
  • Spreading good information to compete with bad information
  • Confronting the ignorant with knowledge
  • Making ignorance look silly
  • Promoting education

Now for the kicker: all of these are things we should be doing. Not all of them will work every time, and we should not use all of them every time. These statements are not mutually exclusive, because combating ignorance isn’t a sprint — it’s a marathon that we run over, and over, and over again.

Let’s get started.

Censor Bad Ideas

Let’s get this one out of the way early: yes, freedom of speech is a thing. No, we’re not going to address ignorance as a society by censoring all the people who are pushing false information. That just turns them into martyrs and magnets for conspiracy theories. There’s a good reason why we have freedom of speech, and that reason is compromised if we start going around and denying people their right to speak.

Our society censoring its way out of the transmission of ignorance is not viable. What does that leave?

Mostly, it leaves self-censoring — purposefully and mindfully not passing along ignorant information in forums under your control. This can scale up or down: a CEO can justifiably censor his company’s transmission of information if he believes it to be harmful. A parent can justifiably censor the transmission of incorrect information to their children. A social media commentator can justifiably refuse to pass on theories or speculation they know to be incorrect. You can deliberately not pass along conspiracy theories on Facebook.

This is useful because if we know one thing about people, it’s that if you put any given idea out into the world someone will believe it. You can’t stuff the djinn back in the bottle. You can try to prevent it from getting out in the first place.

For example, let’s say that Andrew Wakefield’s anti-vaccine nonsense never got published in The Lancet. The anti-vax movement was already around in 1998, but very low-key; it took an article in a respected publication to give that movement a modern rallying point. As a result, we’re about to be taken off the measles elimination status list. Arguably, it would have been better for us all if that article had never been published.

A serious concern is that censoring simply sidesteps the problem: if the person doing the censoring is themself unable to tell the difference between correct and incorrect information (or right and wrong), the whole thing falls apart. Worse yet, the person engaged in censoring may be deliberately censoring the correct information because being “factually correct” and “pushing a narrative that benefits you” are two entirely different things.

So censoring is a tool, but it’s a tool that we should be eternally suspicious of using. Nonetheless, it is a viable means of preventing the spread of ignorance by limiting access to incorrect information.

Spread Good Information

Once upon a time, people invented the idea of competition being a positive force for marketplaces. This flew in the face of all prior evidence, but it seemed to work to increase the production of goods and services. So it only seems natural that we could assume that spreading good information will naturally serve to inoculate people from bad information because it will out-compete bad information over the long term.

Sadly, this is completely and utterly incorrect.

As anyone who has ever had to deal with market competition knows, bad products will almost always out-compete good products for mass consumption because they can be priced more cheaply — they have a lower “barrier to entry,” a lower cost that must be paid to buy them. Unfortunately information works the same way: the barriers to entry to comprehend bad information are generally much lower than those to comprehend good information. This is a trap that snares countless people every day.

Bad information generally relies on a lack of understanding of science, appeals to emotion, biases, logical fallacies, and an over-reliance on “common sense.” The most salient feature of bad information in the information age is the idea that your ignorance is just as good as my expertise — the leveling of information access through the internet has engendered a false sense that everyone can be an expert.

Now for the tricky part: we’re all guilty of this. You are. I am. Everyone is. It’s part and parcel of being able to run a Google search.

What we have to get through our heads is the realization that for anything more complex than asking for directions, interpretation of data is everything. Interpretation requires subject knowledge. Subject knowledge requires work to acquire, preferably hands-on work. Ultimately, unless we are subject knowledge experts with access to raw data, we are inevitably left with only the interpretations of others to go on. And that kicks us right back into the trap of bad information unless we are extremely careful, because we then have to decide which interpretations we want to believe.

We aren’t getting away from bad information, and it’s likely — even probable — that in any competition with good information, bad information will win with most people, because the barrier to entry to understand the difference between good and bad information is higher than we like to think. Spreading good information is not, by itself, a viable solution for ignorance — the ignorant will actively self-select the information they prefer.

Nonetheless we should spread good information as a matter of course. It won’t necessarily convince the ignorant, but it’ll make things easier for the informed.

Confront the Ignorant with Knowledge

Ok, so what about just straight-up addressing the problem at its source? What can we do to confront ignorant people with better information and get them to accept it?

The short answer is: not a lot.

The problem with confrontation is that most people immediately engage cognitive defensive strategies to resist being proven wrong. These can take different forms, such as:

  • Interpreting a confrontation over bad information as a personal attack or insult
  • Doubling-down on their position to preserve their ego
  • Dodging and redirecting the conversation to avoid the issue
  • Rationalizing the evidence to align with their viewpoint

And many, many others! The bottom line is that directly confronting someone, unless handled very carefully, is almost guaranteed to result in exactly the opposite outcome that you want, at least with regard to that person’s opinions. They are most likely to simply dig in their heels.

Accept that and shift your focus.

If you seek to confront ignorance, it’s best to do so in a forum that has an audience. You will not spend your time trying to convince the person you are confronting; if you’ve made it to the stage of confrontation, their mind is likely made up. Instead, you are working to convince the audience. This means that while doing things like citing evidence, making rational arguments, and appealing to expert authority will probably make no difference to your opponent, it is still valuable to do these things so that people who don’t have skin in the game can receive good information.

And as per normal, in any interaction with a human being: don’t be an asshole. I can’t say that often enough. Being mean, derogatory, or needlessly aggressive is always a good way to remove any possibility of your being taken seriously. In any confrontation where your goal is to make a point you should be polite, maintain respect, and always have your facts straight.

Make Ignorance Look Silly

One of the best ways to make any viewpoint less attractive is to make fun of it. Seriously. This is a logical fallacy, but hey, that doesn’t mean we can’t use it for good.

It is worth noting that responding to ignorance with pure logic and reason is often a losing battle. An expert sounds like a crazy person to an ignorant person, to paraphrase the old joke, and the simple act of raising an issue for debate will result in more people being exposed to an ignorant idea. This is especially dangerous when some members of the audience are too ignorant to know what they don’t know; such a person will listen to the first argument that makes sense to them, which may or may not be the argument based on correct information.

It’s therefore arguable that one of the most appropriate methods to combat ignorance is to make ignorant arguments and positions look silly. Mock them, ridicule them, ride them into the ground with laughter. If this can be done while presenting good information at the same time, all the better.

Note the verbiage there, though: you are ridiculing an argument or position. Try to avoid ridiculing people. Again, when in doubt, don’t be an asshole. The tone you’re looking for is light and snarky, not sarcastic or hurtful. If possible always try to laugh with people, not at them. If you must laugh at someone though, just try to remember that this is how you make enemies. Maybe it’s worth it. Maybe it’s not.

Promote Education

Probably the best way to combat ignorance in society is to start early, and get kids on the right path before the world gets its teeth into them. This is the same strategy followed by religion and cigarette manufacturers, and it seems to work pretty well — whatever habits we train into children will influence their actions forever. Let’s make sure it’s the habit of recognizing good information.

Education, that’s the ticket — particularly public education. This is, in fact, the whole point of public schools: we’re supposed to be raising everyone out of ignorance. We’re supposed to be creating generations of people who are in touch with basic scientific knowledge, aware of history, reasonably competent in math, and have some understanding of the socio-economic underpinnings of our society. Ensuring a good quality public education system that turns out reasonably well-educated adults is the best strategy we have to ensure that good information wins.

This means that if you want to combat ignorance, the best thing you can do is to support your local school. Volunteer. Give money. Buy supplies. Vote for politicians and local officials who are educational champions. Participate in PTA. Do stuff to ensure your local school is vibrant and successful, and provides a comprehensive and untainted educational experience.

At the same time, watch out for the following groups:

  • People who are interested in censoring books for reasons of morality¹
  • People who are promoting any agenda in education aside from an empirical accounting of the world and the advancement of scientific understanding
  • People who object to scientific explanations on non-scientific grounds²
  • Politicians and officials who praise education but cut funding
  • People who seek to shift funding from public schools to private schools³

All of these groups will continue to attempt to undermine public education. Some of them, perhaps all of them, will believe they are doing so for the best reasons. Nonetheless it is our job to oppose those efforts, if we want to combat the spread of ignorance in society.

The End of Ignorance

There’s a cognitive error that people fall into, and it’s called “the end of history.” This is the assumption that things have reached a high point from which there is no falling back, and that the future will just naturally proceed along positive paths.

That’s bullshit, and as we know from George Carlin, bullshit is bad for you.

There is no progress that is safe from regression, no technical advance that cannot be lost, no social achievement that can’t be destroyed. Knowledge is no different. We will never hit an “end of ignorance” scenario where everyone has good knowledge and correct interpretations of events. We will always have to work to combat ignorance. But it’s a process that must be performed with as much politeness and compassion as possible, otherwise you’re just an asshole. We’re all familiar with internet comment sections; I’ll say no more.

Ignorance in our own lives can be crippling. The ignorance of those around us, and especially those who lead us, can be downright dangerous. If it’s true that there’s no rest for the wicked, that just means that the righteous have to work overtime too. So it is with addressing ignorance. It’s our job. It will always be our job, as citizens and persons who wish to prosper in the modern world.

It’s past time to get to work.

¹Yes, I’m aware of the irony, considering my advice from earlier. But frankly I have yet to see any book-banning campaign that wasn’t motivated by a desire to “protect the children” from… whatever. Usually that means that the person doing the “protecting” thinks that information could damage their child’s moral center. Usually that means that the “protector” is scared of something in the world that might push their child off a “true path.” Usually that “true path” is not concerned with empirical truth or science, but rather with some shade of belief. That’s a treacherous path to walk, and it’s best to simply avoid it, otherwise you end up with empty libraries. It’s all kind of a bullshit exercise because you generally don’t have to worry about librarians stocking a school library with porn or communist manifestos. Librarians have their jobs because they’re interested in educating people; let’s let them do that.

²I’m looking at you, sex ed opponents.

³Look, even if public schools appear to be a black hole for money, it is still better to reform a public school than it is to support a private school with public funds. The reason is that private schools are always more expensive in the long run, because they’re being operated for profit. And they always have less accountability over the long run unless they are catering exclusively to the wealthy, i.e., people who can hand them their ass in lawsuits, because their incentive structure is always to hide problems so they can continue to make a profit. Also, if you divert funds from the public school it doesn’t go away, it just gets shittier, so you doom at least a portion of the children in that school system to a guaranteed awful education. It can be a tough sell to reform instead of going private, because the private sector has good marketing, but it’s always the correct choice in the long term.

Searching for truth in a world focused on belief.

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