I was once interviewed for a thesis project where I had to explain my ideas about ERE, social relevance, general adoption, etc. At one point during the interview after having explained something about price-behavior, the interviewer asked me the following question:

“So do you believe that most people are dumb?”

Okay, so I didn’t have a ready answer for this and so my answer was something to the effect of “Let me get back to you on that”, which I subsequently did.

First, we need to understand the question though.

Dumb essentially means unintelligent.

I can answer this easily. No I don’t believe that people are unintelligent—or at least, we can say that people vary widely in their level of intelligence and follow a bell shaped distribution with an average of 100.

The question could also be “Do you believe most people act unintelligently?”

I actually used to believe this until I was about 20. In particular, that any behavior that seemed crazy to me was the result of unintelligent reasoning. Naive as I was, it was the only explanation I could come up with.

However, I don’t believe this anymore either. I actually believe that people act fairly intelligently on what they know.

The problem as I see it know is that “most people actually don’t know that much”.

In other words, if the interview question had been:

“So do you believe most people are ignorant?”

My answer would be YES! I do indeed believe that.

Lets for arguments sake (to prevent stupid arguments in the comments) define what being ignorant means. It means lacking knowledge. It doesn’t mean a lack of intelligence. A person can be very smart (intelligent) and yet be very ignorant at the same time. Obviously someone can also be unintelligent (also called stupid) and ignorant at the same time.

The high level of specialization in an industrialized mass production society is a big part of the reason for widespread ignorance. In its most extreme case, a person only knows how to push a level on a specific post on a conveyer belt. He is ignorant of all other aspects of what the factory does. He does not need to know and so in many cases he doesn’t. Conversely, if a person is generally in charge of more things, such as a farmer or a craftsman, he is less ignorant.

For the purposes of the this essay I am mostly concerned with the personal level of ignorance. Obviously, one of the reasons that specialization works is that if every person knows everything there is to know about a very tiny part of something and everybody concentrates on a different part, then the combined amount of knowledge is larger than what any one person could understand.

(This leaves out the connections between the parts. This is why most engineering aims to reduce the degrees of freedom. Failing that, it is also why the modern world is continuously surprised by unintended consequences.)

However, on the personal level, knowing practically everything about practically nothing also means knowing practically nothing about practically everything. This is why on the whole most people today are more ignorant today than they were a few generations ago when everybody with an education knew something about most things—a happy medium.

Many teachers lament the fact that many students restrict their accumulation of knowledge to what will be on the test. Intentionally seeking “test-only information” is not the foundation of knowledge. Knowledge includes an understand of which pieces of information are important and which pieces are not. If whether something “is going to be on the test” is used to qualify a piece of information, a student will gain no knowledge. Just a collection of topical information. In such tragic cases, students don’t care how results are arrived at, they just want the “result factoid” so they can regurgitate it come test time.

Being unable to evaluate information also means that the person is unable to understand the information. Without understanding, information has no context and it has no foundation. It is just a large collection of unconnected factoids. A person without knowledge has no principles with which to organize his information. Such a person will be unable to think about his information(*). I am taking things to their extreme logical conclusion. Realistically, everybody with such an attitude will still think a little, it just won’t be very much. In many cases it will even be compartmentalized, e.g. a person will be able to think critically about their specialization but they will be unable to do so outside their specialization—a doctor can think critically about patient diseases, but will not think critically about a mortgage contract.

(*) A good test to see if you really understand something is if you’re able to explain it in at least 3 different ways. If you can only explain it in one way, you probably don’t really understand it, especially not if you ‘one-way’ is the same as that of the text book.

This means that students are not taught to think critically. Critical thinking is not something that comes naturally to most people. Maybe only one in ten has the talents to think critically without being taught how. However, of course, the purpose of the school system which serves as an extension of the industrial system is not really interested in critical thinkers. It is mostly interested in conformity. And teaching and testing information rather than knowledge and principles results in conformity. Future critical thinkers get a much different education in very expensive schools and from their parents. The rest of us go through the standard educational system.

Now, combining postmodernism with widespread ignorance has some unfortunate consequences.

Postmodernism is essentially the philosophical position that there’s more than just one way to see the world. Different cultures will see different things different ways. Perspectives are relative, not absolute, and in particular, a person’s perspective depends on what their interests are. In particular, this means that the dominant perspective is not necessarily objective in contrast to what had previously been believed. It can in fact be highly subjective.

Of course this resulted in some nonsensical conclusions like “all understandings are equally valid” and “it doesn’t matter what’s true as long as I feel it’s true”.

Specifically, while people used to believe that everybody was entitled to their own opinion (a consequence of democracy, enlightenment, and first amendment stuff), thanks to postmodernism, people also now believe that they are entitled to their own facts.

That has resulted in a major cluster fuck in the intellectual development of the world.

Often all postmodernists are thought to be similar, but there are actually at least four different kinds …

  1. People who are aware of postmodern theory but unaware of reality. These are often found hidden in the humanities department where they write long reviews and critiques of other people’s reviews and critiques trying to understand what particular “narrative” a given “author” may hold. These people care little for reality (which you don’t need to when you got tenure and only leave the building to go wine tasting on some nudity resort) and thus they think of reality and the science that describe it as just another narrative. Deep down they probably do realize that objective reality is not some “subjective narrative” but that reality is in fact real. It’s just that they are never really challenged in this department because most other people think that their reviews and critiques are irrelevant. We can for arguments sake call these people “humanists” or “college professors”.

    (Actually they were challenged to a fight from the science department and suffered a very embarrassing defeat. Google the “Sokal hoax” or the “Sokal affair”.)

  2. People who are aware of postmodern theory and aware of reality. We can call these people scientists. These people understand that if you hit yourself on your head with a hammer it is not the “narrative” that hurts. It’s the friggin’ hammer hitting your head. Scientists understand that “science” is actually a narrative, but unlike the humanists they also understand that “science” is a special narrative, namely the one that describes reality the best. They also understand that science is completely objective and impersonal and so in no one’s special interest. It may be used to further someone’s special interest, but the science itself (usually cast in mathematical equations describing the relations because measurable quantities) just is.

  3. People who are not aware of postmodern theory but is aware of reality. We can call them plumbers, engineers, accountants, etc. These people take the science, say an equation that describes the breaking point of an i-beam and then they use this to build a bridge. They may not care about the particular assumptions that went into the calculation that determined the breaking point. Consequentially their bridges sometimes collapse. And sometimes their financial systems collapse because while they had their equations and used them well, they did not really understand the limitations.

  4. People who are not aware of postmodern theory and not aware of reality. We call these ignoramuses or simply ignorant. This group do not understand the point of postmodern theory (namely realizing that viewpoints are swayed by personal interests) but have instead used the wrong conclusion that “all narratives are equally valid”. They believe that facts can be selectively chosen. Furthermore they are ignorant. This makes it particular easy to chose facts as not many are known. Ignorance is a bliss. What you don’t know, you can’t regret. Arguments proceed unscientifically by first finding a position of their particular interest and then finding the facts that support it while ignoring facts that don’t support the position. This essentially makes them idiots (someone who acts in a significantly counterproductive way, e.g. ‘I believe in multiplication, but I don’t believe that 4*4=16’) because obviously you can’t pick and choose between facts according to convenience. Examples include people who don’t believe in evolution (even as they believe in biology, because evolution follows from applying the laws of biology) and people who don’t believe in climate change (even as they believe in physics, because climate change follows from applying the laws of physics to climate).

So I believe that many people are ignorant (Hey, I’m ignorant when it comes to plumbing, using fiberglass, and many other handy skills. One of the joys of following retirement from physics is realizing just how few real skills I have. There’s so much to learn.).

Ignorance makes it hard to communicate some of the principles of ERE.

Consider how the different groups above would respond.

  1. Humanists would understand that someone can retire extremely early though they can’t quite see how. Here you get the typical “This may work for you, but I can’t see how it would work for me” comment. If they are willing to learn, it is feasible to teach them. However, teaching is work. You can’t just say they they “need sufficient assets to reach a safe withdrawal rate of 3% that supports their expenses” because they don’t now what “assets”, “safe”, “withdrawal rate”, and “3%” actually means. Theirs is a technical problem.

  2. Scientists are easy. They think critically and they know things already. This is also why there are so many of the scientist orientation on this blog and in the forums. Not only can the sentence above be used, it would be understood and considered critically.

  3. Engineers are tricky. They understand the words and the concepts but they can’t see how this is a valid solution. To stay within the personal finance sphere, only career-consumerism is a viable model for society. This group will say “we have a duty to work”, “if everybody did it, society would collapse”, “I want to accomplish something with my life so I’ll keep working”, “I’d rather work more so I have enough to spend”, and “According to my calculations, nobody can be comfortable on less than $20,000/person/year”. Theirs is not a technical problem but a question of thinking outside their well-established framework.

  4. Ignoramuses are the hardest to deal with. Not only do they not understand practical applications of basic finance like “if you put $100 in the bank at 5% interest for a year, you get $5 in interest” (although they might have memorized $5 as the answer for the test), they are only capable of restating results they’ve heard somewhere else such as “You need a million dollars to retire” and “You should spend 30% of your income on your mortgage”. This group is practically beyond reach—or at least I don’t know how to reach them. They don’t use reason to reach a conclusion—and reason is the only way I know. They have a pre-existing opinion and then they google for facts to support that opinion(*). They don’t think critically and they lack knowledge. (I’ll leave it as an exercise to consider examples of what constitutes idiotic behavior here. Hint: maxed out credit cards.)

    (*) And this, I bet, is how 90% of all college level essays are written.

So yes, I don’t believe people are dumb, but I do believe that most are ignorant when it comes to knowledge about the world and the ability to ask critical questions outside their specialization. Not all, but most. And let me qualify this, because of course we are all ignorant of something to some degree. What I mean is that most people are too ignorant of the world they inhabit to actually make informed judgments about it.

Originally posted 2011-07-07 16:19:51.