Quite often, we are confronted with people offering opinions and arguments on subjects they clearly know little or nothing about. Fairly often, we too are guilty of doing the same thing. Why does this happen? What does it mean? And how do we avoid it?
Let’s start with a question: what is your opinion on the 14th century Korean politics, as they relate to their foreign policy? If, like most of us, you have not studied 14th century Korean politics, you have no opinion to offer. You have no opinion, because you are clearly aware of your lack of any meaningful understanding of the subject.
Now, let’s ask a different question: what is your opinion on the Syrian conflict, as it relates to future political change? Suddenly, most people have an opinion – nay an entrenched argument – to offer. Yet, if you are part of the group that actually studied the history, ethnic and religious relations, politics, regional relations, etc. of Syria, you realize that most every statement uttered is nonsense. People seem to have an opinion here, because they somehow believe that they do, in fact, have meaningful understanding of the subject – despite the fact that they do not.
So, our question is, what is the difference between 14th century Korean politics and 21st century Syrian politics, that makes people silent about the former, but loud about the latter? In a word: perception. The average person has the accurate perception that they are ignorant about 14th century Korean politics. However, they also have the perception of being informed about Syrian politics. The key issue here is perception, because the cause of speaking is not presence or absence of knowledge, but our perception of our knowledge. So long as we think we’re know, we act as if we know (see “ignorance by ignorance,” in Decontextualization).
Now that we know why people speak on topics they are ignorant about, let’s consider what it all means. As a student of any subject will tell us, acquiring knowledge is hard. It takes dedication, insight, time, effort, staring at books instead of having fun. Acquiring the perception of knowledge, on the other hand is easy. We see or hear someone’s regurgitated summary of a summary, and simply take their position as our own. All that’s needed is passive effort, a bit of time, and that the speaker shares some general value with us.
Unlike the speaker or author, though, we do not possess the possible in-depth knowledge which made the summary possible, or their contextualized view, which makes their position defensible. What we have is blind following of some “authority,” whose views generally align with our own. We do not require the study and examination of context, on the assumption that the “authority” has already done the leg-work for us. What it all means, is that we’re lazy, and willing to follow authority when its ideas match our own in some way.
A way we tend to fall into this trap, is by committing a rather common fallacy – namely following improper authority. The issue of authority on a subject is complex: what are the exact qualification for authority; are there counter examples of a “qualified” person being ignorant; are there people without the qualifications that are authorities nonetheless? Without attempting to solve the Gordian Knot of epistemology, we can still compose some kind of a functional definition. Let’s say that, as per the Structure of Knowledge, we can ascribe authority to a person with knowledge on the subject, so long as their ethics do not seem to include an agenda where misrepresentation is likely. We can, for the moment, judge the ethics by past actions. We can assume knowledge either by demonstration or by appropriate educational achievement. Clearly, we can identify counter-examples to this definition. However, we’re not worried about perfection; we just want a working idea that generally gets us what we need.
Improper authority, on the other hand, is what generally happens when authority is redirected away from its sphere of knowledge, and into a different one – where the same authority is lacking. The problem, affecting both the speaker and audience, is that the authority on one field is somehow taken as authority in a different field (see: Neil deGrasse Tyson). For the speaker, this is usually the result of improperly understanding the limits of their own knowledge. For the audience, it’s usually a combination of consuming what they want to hear, coupled with laziness in critical examination, while claiming some kind of authority as support. The proof of this problem is evident in the rise and consumption of “fake news.”
So, how do we combat this tendency to speak on topics where one is ignorant – both for ourselves and for others? The ideal approach would be by better education of the general populace, so that they’re not ignorant. However, as we are unlikely to ever get there, the more effective approach is to constantly check context, by the use of six questions. The added benefit of using this approach is that we can regulate both our intake of information and our output of opinion. When consuming information, questions regarding the speaker, the content, and the intent tend to reveal improper authority. In our speech, the questions help expose any holes in our knowledge, which helps put us in check.
The zhengming identifications of terms can also play a useful part in this endeavor. By asking a few probing questions, even where we may believe that we know what the terminology means, we can get a clearer idea of what the terms and ideas mean, allowing us to better use the six questions, and get a better handle on the context. It should be noted that getting a better handle on the context is not just a matter of increasing our understanding of the context – it is also a matter of increasing our understanding of our ignorance. Without an insight into the limits of our understanding, we become blind to the pitfalls of our reasoning, and cannot direct our efforts at fixing the problems – because we are not aware that we have problems, or where they are located.
Our willingness to speak on issues beyond our grasp carries a lot of long-term dangers. In attempting to justify our ignorant position, we build up false arguments, which then become a part of our understanding of the world. Simultaneously, we misinform others, who then may take our position as true, and run with it – continuing the spread of misinformation. The Arab proverb states that a mark of a wise man is in admitting ignorance, and thus remaining silent. That wisdom cuts two ways: keeping ourselves from developing false ideas, and keeping others from inheriting our ignorance.