Speaking from Ignorance

One thing I’ve learned over the years, Vera, is that we think we know far more than we actually know. And we’re not shy about speaking out of ignorance.

I suppose it’s always been the case. But it seems worse now, coming on the heels of decades of unrelenting partisan propaganda. I also suspect that, as much good as the Internet has facilitated in the world, it has contributed greatly to the spread of ignorance. It’s certainly has made it easier to reach a receptive audience.

It’s hard to speak informed. It takes effort. And a desire for the truth no matter where it might take us. And a willingness to hold our tongues and listen more intently. Yet silence doesn’t seem to be particularly valued these days.

Apparently, silence is hard. It also seems hard for us humans to admit we don’t know or, worse yet, that we were wrong.

If admitting ignorance and error weren’t difficult, we wouldn’t be hearing or reading or believing half the stuff we hear and read and choose to believe these days, especially in — but certainly not limited to — the world of politics. (The worlds of religion and macroeconomics might well be the match of politics.)

When people make facially ludicrous claims about a particular candidate or supposed event or crime, I relish in asking them for specifics. Rarely is my question satisfactorily answered. Often, it’s ignored. And, usually, when a response is forthcoming, it reveals what I knew all along: they don’t know what they’re talking about; they’re merely parroting some uninformed (or intentionally misleading) claim they heard on talk radio or Fox or read on some wing-nut website or in some ridiculous book.

It might be easy to feel smug about this. But I don’t. Rather, it causes me to worry.

I wonder what I think I know that I really don’t. How many times have I spouted off with implicit claims of knowledge while actually being clueless? A lot, I suspect.

Actually, it’s embarrassing. Yet there is no taking back words. Once spoken or written, they become part of you. We are what we think, what we choose to accept and believe and what we choose to say and write.

But I don’t worry only about myself. I worry about us, too, for when ignorance forms public policies, laws and political and military decisions and actions, the consequences can be dire. The Iraq War is a classic example.

It’s scary stuff, this illusion of knowledge. To what degree have I operated from this illusion? More than I’d care to admit, that much is certain.

With age, I’m trying to get better at avoiding this trap. I’m trying to rely more on reliable evidence and less on ill-informed opinions and suppositions. I’m trying to get better at spotting my embedded biases and preconceptions and resisting them. I’m trying to be more open to altering my narrative, even when doing so is uncomfortable or forces me to admit I was wrong. In short, I’m trying to become a more evidence-based individual — to be less biased and not quite so ignorant, if you will. But it isn’t easy; it takes effort.

You’d think it would be easy for a lawyer, and, actually, I do think my legal education and experience help. If anything, it has taught me that opinions frequently are not borne out by evidence. It also has taught me that things are not always as they seem on the surface. Most importantly, it has taught me to question.

Moreover, being a lawyer has given me peeks into the back stage that most people don’t get. Legal predicaments in which people and organizations find themselves from time to time require the intervention of legal experts. That’s when they call people in my profession. Consequently, I have heard and seen things people share with no one else — not even with their spouses and priests.

I think being a CEO of a large company and cabinet secretary in a large state also helped. These experiences afforded perspectives and insights into the workings of an entire organization — both in the for-profit sector and government. It’s a view most people never get. Frequently, it’s a view that looks very different from the one seen from any particular, narrow vantage point within an organization, or from the outside looking in.

But it’s my lawyering that helped the most: it’s what helped lead me to value questions, and it’s what has given me access. My experiences (including mistakes I’ve made) helped me realize that perspective matters — a lot. That said, it also has clouded my vision and limited my perspective. I see things today I wouldn’t see but for my background and training, but I also fail to see things because of those very same experiences. Contrary to what we may think, none of us has 20/20 vision.

In any case, you don’t have to be a lawyer to gain these insights. All you have to do is to be curious, skeptical and an unrelenting questioner. Of course, it also helps to be adept at assessing and weighing evidence.

Life has taught me that confronting claims with questions is not only essential, but also it can be a lot to fun.

How do you know that? Why do you think that’s the case?

Is your claim plausible? What other possible explanations exist?

What is your source? Is it reliable? Biased? What are the motives?

Might someone with different life experiences see the problem or proposed solution differently?

What assumptions are you making? Is the evidence compelling, or do you believe it because you want to believe it?

Does it fit neatly into the narrative you’ve adopted for your life? Too neatly? How do you handle evidence that conflicts with that narrative? Do you ignore it? (That’s what we typically do.)

In my college classes, we struggle together with the why. My goal is to help develop good questioners and skeptics — inquisitive thinkers, if you will. We try not to waste time memorizing facts they’ll never remember or need; rather, we work on deepening our understanding, gaining an appreciation for the limits of our knowledge and learning how to be better discoverers. My hope is, that by the end of the course, students will see better and be more inquisitive than they were when they first entered my classroom. My hope is that they will mature into wise people, which, by definition, means they will have an understanding of what they don’t know. They will be less ignorant than they were before, and hopefully I as well.

It’s so easy to speak out of ignorance. All of us to it to some extent. Some of us do it a lot.

Vera, I’d like to say it never pays. But that would be a lie. Indeed, it seems to be a pathway to success for many “news” outlets and “reporters,” authors, talk show hosts and leaders (in both the public and private sectors).

Yet, in the final analysis, each person has to decide for him or herself what’s more important: weaving a personal narrative with falsehoods, biases and flawed assumptions, or seeking and being open to the truth, as elusive as it may be and as uncomfortable as it may make us?

Unfortunately, we live in an era of charlatans who care little about truth. It’s not the first such era, and it won’t be the last.

Shortly, one of the most pompous charlatans American has ever seen (at least on the national political stage) may be elected president of our country. Whether or not he wins the election, and whether or not he’d be better or worse for the country than his opponent, it’s hard to see an end to this era of charlatans and propagandists — at least not in the foreseeable future.

The irony is, many of us claim to be skeptics. Yet we’re anything but. Our openness to obvious falsehoods belies our claim.

We’re not skeptical. We’re naive. We can’t even see the myriad of ways we’re being used.

Ignorance has the field today. My hope is that its days will be few, and that my generation will leave the world to you, Vera, and to your generation in a better condition than it is today. My hope is that wisdom will have the field when you come of age.

I suspect, however, for that to happen, we will have to become more aware of what we don’t know and more curious about that which lives beneath the surface. We will have to acquire an appetite for truth and become more comfortable with ambiguity, uncertainty and, indeed, being proved wrong. We will have to learn that certitude is often a cloak for lies.

We will have to become genuine skeptics. We will have to value silence more, make fewer and narrower claims and ask far more questions — good, important questions about things that matter. I suspect we will have to become better at teaching our youth about probabilities, statistics, psychology and the scientific method.

Most importantly, though, I suspect we will have to acquire an eagerness to learn together, not only for the sake of our selfish desires but also for the betterment of our souls and the entire world.

Or, perhaps, it’s not all that complicated. Perhaps, we simply will need to care more about and for each other.

2 thoughts on “Speaking from Ignorance

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