Knowing so much, you know nothing at all…

I can’t speak as to the rest of the world, though I expect it’s true of much of the industrialized world; I can say for certain, however, that Americans have a big problem.
Well heck, we have a lot of problems. But the one that keeps impressing me more and more these days relates to the absolute glut of information that is available to us. The Internet, of course, is a fount of such knowledge: what is happening in the world, everywhere in the world, and exactly what everyone who reports on it thinks about it. It’s overwhelming at times, and it defies the ability of anyone to gain more than a cursory familiarity with any particular topic. And therein lies the trouble. We know so much about so many things (or could if we chose to), that it’s next to impossible to truly gain anything resembling expert knowledge in a specific area. But it doesn’t even slow the opinion-making process down, not one bit. We blithely and unstoppably go on and on and on, about things of which we only know a tiny bit.
I am reminded of a mailing I once got in the very beginnnings of the Information Age as we know it. The mailing was in regard to the “new” UPC codes that were being imprinted on merchandise so that cash register scanners could identify and price them. The point of the mailing was that imbedded in every UPC code was the number 666, and that they were the precursor to the Biblical “Mark of the Beast.” The tone of the pamphlet was extremely alarmist. I looked into what the mailing said, and saw how they drew that conclusion. Sure enough, every UPC code had an identical set of lines beginning, middle and end that looked just like the lines that form the numeral six in the same code. But even to my inexpert eyes, it only took a few moments of puzzling over it to realize that these lines only shared a partial congruence to the lines for then number six. I deduced, and later was able to verify, they were simply markers for the scanner to find its place, and had no real relation to the numeral six whatsoever, much less the 666 of the Beast.
So what was the alarm all about? Someone with a very little bit of knowledge (laughably little) looked at some UPC codes, jumped to a conclusion, and essentially went ballistic over that conclusion. This person went through considerable expense to spread this opinion around, and no doubt gained many followers. What’s reall scary is that people still persist in that opinion, even though it has been clearly demonstrated to be an unintended congruence.
A newscast (or a weblog) reports a bit of information about something happening somewhere. Someone without a detailed knowledge of the subject expounds on it, and draws conclusions. Others, who respect this second party, accept those conclusion and proliferate them. It goes on and on, sometimes becoming a disinformational juggernaut. And why does this happen? Because we all believe we know more than we actually do. Just google for the word “hoax,” and you will see just how many people fall for intentional disinformation. But I would like to submit, far, far more fall for unintentional disinformation, and it is far more damaging. I won’t even get into “urban legends,” and the like.
We have been led to believe that we are all experts. That we know “enough” to make judgements that are better than those of people who have studied the issue all their lives. We are completely confident that the President (or our least favorite politician of any ilk) is an idiot, and how “obvious” it is…that people of other ethnic groups in other countries are “sick,” or “backwards,” and all we need to do is educate them, and they will be just like us. Furthermore, once we settle on an opinion, it’s like we marry it – only death will do us part, all facts contrary notwithstanding.
This is nothing but sheer intellectual arrogance, and the sooner we come to terms with our very real intellectual (and opinion making) limits, the better off we will be. We need to accept that we don’t realy know very much about a great many things. We need to accept that there are experts and professionals who know more than we do, and are better capable (even though they slip up sometimes too) than we are at making evaluations based on that knowledge. And, for the sake of all that’s good, we need to tone down the forest of rhetoric that has grown from a few weeds of innuendo and rumor. If we must be experts, let’s truly become experts by focusing on just a few things…and leave the rest for others to become experts on. And then *gasp* to trust them.

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