How Too Much Education Can Result in Ignorance

The more education people have, the more ignorant they may be. Ignoring our ignorance and assuming we know much more than we actually do seems to be a universal human tendency.

 

Quick: Are you at all familiar with ultralipids, cholarine, or plates of parallax? All of them? One of them? None? Read on, and in a couple of paragraphs you’ll see what your answer means for your personal level of ignorance.  


“The trouble with the world,” Bertrand Russell quipped, “is that the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” If a large body of research by Cornell psychologist David Dunning is to be trusted, Russell wasn’t even half right. The stupid may indeed harbor wildly overblown assumptions about their capacities, but the same is true of people on the other end of the intelligence spectrum. In fact, the more education people have, the more ignorant they may be. Ignoring our ignorance and assuming we know much more than we actually do seems to be a universal human tendency.

In a recent article in Pacific Standard, Dunning proposes that “we are all confident idiots.” (He’s pretty sure about that.) “In many areas of life,” Dunning writes, “incompetent people do not recognize — scratch that, cannot recognize — just how incompetent they are.” Jimmy Kimmel’s popular “Lie Witness News” bit — where he feeds people on the street misinformation and watches them riff on it as if it were real — is only the tip of the iceberg. Ask survey respondents if they are familiar with “entirely made up” concepts like those in the first sentence of this post, and 90 percent will attest to be at least somewhat knowledgeable about some of them. (Did you?) We tend to resist recognizing when we have a vacuum of knowledge. We think we know a lot more than we do. And we make stuff up, often without realizing it, just to assure our egos that we are good enough and smart enough. “[P]eople who don’t know much about a given set of cognitive, technical, or social skills,” Dunning writes, “tend to grossly overestimate their prowess and performance, whether it’s grammar, emotional intelligence, logical reasoning, firearm care and safety, debating, or financial knowledge.”

That assured ignorance can be extremely dangerous. Dunning suggests that it was a contributing factor in the 2008 financial collapse. Recent research shows how badly informed Americans are when it comes to basic principles of finance:

"In 2012, the National Financial Capability Study, conducted by the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (with the U.S. Treasury), asked roughly 25,000 respondents to rate their own financial knowledge, and then went on to measure their actual financial literacy. The roughly 800 respondents who said they had filed bankruptcy within the previous two years performed fairly dismally on the test — in the 37th percentile, on average. But they rated their overall financial knowledge more, not less, positively than other respondents did. The difference was slight, but it was beyond a statistical doubt: 23 percent of the recently bankrupted respondents gave themselves the highest possible self-rating; among the rest, only 13 percent did so. Why the self-confidence? Like Jimmy Kimmel’s victims, bankrupted respondents were particularly allergic to saying, 'I don’t know.'"

Dunning’s most intriguing idea is that we don’t even have a grasp on what “ignorance” really is. Most people think of ignorance as a lack of information, gaps in our knowledge that could be filled in with appropriate training or education. That’s too hopeful:

"The way we traditionally conceive of ignorance — as an absence of knowledge — leads us to think of education as its natural antidote. But education, even when done skillfully, can produce illusory confidence."

Here, Dunning’s primary example is driver’s education courses, which “tend to increase, rather than decrease, accident rates.” How is that possible? Because after taking Driver’s Ed, most people think of themselves as sophisticated, savvy motorists who know just what to do if they begin to skid on a slick road. Having that certificate on their fridge “leaves them with the lasting impression that they’re permanent experts on the subject.” Unfortunately, “their skills usually erode rapidly after they leave the course.” Drivers would be better off if they steered clear of icy roads entirely rather than try to navigate them with their weaker-than-they-know winter driving skills.   

It’s tempting — well, more than tempting, natural — to read these ideas and project them outward on the rest of humanity. "Sure, other people might have no idea they’re so incompetent, but I’ve got a pretty firm grasp on what I know and what I don’t know," you might be thinking. But you'd be wrong. The problem, Dunning says, "is one that visits us all." He explains that while our brains are great at cramming our heads with reams of knowledge, they “do not confer ... insight into the dimensions of our ignorance.” The antidote for organizations and small groups may be listening to devil’s advocates, which I wrote about recently. For individuals, the strategy is to

“... be your own devil’s advocate: to think through how your favored conclusions might be misguided; to ask yourself how you might be wrong, or how things might turn out differently from what you expect. It helps to try practicing what the psychologist Charles Lord calls ‘considering the opposite.’ To do this, I often imagine myself in a future in which I have turned out to be wrong in a decision, and then consider what the likeliest path was that led to my failure."

Even with all these safeguards, it’s inevitable that we’ll make mistakes when we think we’re really on top of our game. There may be an evolutionary explanation for this irony: If we were wracked with an appropriate dose of doubt about every decision we faced, we’d be paralyzed. We’d never get married, agree to take a job, or buy a house, let alone pick a flavor of yogurt at the grocery store.

But of course the armchair speculation in the previous paragraph is just that: a plausible, but weakly considered insight. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong. But it should be taken with a grain of salt. And speaking of evolutionary theory, Charles Darwin probably put it best in his introduction to The Descent of Man when he claimed that opponents of the theory of evolution had their heads in the sand:

"It has often and confidently been asserted, that man’s origin can never be known, but ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: It is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science."

Couple that idea with the concept of Socratic wisdom — the Athenian philosopher’s announcement that his wisdom consists in the fact that he knows that he knows nothing — and you have something of a recipe for confronting, if not overcoming, Dunning’s conundrum. 

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Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.