I still remember the first time I realized that people who sound perfectly confident about what they’re saying are not always correct. It was sometime in my mid-20s (apparently I was a slow learner?) when I was in conversation with a friend of mine, and he said something about Yosemite National Park that I knew was incorrect. Mind you, it wasn’t something I thought I might have gotten wrong or was otherwise unsure about. I’d been going to Yosemite every year since I was born, so I was ninety-nine percent certain that my friend was stating something factually inaccurate.
However, when I offered my expertise on the subject, he didn’t admit to not being sure himself. To every outward appearance he was just as confident about his correctness as he had ever been. And at that moment I had an epiphany: People could be telling me inaccurate information all the time, and unless it was a subject in which I had personal expertise, I would never know the difference.
We hear a lot about how information on the internet may or may not be very reliable, but the internet is merely boosting the signal of an older problem. How do we know, not when people are maliciously lying to us (that’s another problem, but thankfully a much rarer one for me personally), but when they are misrepresenting their knowledge? And worse still, how can we avoid passing this ignorant knowledge onwards ourselves? (Incidentally, Wikipedia has an entire list of common misconceptions. Of course, you have to ask yourself: how much of this list is accurate? And the nature of the beast is revealed in all of its pernicious twistings.)
Another aspect of the problem is oversimplification. It seems to me that while my life can be very complicated, that’s just a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of complications in the greater world. And yet it’s so easy to think about an issue or subject for only a minute or two and pronounce upon it, failing to delve into the deeper implications, the bigger picture, the history, or what-have-you.
I’ll give an example that I see a fair amount. I happen to know something about the geopolitics of the Middle East. Do I have a complete understanding? No. Am I an expert? No again. Why not? Because the situation is complicated, and because it’s difficult to find reliable sources of information, and because I live far away and therefore can’t rely on firsthand experience. Also because I come from a different country and bring my own cultural expectations into my reasoning, and in spite of my best efforts, I’m sure some of that leaks through to color my opinions and observations.
However, I do know enough to be able to tell when others know what they’re talking about (and when they don’t). I also know enough to notice when people seem to have formed opinions about situations in the Middle East even though they lack the background information necessary to develop a deep understanding. I don’t mind so much when I speak to people who have different opinions from me on this topic (on the contrary, it’s such a complicated topic that I welcome the chance to learn more, especially from those who are more personally involved and/or affected). However, when it becomes obvious that they’re not likewise trying to educate themselves even when they lack information (which is easy to lack when you live half-way around the world), well, then once again ignorance has won. And it will spread.
I’m worried because this isn’t an inspirational post, and I like the inspirational posts the best. But for a problem like this, I don’t have any real answers. I try to do my best to be accurate in the information I pass along, but sometimes I make honest mistakes. I try to educate myself about the issues I care about, and I try not to profess knowledge I don’t have and instead ask questions to improve my understanding. (Six years ago, I knew nothing at all about the Middle East, for example.) When I hear information I know to be incorrect, I try to speak up, even though I often don’t feel like being assertive.
But in an information-heavy world, there will always be information that is inaccurate or incomplete. And there will always be people who aren’t interested in listening.
What do you think about this problem? How do you deal with it in your daily life?