Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Ignorance is not only potentially fatal, but highly annoying as well.

One of my recent pet peeves is that adults are let out into the big, wide, scary and manipulative and deceiptful world without the necessary cognitive skills to cope, resulting in pyramid schemes, Nigerian email scams and alternative medicine. Part two of this peeve is that a basic education in evaluating science would go a long way to fixing this, by teaching people about logical fallacies, thinking skills, burdens of evidence, signal-to-noise issues, etc. I am particularly annoyed that my own education didn't do a particularly good job at any of that, until it became my fault when I didn't pay enough attention to the boring bits in my Psychology degree (whoops).

Plus, along with the protective cognitive skills that a good education in the scientific method (or even just plain logic) would give, there is this:

Although not universally seen, education seems to help in a number of situations. Once people learn more about a subject, they begin to develop a grasp of how much they do not know." - The Arrogance of Ignorance.

Amen, brother. However, you need to learn a little more than just a little as Alexander Pope remarked:

A little learning is a dangerous thing ;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring :
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fired at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of Arts ;
While from the bounded level of our mind
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind,
But, more advanced, behold with strange surprise
New distant scenes of endless science rise !
So pleased at first the towering Alps we try,
Mount o’er the vales, and seem to tread the sky ;
The eternal snows appear already past,
And the first clouds and mountains seem the last ;
But those attained, we tremble to survey
The growing labours of the lengthened way ;
The increasing prospect tires our wandering eyes,
Hill peep o’er hills, and Alps on Alps arise !

As someone who hungers for a little knowledge about everything and impulsively dives into anything (evolutionary biology, most lately, thank you Dawkins), I am reminded, regularly, of just how much I don't know, and how shallow my knowledge can be. Luckily, I'm so used to this that it's not often I get into the trap of thinking that the knowledge I have gives me the intuition to figure out the knowledge I don't have. Not often.

I offer this comment for all those who think that they've spotted something obvious about medical procedures, or alternative therapies, or whatever: Some people have spent their lives studying this, and they're still arguing about. You'd better be prepared to defend yourself if you so much as think about wading into battle with them.

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