The Ignorance Project

Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects.”
– Will Rogers

I’ll admit I first came across Gapminder via one of those too-ubiquitous, too-canned TED presentations. Typical TED, but I admired Hans Rosling’s visual display of quantitative information.

And so I came to Gapminder’s Ignorance Project. I really admire what they’re trying to do, even if they’re swimming against the tide. They’re fighting against some apparent bad wiring in the typical human brain, against so many entrenched interests, and against indifference. I just felt like sharing their excellent description of the problem:

Statistical facts don’t come to people naturally. Quite the opposite. Most people understand the world by generalizing personal experiences which are very biased. In the media the “news-worthy” events exaggerate the unusual and put the focus on swift changes. Slow and steady changes in major trends don’t get much attention. Unintentionally, people end-up carrying around a sack of outdated facts that you got in school (including knowledge that often was outdated when acquired in school).

Plenty of folks have expounded on these things, but I just wanted to touch on a couple of things briefly.

There are two potential problems with the old conscious knowledge a person carries around. One problem is captured succinctly by Keynes’s quote “The difficulty lies not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.” This relates to a core problem in the field of  innovation.

Changing one’s thinking about ideas that are unemotional and unconnected to one’s public persona and relationships is difficult enough. The difficulty is greatly magnified if one has made public declarations. For now the ego suffers and reputation is usually better served by foolish consistency rather than changing one’s mind. It is more difficult still if such beliefs are embedded into one’s livelihood or important relationships. Cults and sects know this very well. This is why members publicly proclaim on the street corner and shut off outside influences. This is the same technique used by political organizations and they have used social media successfully. Once an operator has gotten someone to commit repeatedly, publicly, and divisively, the person will have much greater difficulty deviating from stated ideals and ideas in the future.

The other problem relates to those “outdated facts” that are not “wrong” so much as superseded by better, more comprehensive, or more accurate knowledge – old information that is unable to provide useful guidance to contemporary issues. This relates to the need for ongoing education and the tendency of older generations to dismiss or diminish new ideas and methods. To put this into focus, think about some modern discipline that began about 100 years ago. Someone who attended school during the 1970s would have read textbooks containing, at best, knowledge that was fully recognized and vetted in the 1960s. That knowledge was probably cutting edge during the 1940s and 1950s, which is when the teacher probably went to school. So that student got information from the first 40-50 years of the discipline at best.

No doubt the core concepts of many fields developed during their first decades remain salient today. Yet vast amounts of research have taken place since then. Some old notions have been upended; others have been rearranged and enhanced. New, more useful knowledge has been developed. In fact, in some fields the rate of useful innovation has accelerated. Certain fields did not have the measurement apparatus or data available to test then-popular theories. Especially in the social sciences, entire new frameworks have been developed and fields have transformed. Some fields simply require decades of data collection.

Unless the consequences of a dilapidated mental toolkit hobble one’s career or happiness, it doesn’t much matter to the individual. Yet there may be important external costs to society, since better ways are shunted. Outdated information and plainly wrong ideas can have practically the same consequences of mysticism and superstition. It was never the shaman or the doctor with dirty hands who paid the price. The cost of their ignorance – sometimes a proud, determined ignorance – was always borne by others.

I’ll spare the obvious pillorying of the news media, both mainstream and narrowcast / echo chamber, and the politicians and parties.  I do want to call out the film and “documentary” sector though. It really seems that many people get their impressions about serious and complicated issues from watching movies, whether “historical” dramatizations or “documentaries”. The problem is that so much artistic license is taken by filmmakers who are a) convinced of their perspective, b) unconcerned with presenting biased, incomplete, and even false information, and c) top notch influencers deft in the art of manipulating words, sounds, and images to bypass rational thinking and convince consumers (audience). In fact, their art of persuasion is often founded on known fallacies and exploiting cognitive biases and errors.

This review of Dallas Buyers’ Club illustrates much of this nicely. You can bet most viewers will “know” what the filmmakers want them to “know”. And once they “know” it, especially if it conforms to existing emotions and biases, it will be very difficult to use things like facts to change their minds.

The point is that Gapminder’s goal of influencing people towards a “fact-based worldview” faces daunting challenges. I applaud them.

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