Thursday, July 17, 2008

Culpable Ignorance

Yesterday, I wrote about the fact that we are forced to live our lives with a merely superficial knowledge of a great many things. I wrote that the physical laws of nature give us only enough time to superficially skim the top of many issues going on around us. This is just a part of the real world in which we live in and we are better off acknowledging this fact than ignoring it.

I also warned against manipulative individuals who take advantage of our necessity to 'skim' issues to manipulate us into actions that are harmful to us and useful to them – the way the Bush Administration has exploited the skimming of knowledge of energy in order to impoverish the American people (and, particularly, their children and grandchildren) for the sake of profiting a few friends.

This fact of necessary ignorance has two additional moral implications that are worth mentioning.


Given the fact that we are all so incredibly ignorant about so much, we can consider it a moral failing when people pretend to be smarter and wiser than any human being can possibly be. Yet, it is extremely common for people who are substantially ignorant of the relevant facts to claim to know with utter certainty – with so much certainty that they are willing to risk other peoples’ lives – things they cannot possibly know.

I have mentioned one example of culpable arrogance in a number of posts. These are people who get their understanding of the situation in Iraq from some broadcast news segments and a little internet research. They then proclaim, "I know exactly what strategy we should use with respect to Iraq, and my vote in the November elections will be given only to those who agree to embrace my plan."

Often, that plan does not even come from the snippets of news and research they perform. Rather, they form their opinion in advance, and they filter their interpretation of the available information according to what best fits their pre-determined conclusions. It's the same technique that the Bush Administration used in evaluating the intelligence on Saddam Hussein’s alleged ‘weapons of mass destruction’. And these people complain about how the Bush Administration blinded itself to an objective interpretation of that intelligence. They do so while they engage in the exactly the same practice.

Such is the nature of culpable arrogance.

On the domestic front, many Americans report that the number one issue on their minds today is the high price of gasoline. They are willing to sell their vote to whomever they trust to bring down the price of gasoline. Plus, they know exactly what the problem is and what we need to do to fix it.

The problem is either that we are not consuming domestic supplies fast enough, or the big oil companies are in a secret agreement to jack up prices and rob us of our hard earned wealth.

This demonstrates culpable arrogance in two ways. The first is with the assumption that the price of gasoline is their most important concern. To which I reply, "Honestly? You're telling me that the one item that can most affect the rest of your life, for better or worse, is the high price of gasoline?" It takes a certain amount of arrogance to even make such a statement.

It takes less arrogance to say that we have a variety of important issues – from the future collapse of social security, to global warming, to a struggling economy, to poor education, and to simply add, "I don’t know which one is the most important, which is why I want somebody with sufficient breadth of knowledge to deal with all of them."

Wasted Intelligence

The other moral issue relevant to the fact of wide-spread ignorance is that of wasted intelligence.

Given that we are so ignorant of so many things, why do so many people waste time and effort becoming knowledgeable about things that are not important, using intelligence-resources that could have been spent learning something useful.

I can identify three huge realms of wasted intelligence.

(1) Knowledge of the events on American Idol, or Dances with the Stars, or Gilligan’s Island, or any of hundreds of other television shows and movies. People have a great deal of knowledge of these things that they acquire by examining primary materials on these events (that is to say, by watching them on television). But, it is useless knowledge. Exchange 1 person-hour of American Idol with 1 hour reading an article in National Geographic magazine, and we are all better off.

(2) Knowledge of sports facts. A great many people have a great deal of knowledge about those who are particularly skilled at throwing a ball through a metal ring or hitting a ball and running around in circles.

(3) Knowledge of religious claims. Religions don't even make good history. We can gain some knowledge about people, their values, and how they behave from stories. However, we can get these stories from any piece of fiction (and even better from any peace of history). It is still far better for us when we study what it is to be human in a work that we know to be fiction than one that is fiction but mistakenly taken to be fact.

When I get on the bus and see passengers using the time to read their bibles (as many do), I wonder how much better the world would be if they were sitting there reading a book on international economics, or contemporary society in China or India, or the science of global warming, or matters relevant to energy policy, or cosmic threats to the existence of human civilization.

One of the significant costs of television, and sports, and religion, is the resources that people are putting into them that they are not putting into understanding science, economics, geography, and the like.

We have good reason to believe that these preferences are malleable to some extent. We have some reason to believe that, through social forces, we can promote an aversion to wasting time on mindless television, sports, and religion. At the same time, we can use those same forces to promote a desire to understand things like science, economics, and geography.

It is a matter of the judicious use of praise and condemnation (particularly directed towards children) we can promote a love of learning and an aversion to being an ignorant fool. In particular, we can promote a love of learning and the wonder and awe of the real world, and a simple aversion to wasting one’s day.


Sheldon said...

I to am often bewildered by how people squander their mental energies on things of little importance.

And your examples of so many people excessively concerned with popular entertainment and sports illustrates how so many in our society are dis-engaged from the many issues that actaully matter. This is not behaviour worthy of citizens of a democracy.

The situation in Iraq is complex and fluid. There are many unknowns about the present and the many possible futures. I certainly think people should educate themselves beyond what they learn on the evening news and a couple of articles on the internet.

People should do their best to investigate the topic to the best of their ability, and they should make demands on their elected government to do what they think is best based on what they think they know. Its called democracy.

For my part, I have made a decision on where I stand based on what I THINK I know. I certainly acknowledge the possibility that I may be in error, so perhaps my arrogance is not of which you write.

People rarely make decisions based on perfect knowledge, but that is no good reason not to make a decision.

Given the costs to Iraqi life, to U.S. soldiers and their families lives; and given the gargantuan cost in resources that could be genuinely spent on human needs, the Iraq war is one of the most important moral matter before us.

Whether P.Z. Meyers advocates theft, or whether "under God" is in the pledge of allegiance are rather miniscule matters in comparison. In my opinion, I would respectfully argue.

I find it interesting that you weight your discussion here, and in a previous post, against those who favor ending our military presence in Iraq.

However, it seems to me that many who support continued military occupation in Iraq do so based on the more shallow and superficial information, and for some of the worst reasons, like preserving "American honor".

But perhaps that is simply my biased opinion.

Regarding oil prices:

"This demonstrates culpable arrogance in two ways. The first is with the assumption that the price of gasoline is their most important concern."

I certainly hope that our country learns its lesson this time around, unlike the lesson we failed learn the first time in the late 1970s. This may be the whuppin America actually needs to wisen up.

I will note though that people who live in rural regions are being hit harder than those who are fortunate to have more options.

Anonymous said...

Knowledge of the events on American Idol, or Dances with the Stars, or Gilligan’s Island, or any of hundreds of other television shows and movies.

Couldn't these be considered a form of superstimuli? ( To quote a brief section: A candy bar is a superstimulus: it contains more concentrated sugar, salt, and fat than anything that exists in the ancestral environment. A candy bar matches taste buds that evolved in a hunter-gatherer environment, but it matches those taste buds much more strongly than anything that actually existed in the hunter-gatherer environment. The signal that once reliably correlated to healthy food has been hijacked, blotted out with a point in tastespace that wasn't in the training dataset - an impossibly distant outlier on the old ancestral graphs. Tastiness, formerly representing the evolutionarily identified correlates of healthiness, has been reverse-engineered and perfectly matched with an artificial substance.

Basically that evolution has provided us with certain stimuli that we respond to for good reasons, and that modern technology has found ways to trigger those stimuli to an extremely greater degree than anything found in our evolutionary enviroment, while divorcing that stimuli from the good reasons we originally responded to it. Thus even though it may be harmfull to fixate on imaginary dramas that unfold on our TV, it is hard (and very psychologically expensive) to resist such stimuli.

What I'm getting at is that it probably isn't the fault of most people that they focus so much on these things. The stimuli have been engineered to be extremely hard to resist for psychologically normal humans. Can we truelly call it "culpable ignorance" in the face of these forces?

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Just some miscellaneious remarks.

- Whether PZ Myers advocates theft is a minor issue. The moral concept of 'theft' - its limits, the nature and extent of fraud - have implications far beyond this.

- I would argue that 'under God' in the Pledge 'In God We Trust' as the motto are as morally significant as segregation - but that one of the effects of out-group psychology is that it even causes members of the out-group to denigrate and devalue their own rights.

- I weigh my discussion against those who favor ending our military presence in Iraq because those are the ones reading this blog. If I focus on those who favor continuing the war, then readers will simply skim through the argument, nod their head in agreement (thinking only about 'others' who are making this mistake and not applying the argument to themselves), and move on.


In desire utilitarian terms, it becomes 'culpable ignorance' if social forces can have an effect on the tendency. There are a lot of people who have learned to become entertained by National Geographic specials, documentaries, and reading, more than television.

Perhaps the difference is genetic, yet I think there is good reason to believe that there is room for social forces to influence whether a person watches 30 hours of television per week or 20, and whether people spend those 20 hours watching CSI and the National Geographic Channel or watching reruns of Gilligian's Island.

Zachary Moore said...


Although all three of your examples are intellectually wasteful, they are not culturally wasteful, and therein lies their value.

Let's take sports knowledge, for example. The average guy (although there are many sports-affected women) may not share much in common with the next average guy, but if they share a common interest in (and knowledge of) sports activities, then the barriers to social cohesion are much reduced. A similar argument could be made for American Idol, or religious claims. These are all part of the cultural currency, and thus active participation and knowledge of these help to promote a more integrated society.

That being said, there's no particular reason why American Idol is necessarily an element of our culture... it just so happens to have taken a prominent place. If National Geographic was as popular, then the latter would have the same cultural role.



Alonzo Fyfe said...

zachary moore

Though your points on cultural currency are accurate, they are also subject to influence over time. It still makes sense to push our culture away from an American Idol - sports - religion culture to an Engineering marvels - science model.

'Sports' turns out to be an interesting category. While some modern sports are quite useless - some sports are not. The engineering that goes into automobile racing, for example, gives that sport an element of merit that other sports do not have.

Races to reach engineering and scientific milestones are a type of 'sport' that does not share the same criticism as basketball, football, baseball, and hockey.

dbonfitto said...

What about knowledge from the engineering of protective gear for football, baseball, and hockey? Therapeutic medicine?

I'm not exactly a sportsman myself, but there's also the added benefit of getting kids off the couch and outside to get fresh air and exercise. Then, there's the basic math and logic that comes from building up fantasy leagues, crunching numbers to understand stats, etc.

The quality of American Idol aside, what's wrong with cultivating an interest in vocal music?

Yes, tilting interest back towards science and engineering is a good way to fulfill desires for a whole lot of people, but you don't do it by shutting down other parts of culture.

You do it by rewarding good science both monetarily and socially.

Becky said...

I would further suggest that even reading "primary" documents and visiting Iraq at this point still leaves one vastly ignorant of all the issues involved in the war. I think it is arrogance to even assert much of an opinion on the war unless one has some high level clearance to intelligence information. Then again, if one has such information, one probably wouldn't share such information due to security/safety issues. In a sense, the people most knowledgeable about the situation are most tightly constrained about what they will say.

I am then left wondering whether the public and even many in the military can ever have much meaningful to say in matters of national security. Perhaps a little arrogance, in that sense, is unavoidable - if "some" sort of checks/balances are to be in place against an uncontrolled military.

Ron in Houston said...

I'd assert that the idea of wasted intelligence is very relative. I know a lot of people who have parlayed their intelligence of sports into lucrative careers as sportscasters.

If you enjoy something and you learn about it, is it really a waste?

Sheldon said...

"but if they share a common interest in (and knowledge of) sports activities, then the barriers to social cohesion are much reduced."

Yes, but this plays right into my point about not sharing a common interest and pursuit of knowledge of social and political affairs, which if done could have the effect of creating social cohesion of responsibile democratic citizenship.

People are just too willing to dis-engage from these responsibilities.

I for one think there is nothing wrong with sports, and in fact am all for getting kids and others off the couch. Maybe everybody should get off the couch and be a participant, instead of a spectator, in both sports and our allegedly democratic society.

Becky, while certainly there is information that only well placed people in various intelligence services may know. There are also things that very good investigative journalists can learn that even those intelligence services cannot learn directly. If fact, intelligence analysts often are busy collecting and analyzing sources of information found in the global press.

It is being able to have that big picture from all those sources, and judging their credibility, that probably gives them the insight.

And Alonzo, I certainly recognize the broader illustrative value of the issues you choose to analyze. And I generally agree with your analysis on these issues.

I read your blog because I am genuinely concerned with issues of ethics and morality, and I am often disturbed with the moral direction of our society.

And Ron, just because something can be made to be lucrative does not neccessarily mean it is good. Seems that many things in this world can be made to be lucrative, but also cause problems and misery.

Sportscasting would probably not be the first thing on my list though. :)

The Ridger, FCD said...

Wow. Does everything have to be immediately useful? You actually do nothing for the pure pleasure of it?

I won't talk about sports or tv around here, then.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

the ridge, fcd

The point of the post is that, given that (according to how we design our culture) we can choose what is pleasurable, is it not better to do for pleasure that which is also useful?

This is what desire utilitarianism is all about - getting people to find pleasure (to desire as an end) those things that are also useful (what tends to fulfill other desires).

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I do not think that any respect at all is due to those who hold absurdly false beliefs - particularly when they base actions harmful to the interests of others on those false beliefs.

I believe that it serves a useful social function to laugh at and ridicule those who hold absurd beliefs. We benefit by promoting an actual aversion (embarrassment over) holding absurd beliefs, in that more people will then check their beliefs for absurdity.

This is particularly true when people hold absurd beliefs and use them as a foundation for actions harmful to the interests of others - as the Catholic Church does in defending policies against stem cell medical research, early term abortion, birth control, and homosexual marriage.

In which case, the holding of absurd beliefs is not only to be laughed at and ridiculed, but morally condemned.

Yet, the proper response to words, as I have argued, are words and private actions. Theft is not a private action, so it is not a legitimate response.


I have considered the option of a civil-disobedience defense of Myers' act. Except, civil disobedience is supposed to be non-violent. It does not do physical damage to the person or property of other people. No harm is done - that is the point.

Stealing somebody else's property and destroying it does not count.

This is quite unlike printing a bigoted cartoon (in the context where one says, 'I disagree with the message, but I defend the right to say it - and the right to say it means a right to be free from violence or the threats of violence.') That fits the category of civil disobedience since no person or property were taken or harmed. That is to say, it was a non-violent act.


Nothing about the stand that I take is 'really hard', or even a little bit hard. This is what I decided I wanted to do with my life at a very young age. It would be harder for me to not take such a stand than to take it.

Also, please note, even where people disagree with me, they are not hostile. Nobody has attacked me because of the positions I defend, even where they do attack the positions I defend.

Anyway, a gift is thievery if it is given under false pretenses. If I say that I will give a gift to anybody 12 years old or younger, and a thirteen year old passes himself off as 12, then the fact that I gave the meal to somebody I thought was 12 does not make the gift his.

Yes, there are rules governing the giving of communion wafers. A thief has to misrepresent himself as somebody participating in communion to get one. Just like the 13 year old passes himself off as a 12 year old.

And, as I argued in the post, it is not their opinions that we should respect - it is their autonomy. It is their right to decide what to do with their own property, and your right (and mine) not to live in a society where it is a 'minimal' crime for people to take things from us if they decide we value them for the wrong reasons.

Sheldon said...

"I do not think that any respect at all is due to those who hold absurdly false beliefs - particularly when they base actions harmful to the interests of others on those false beliefs."

Just saw this comment addressing me in the right column and I am not sure why it is here.

Anyhow, I think I am trying to talk about respect that is due to most people most of the time regardless of their beliefs. But different than giving respect to the belief itself.

And lets face it, if we only respected people who held no absurd beliefs, then we would end up not respecting nearly everybody.