On Being "In the Know"

Thursday, December 01, 2011

When I was young, I would sometimes encounter ads in such popular publications as comic books, Reader's Digest, or The National Enquirer that purported to help people achieve some type of goal by means of special knowledge that not everyone is privy to. Usually, these would have titles like, "Advice Your Stockbroker Doesn't Want You to Hear," or, "Score with Women Using Lance Conway's Exclusive Seduction Method."

You get the idea: It's not just that someone can benefit from learning specialized knowledge, but that this knowledge is, in some way, impossible for ordinary mortals to obtain without special insight -- or access to someone with such insight. One way to begin seeing that this un-integrated view of knowledge is wrong, at least regarding financial advice, is to ask a question like this: "If this guy is making such a killing, why is he wasting his valuable time giving seminars?"

It is no accident that the publications that carry such ads also feature a heaping helping of ads that look even more blatantly ridiculous, at least to an active mind. The fact is that it doesn't take psychic powers to see why a self-proclaimed psychic would feel the need to advertise in media consumed by people who don't really understand what knowledge is, or how to acquire it. Absent rational epistemological standards, the only alternative a mark -- I mean, a customer -- will see is uncertainty about everything vs. (essentially) mystical insight. Such minds are non-conceptual, and, therefore, not in the habit of checking claims against reality. Not all such ads are explicitly mystical, nor are most people consistent mystics, but that is the view of knowledge that infects the thinking of so many, and makes it possible for people to generate an income by pretending to know things.

An interesting article about the "mental gymnastics" required of someone with a high security clearance reminded me of those kinds of ads and the view of knowledge they embody and depend upon. There are some grains of truth to the article -- I would imagine that one would have to be on guard against arrogance, and ever-mindful of keeping secrets, for example. However, I disagree that having a high security clearance would necessarily lead one to adopt all of the attitudes the article implies.

That said, here is what reminded me of all those psychic ads I used to see:

In the meantime it will have become very hard for you to learn from anybody who doesn't have these clearances. Because you'll be thinking as you listen to them: "What would this man be telling me if he knew what I know? Would he be giving me the same advice, or would it totally change his predictions and recommendations?" And that mental exercise is so torturous that after a while you give it up and just stop listening. I've seen this with my superiors, my colleagues....and with myself.

... You'll give up trying to assess what he has to say. The danger is, you'll become something like a moron. You'll become incapable of learning from most people in the world, no matter how much experience they may have in their particular areas that may be much greater than yours.
The author identifies a danger associated with having actual, concrete knowledge that others don't have, and becoming tired of the constant necessity of checking possible new knowledge against what one already knows. That's bad enough, but consider how dangerous this tendency could be to someone who only thinks he knows something and hasn't a well-developed habit of checking new information. Such a person will be even less likely to avail himself of the knowledge of others, however imperfect or incomplete. (Let me emphasize that this is not to say that just anyone is worth listening to.) As other passages from the story indicate, what those with high security clearances hear about isn't always true. In other words, succumbing to the arrogant, mystical-looking (to me) attitude that knowing something others don't impugns anything they might say only further entrenches any errors one might have made.

Whether someone willfully adopts a mystical view of knowledge or slips into functioning as if all knowledge isn't interrelated and accessible to all men, the end result is the same: He may think he is "in the know", but he increasingly doesn't really know what he's talking about.

-- CAV


Vigilis said...

The same problem seems to have been recognized by at least one other intellectual, Gus:

"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool." -Richard P. Feynman (1918-1988) Nobel Prize Laureate in Physics 1965.

Gus Van Horn said...

Thanks for bringing that excellent quote to our attention, Vigilis.