Individual

SHOCK CONFESSION! I don’t know everything!

Middle aged keyboard warrior reconciles self to incomplete knowledge         

Words © Paul Ransom / Author image © Guy Phillips

Whose idea was it to give the silent majority a voice? Because now all we can hear is the massed caterwauling of the dubiously opinionated avatars of digital democracy. We were promised a world of instantly available knowledge, and that we have – but, post-truth, what exactly do we think we know?

A cursory scan of Twitter feeds, You Tube channels and blog posts will unearth a febrile diaspora of armchair experts, each eager to promulgate their own take on the much maligned truth. From the dim corners of distant bedrooms, they upload pearls of wisdom – mostly free of charge. On the pages of this online omnibus, Golden Ages and Orwellian hellholes are nigh, leftist elites are to blame for everything, and Manchester City will never win the Champions’ League. Couple this with stock tips, sex hints and the sixteen thousand reasons everyone else has got it completely wrong, and you have a veritable encyclopaedia of self-proclaimed enlightenment.

  • Look everyone…the internet is upping its vibration to a higher plain – not to mention bunkering down for the apocalypse, redesigning public health policy and solving all the world’s problems with a handful of astonishingly effective Palaeolithic berries. Woo-hoo, we’re saved! (Or is that doomed?)

At this juncture, it is only right that I acknowledge guilt. Welcome to approximately 1500 words of contemporary, self-promoted wit & wisdom from yet another largely silent nobody operating out of a cut/copy home office in a regulation city somewhere here on Earth. I could be anybody, and so could you. Effectively, all I am doing here is to add a virtually anonymous chirp to the agglomerated cacophony. (Tweet, tweet.)

This piece, this site, is the digital equivalent of micro-plastic – a tiny fragment, now loose, finding its way into the water course, and eventually into either the guts of an unsuspecting fish or a patch of floating garbage nobody really wants to deal with.

Yet, if you will excuse my vanity and pardon my virtue, I am here because it is time that someone, finally, has the pluck to own up. You see, it’s not just that I don’t know everything, it’s that I know I don’t. Regardless how clever I think I am; my self-authored genius is seriously limited. Moreover, it remains heavily coloured by both personal and cultural circumstance and profoundly affected by brain biology and the nature of human cognition. The best I can offer you – or myself – is a highly idiosyncratic, partial view of the world skewed by mainly unconscious biases and amplified by cognitive mechanisms that pre-dispose me to favour easily memorable ‘facts’ that support an over-simplified picture of reality. If I am expert at anything it is at being compellingly half-baked.

However, rather than making moral theatre from nuerological mea culpa, the point here is to sound a note of temperance. In the midst of pandemic disruption, where the old normal is no more and the new normal is yet to be, it is tempting to reach for the succour of certainty. Indeed, the increased demand for such has stimulated an oversupply of both easy solutions and convenient blame. We can now avail ourselves of a 24/7 smorgasbord of apocalypse, dystopia, fiendish elites, cherry-picked stats, miracle ingredients, spiritual superiority and good old fashioned ideological bullying – all served up with lashings of gravitas. COVID has been a boon for instant epidemiologists, amateur presidents and laptop gurus everywhere. Each with a sure-fire fix up their digital sleeve. If only those know-nothing experts and hopelessly incompetent public officials would shut up and listen to our commonly expressed sense, the virus would be sent packing in a day or two and a utopian wonder age would shortly dawn.

Right? … Erm…well, maybe not.

As I isolate in my apartment, picking my way through a marathon degustation of conflicting info-morsels, I could readily be seduced by the consequence-free safe place provided by my continued obscurity. From the relative anonymity of the sidelines, I remain free to vent all manner of righteous fury and to proffer an array of dazzling cures for every apparent malady of a reputedly broken society. And all without needing to walk the walk.

Instead, I listen to the various politicians and public health experts and ask myself a critical question: could I do any better? The answer – honestly – is almost certainly not. Delusional egomania aside, it is plain that I do not currently possess either the technical smarts or the cognitive capacity to perfectly respond to the immense complexity of a once-in-a-century pandemic. No one does. What’s more, I am glad I do not have to front up like others do. I am not required to make life and death calls in intensive care. No one hangs out for my daily briefings and, thankfully, no one’s livelihood hinges upon choices I make. Life is so much simpler when others do the heavy lifting, leaving me free to criticise their technique with virtual impunity.  

This is not to suggest that I adhere to, or advise, the complacent notion that much cleverer people will sort everything out while I binge on City Beautiful videos or amuse myself with Virginia Woolf. A child-like dependence on the wisdom of ‘our betters’ is as foolish as the Facebook bitch-a-thon is useless. (Perhaps this seems obvious. I certainly hope so.)

However, it would also appear that admitting a deficit of knowledge is not the done thing in our culture of instant, branded certainty. Everyone wants answers, damn it. Clear messaging. Things have to be straightforward.

Meanwhile, nuance, ambiguity and waiting for more evidence are regarded as either boring, too complex or a form of weakness. Worse, exactly the kind of thing you’d expect from out-of-touch scientists and up-themselves inner city intellectuals.

Although there is a body of research to suggest that purported expertise is sometimes overstated1 – especially in predictive matters, notably in economics, politics and HR – the cult of the citizen polymath is perhaps even more troubling. It is not merely that the billion bedroom gods of internet opinion might (gulp) be wrong, but that their curious cocktail of confected cynicism and self-assigned factual correctness is the turbo-charged cancer of the body politic. Now that we are all so terribly ‘awake’ and everyone else is a somnolent lamb, the truth has become a contest of virtue and volume.

Loud + Plentiful x Easy to swallow = Morally & intellectually superior.          

Here, I am reminded of the famous Bertrand Russell quote. In a 1933 essay, gloriously entitled The Triumph of Stupidity, the British philosopher wrote: The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.

In Russell’s day, the fools and fanatics included Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini. Today’s demagogues peddle their franchised certainties as part of the infotainment onslaught. Still others, unelected and largely unheralded, hawk their brave new worlds in every available nook and cranny of the internet. It is as if, in response to increased complexity, we have gravitated towards the promise of easy.

Certainty, if nothing else, is a labour saving device2.     

Thus, although I would dearly love to offer you a 24 hour detox recipe guaranteed to provide coronaviral immunity, long overdue social justice outcomes and boundless economic growth, I must confess that I am nowhere near smart enough. Turns out that the intricate, networked complexity of a planetary super-society is not something I can perfectly encapsulate in a snappy blog post. Neither can I offer you salvation, socio-economic uplift or an end to global warming. Even though I’m capable of quoting stats, citing dead philosophers and co-opting ideas from books by Nobel laureates, I operate on the basis of incomplete information, sub-optimal understanding and the ‘framing effects’ of personal/social circumstance.

I accept that, from a brand perspective, this is a disaster. I’ll never be considered leadership material now. News channels won’t invite me on to express erudite uncertainty. This article will not go viral. Punters want fearlessly expressed, boldly asserted either/or statements. They want the satisfying psycho-drama of secrets revealed, plots uncovered, and simple three-step plans for a perfect future – none of which I can honestly offer.

All of which leaves us where? In a world where everyone’s an authority and genuine expertise is either ignored or dismissed as propaganda, we are left to wade through a contradictory bog of self-published truths and variously ideological tirade. If all this noise had a brand promise it would surely be:

Everything you’ve been told is a lie…except this.

Yet, who amongst all these truth-tellers can be believed? Can you? Can I? Though I like to think I’d make a fabulous Prime Minister, I remind myself that lunatics and incompetents throughout the ages have believed likewise. Perhaps it is the fool who too loudly proclaims to know.

Bearing this in mind, the best advice I can give right now is to dismiss everything you’ve just read. I mean, the who the hell is this guy anyway? Sounds like he knows fuck all if you ask me!

1: Research comparing algorithmic prediction outcomes with expert prediction outcomes suggests that in certain instances – stock market moves, candidate suitability, etc – the best human guesses are, in fact, not much better than…guessing. That said, this is still a contentious idea. Either way, advances in neuro-psychology and cognition science have shown us that, by and large, we are overconfident in our judgements and prescriptions. Furthermore, the way that our brains sort incoming data and match it with remembered data underscores our proclivity for coherent, linear world views. This applies as much to the supposedly virtuous commoner as to the allegedly stupid and corrupt expert class.    

2: Cognitive ease is a term used to describe this phenomenon. The basic idea is that our brains prefer fast twitch responses and that, because of this, we are biased towards the familiar, the linear, the narrative. Things which come to mind easily are more easily believed. That which is believed will, in turn, influence the significance placed on certain inputs (facts, impressions, etc). A vicious/virtuous cycle depending on your p.o.v.

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