Why some people seem to be proud of their ignorance?

by uzalud1 min read31st Dec 201134 comments

20

Personal Blog

Sometimes I run into people that have rather strong opinions on some topic, and it turns out that they are basing them on quite shallow and biased information. They are aware that their knowledge is quite limited compared to mine, and they admit that they don't want to put in the effort needed to learn enough to level the field.

But that's not really a problem. What is bothering me is that, sometimes, that declaration of ignorance is expressed with some kind of pride

This behaviour is noticeable on other levels too, in politics or in the sciences-humanities culture clash.

I came up with several hypotheses which might account for this:

  1. Being opinionated on a topic you know little about is a sign of confidence and bravery. Any fool can play it safe and carefully form opinions based on solid knowledge, but it takes a real man to do it quickly and decidedly, with only partial information.
  2. Knowing something is an identity badge. In-depth knowledge of science, or computers, or any number of other fields is a sign that you are a geek. People are proud of not being geeks, or are a proud member of some other group that does not care for that particular knowledge.
  3. Knowledge is relative and/or unimportant. Not caring about concrete knowledge is a sign of post-modernist sophistication, or an avant-garde, non-mainstream thinking, which is something to be proud of.
  4. Displaying pride overcompensates for shame one normally feels when forced to acknowledge one's ignorance.

Do you notice this behaviour too? What do you think causes it?

EDIT: formatting, style, grammar

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I've gotten the impression that many people are proud of their ignorance because they feel that the folks who know a field better can't see the forest from the trees and only use their knowledge to construct elaborate rationalizations. It's somewhat similar to the way that an atheist might say "no, I don't know anything about theology's answer to the Problem of Evil and I don't care, they're wrong regardless".

(I must admit that I've sometimes thought like this myself, about some topics.)

It's somewhat similar to the way that an atheist might say "no, I don't know anything about theology's answer to the Problem of Evil and I don't care, they're wrong regardless".

That's roughly my position vs. the Problem of Evil; I don't care what the theologians say; but then, I don't use the Problem of Evil to argue against religion, religions would be wrong even if they had the perfect answer to that specific argument (same goes for other weak arguments like the historicity of Jesus).

You realize that such epistemic habits would never lead you to truth if you were indoctrinated with a different prior? "I don't care what the atheists say about he Problem of Evil, they would be wrong for a host of other reasons even if the theologians' arguments suck." In general your epistemic habits should be meta enough such that you wouldn't immediately be screwed if your prior were different. [ETA: Deleted needlessly snarky sentences. Apologies.] [ETA2: This is certainly an uncharitable caricature of your actual position; I wrote it the way I did to shine light on a basic point of epistemology. In general this comment kinda sucks and shouldn't be taken too seriously.]

You realize that such epistemic habits would never lead you to truth if you were indoctrinated with a different prior? "I don't care what the atheists say about he Problem of Evil, they would be wrong for a host of other reasons even if the theologians' arguments suck."

Then in that case it's not just a different prior I'd need, it's the "host of other reasons", and more specifically, strong reasons among those.

I agree that there's an important distinction between "argument A can be ignored because there are much stronger arguments for the same position" (roughly my position) and "argument A can ignored because there are many more arguments for the same position("arguments are soldiers", leads to the problem you describe).

My purpose is to mostly avoid long debates that won't change either side's mind anyway even if one convinces the other on that particular issue (like "does Barack Obama pick his nose?").

I've gotten the impression that many people are proud of their ignorance because they feel that the folks who know a field better can't see the forest from the trees and only use their knowledge to construct elaborate rationalizations.

Well said -- that's about where I am with respect to mainstream macroeconomics, in that the models, metrics, etc. they use are hopelessly disconnected from the issue of "How would this policy allow people to get more of what they actually want?" But I'm not sure if I count as being proud of this ignorance: I'd certainly like to know more, so I can get the best understanding of where (I currently suspect) they go astray.

It's equivalent to the hypothesis that seeing more evidence is often bad, which is a theme emphasized on LW and in some Abrahamic sects (but only the LW/religious devout take it particularly seriously). Does it show up among normal people as well? In my experience normal people tend to assume that if someone's studied something for a while then that person's opinions are probably worth taking seriously.

Knowing something is an identity badge. In-depth knowledge of science, or computers, or any number of other fields is a sign that you are a geek. People are proud of not being geeks, or are a proud member of some other group that does not care for that particular knowledge.

In Italy this phenomenon is particularly prominent. Our school system underwent a big reformation in the 20es and has since then had only minor adjustments. The mind behind this reformation was the one of Benedetto Croce. He was an idealist philosopher, and basically disregarded the sciences as merely very practical instruments for the engineers. He designed mainly our high school system, instituting, among others, the so called "Liceo Classico", where ideally the upper classes of the future were to be formed, and the "Liceo Scientifico", the school for future engineers and technicians. In the Liceo Classico, as the name says, classical studies are dominant, and math and physics are barely taught at all. Even in the Liceo Scientifico, the main subjects are still Latin and Italian literature, history and philosophy. Since then there's a sort of a general cached thought still running around: that sciences are a second class subject of the sort. You can still see many people very proud of being able to quote Dante by heart, and also very proud of not messing with those trivial "technicalities".

That actually sounds personally kinda nice. I wish I'd been coerced into seriously reading Dante and so on when I was younger, instead of learning completely false but vaguely-reasonable-sounding stuff about genetics and airplanes and Bernoulli's law.

I recently had some input into a textbook and did my best to ensure that the bit about Bernoulli's law and airplanes was accurately represented, and similarly for everything else I could find. I don't know whether the editors will incorporate those changes, but they got them.

If you are not a person who chooses to read Dante voluntarily, you would probably find a way how to fulfill the teachers' requirements without reading Dante seriously. I have underwent education with emphasis put on the humanities (although probably not as strong as in the Italian system - but I can't really compare) and the only things I remember are a bunch of literature related trivia - names of few writers and books - and the fact that literature sucks.

Very true and very sad. :(

reasonable-sounding stuff about genetics and airplanes and Bernoulli's law

What is this referring to?

Don't get it wrong: I love Dante, and can indeed quote several pieces of the Divina Commedia by heart. I can even still recite the first 30 verses of Lucretium's De Rerum Natura (which, by the way, contains some very good proto-rationality).

To be honest, the humanae litterae are often very well taught, encouraging text analysis and critical thinking. To be even more honest, the system works rather well for the more scientific-minded: it helps you keep a broader culture and widens your mental horizons. Unfortunately, it usually has the exact opposite effect on the majority of people.

To be honest, the humanae litterae are often very well taught, encouraging text analysis and critical thinking. To be even more honest, the system works rather well for the more scientific-minded: it helps you keep a broader culture and widens your mental horizons. Unfortunately, it usually has the exact opposite effect on the majority of people.

Wow, that sounds like a massive improvement over the American education system.

I occasionally feel pride in not knowing some piece of popular culture, like which celebrity married whom or what movies some actress was in. This is mostly reason 2, signalling my identification with contrarian groups that don't care about such things. There's also an element of pride that I have good priorities about what to learn. There was a quote on here that I can't find again, along the lines of, "people ask how I know so much about science and so little about celebrities, but they never see the connection between the two."

I always try to temper this sort of pride with It's never cool to not know something.

Thanks for the link; it's a good one. I don't actively avoid information, but I'm still happy when I discover that I don't know a celebrity fact.

There's a balance. You shouldn't let yourself be made to feel awful about not knowing which celebrity is supposedly sleeping with who, etc, to the point where you move a lot of time away from learning other things toward learning that. Pride in your priorities would help to avoid that. At the same time, I certainly agree that getting carried away and purposely avoiding such knowledge is unlikely to be helpful - and some of us no doubt need to temper the tendency.

5 . THIS particular knowledge are unimportant details of a much broader knowledge. As a Big Geographer does not care very much about the name of a three small villages somewhere in the Northern Noland. He knows the world very well, every state capital and the river it is on - and much more. Locals may think - How on Earth would you know where is Australia, when you don't even know how to come to Lolosmathen from Maxelberg!?

I've encountered this "pretending to be a Big Geographer" by dismissing something as "unimportant details" - many times.

I don't think it requires a separate explanation.

Suppose I have a belief that I arrived at via some process other than evaluating evidence. Suppose further that I find that belief satisfying in some way... I prefer believing it to not-believing it.

If I suspect that evaluating available evidence will weaken my belief, that gives me a reason to avoid evaluating that evidence.

Having decided to avoid evaluating that evidence, I have incentive to believe that the evidence is worthless.

Yes, people are not motivated to look for knowledge that doesn't promise to support their existing point of view. But does that explain the pride in not knowing?

No, but it turns pride in not knowing into a special case of the more general pride in doing whatever it is I've decided to do anyway. And since the latter is observable in people in all kinds of areas, not just not-knowing, it makes it less likely that pride in not-knowing has a special explanation.

Your double "supposes" are a bit redundant; if someone arrives at a belief other than through evaluating the evidence, they chose it because it is "satisfying in some way".

... or because they got confused (took it as a supposition and forgot that was its role), or have never really considered the issue carefully and gone with the first thing their intuition suggests, or...

It's not redundant. Stretching the first to encompass the second is too much stretching.

Because the outside view frequently gives better predictions than the inside view. For example as Manfred recently noted in a different thread, Mike Darwin's predictions were

[m]uch more accurate outside of his specialty.

Yes, but does this explain the pride? Also, the planning fallacy is more about optimism than knowledge per se.

Although, I think this has connections with "seeing the Big Picture" (the Big Geographer, as Thomas said). "You may know some unimportant details, but I have a better view of the Big Picture, so I'm superior to you."

It's worth noting that people display proud ignorance on Far topics much more often than Near ones.

This sounds a bit similar to what was described in Professing and Cheering:

The woman went on describing her creation myth for what seemed like forever, but was probably only five minutes. That strange pride/satisfaction/flaunting clearly had something to do with her knowing that her beliefs were scientifically outrageous.

Knowing things signals having spent time and energy on learning those things rather than other things. This might be the same principle behind the behavior of some classmates I had when I was in high school: they found it amusing to challenge me to spell naughty words and then laugh at me for being able to. (I think they supposed I'd specifically looked them all up instead of having good general spelling knowledge and a very fast reading speed to go through a lot of assorted literature. The signal persists even for knowledge picked up incidentally.)

Additionally, people who feel their strong opinions are matters of simple principles that apply in all cases might feel wishy-washy if they sought information that they expected to bear on the issue in question (because if it so bears, then their principle is threatened).

I find it sad that there are any words high schoolers think you need to look up to know how to spell.

As well as the decent reasons for being proud not to learn more about a topic, where I have come across it most often is when people can win the argument otherwise. e.g. as I am trying to explain a hole in their position their eyes glaze over (or stare mockingly), and when I am finished speaking they proudly reassert their original position.

Might be pride in their own certainty, or pride in not feeling obligated to listen.

Maybe some pride in being unknowledgable is a special case of pride in having beliefs with high inertia.

I agree largely with what you say. Two more explanations:

If you don't understand the great mystery that is a religion, but claim to believe it anyway, you show off how pious you are.

Similarly, not knowing things can show your modesty.

Admitting you don't know something can show modesty. The issue brought up here is pride in ignorance, not the humble ability to admit it.