Ignorance is Underrated
Ignorance is Underrated
July 3, 2008
I keep seeing stories about the ignorance of the general public. You usually see this sort of story around election time. The stories typically involve statistics about, for example, what percentage of voters can name the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. (It’s John Roberts.) The point of the stories is that the average person is clueless.
While I agree with that point, how does it help the average person to know the name of the Chief Justice?
Another statistic I have been seeing lately is that ten percent of American voters think Obama is a muslim. Your first thought might be that this misunderstanding could influence who becomes the next president of the United States. But ask yourself if any of the people who think Obama is a muslim are likely to vote for a black Democrat under any circumstance. I’m guessing that the ignorance of those voters on that particular point will have no impact on anything.
Realistically, it doesn’t matter if you think the sun revolves around the earth as long as you wear sunscreen. Most ignorance is benign. That’s lucky because any individual knows a vanishingly small percentage of the things that other people collectively think is important.
If you step it up a level, and consider how many voters understand the complexities of international trade policies, or economics, or national defense, the stakes are higher. If the country gets any one of those things wrong, it’s a disaster. But experts always disagree on the complex issues. When knowledgable people can’t agree on the best course of action, there’s no reason to think ignorance will get you to a worse place than knowledge. The only thing you can know for sure is that the ignorant people wasted less time reading about things that didn’t help.
Amazingly, the government still functions, albeit inefficiently, in spite of all this ignorance. It does this simply by observing what didn’t work last time and occasionally trying something new next time. Apparently that is enough to limp along. It works for ants and it works for us. Or at least I think it works for ants. I’m actually quite ignorant about ant behavior, but notice how it doesn’t matter?
When it comes to picking our next president, I can’t decide if I prefer the smooth-talking, inspirational candidate who promises to give my money to people who don’t work as hard as I do, or the old, short, ugly, angry guy with one good arm who graduated at the bottom of his class and somehow managed to shag a hot heiress and become a contender for president. It seems dangerous to underestimate that guy.