Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Ignorance and absurd overconfidence

A recent statement by Steven Pinker caught my attention at a time when I have been  thinking about some of the reactions I have seen online about Islam in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris.

What's intriguing is how Pinker uses a line from Shakespeare (Measure for Measure)--"most ignorant of what he's most assured"--to connect what psychologists have been discovering: "that human beings are absurdly overconfident in their own knowledge, wisdom, and rectitude.  Everyone thinks that he or she is in the right, and that the people they disagree with are stupid, stubborn or ignorant. People rightly overestimate their own knowledge and misjudge their own accuracy at making predictions." (emphasis added)

It's intriguing to find a connection with an insight by Shakespeare and the conclusions, 400 years later, of social scientists.

I hope there are exceptions to Pinker's generalization, but I know in academia, it is commonplace to be surrounded by know-it-alls, experts in history or science who think they understand religion, for example, or politics, and betray in their opinions their own ignorance.  Or people in the media who argue about beliefs, always convinced that they are right. They don't try to find the gray area between the extremes of black and white that too often are at the root of racism and bigotry, whether in Ferguson, Mo or France or the Mideast. They don't make the effort to understand those with whom they disagree.

A little humility goes a long way. I have always thought that, the more I know, the less I really understand; yet I am sure, in this blog, I have, by the very nature of the beast, been encouraged to pontificate about matters in which I have little expertise. I trust the effects are harmless.

When people attack another religion, Islam or Christianity, especially, they are prone to the arrogance of rectitude because they fail to take in the big picture of human nature and history.  They fail to look at the other faith from within, knowledgeably, and so resort to dangerous oversimplifications, as Bill Maher did on TV a few months ago.

And when arrogance leads to bigotry and violence, I am reminded of why Plato said that the greatest evil is ignorance.

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