The Arrogant Crime of Pretending to Know What You Don’t

By Jason Mayes

“It is no crime to be ignorant of economics, which is, after all, a specialized discipline and one that most people consider to be a ‘dismal science.’ But it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on economic subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance.” ~ Murray Rothbard

If you want to lose your credibility fast, pretend to know things you don’t know. Loudly opine on every complex subject, even when you don’t actually know what you’re talking about. Be a partisan, ideological fundamentalist.

Declare your moral outrage about the greed and unfairness of capitalism, without understanding economics or how markets work.

Deny evolution without understanding the evidence or how to evaluate it.

Proclaim that vaccines cause autism, believing you know more than people who spent eight years of their lives in medical school because you read some stuff on the internet for a few hours.

Be a know-it-all. No, I don’t mean someone who actually knows it all. I mean someone who thinks they know it all. Spoiler alert: no one actually knows it all. Nope, not even Albert Einstein.

But people do know a lot about the fields in which they specialize. And it’s okay to trust that people in their fields know what they’re talking about. Society is as much a division of knowledge as it is a division of labor. And we all trust and rely on the disparate knowledge of millions of strangers.

If there’s one thing that never ceases to amaze me, it’s the unearned confidence and lack of embarrassment with which people readily opine on complex issues it’s clear they know little to nothing about.

This is especially pervasive in politics. Without knowledge of even basic economics and other relevant social sciences, many people are certain they know which policies, rules, and regulations will solve or mitigate complex social problems. They “know” that deregulation caused the financial crisis. They “know” that “run-away” capitalism caused the great depression. They “know” that high prices during times of emergency should be illegal. They “know” the war on drugs works. They “know” immigrants are more likely to be criminals than native-born citizens. They “know” that Donald Trump will make America great again.

Morality binds and blinds as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt wrote in his excellent book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.

And people who don’t know that they don’t know are never more certain that they’re right than when they’re morally outraged. So they reach for their pitchforks: “The gays!” “The Illegals!” “The greedy bourgeoisie who exploit the working class!” “Drugs!” “Will someone please think of the children!” “Make America great again!”

Most people are not evil. They have good intentions. They want what’s best for their country and the people they love. But good intentions without understanding do not equal good results. One of the greatest ironies of life is how often good intentions hurt the very people they intend to help. And the people most often hurt are the poorest, most disadvantaged members of society. But to know what kinds of institutions and policies help or hurt the poor requires knowledge of economics. Without understanding, good intentions are vacuous.

Good intentions are not enough. Blind moral outrage is not enough. If you don’t also understand reality and the relevant fields of inquiry that study it, your good intentions and your well-meaning laws and policies don’t mean anything. You are no help to anyone. In fact, you’re in the way.

When seeking to change the world in some way, or discussing complex issues relevant to changing the world, we should know what we don’t know, and qualify our statements and positions accordingly. We should even, God forbid, be willing to suspend judgment and refrain from comment on issues; unless and until we have enough evidence and information to speak (or write) knowledgeably. By so doing, we’ll be better, more credible communicators and conveyors of our principles. Others will know that we’re not only sincere but fair-minded and intellectually honest. And they’ll be more likely to give us a fair hearing. Besides, anything less is irresponsible.  

Besides, anything less is irresponsible.