Ignorance-7In 1901, Dr. Duncan MacDougall set out to discover if the human soul weighed anything.

Working in the local old age home, he conducted a series of experiments where he weighed six patients on a precision scale both before and after they breathed their last breath. Comparing variations in the patient’s weight, he declared his findings, that the human soul weighed, on average, 21 grams.

To underscore his point, MacDougall did a similar study on 15 dogs that were also on their deathbed and reported no perceived change in weight.

Armed with the results of his brilliant study, he was able to confirm that the human soul did indeed have weight and that dogs did not have a soul.

But of course that wasn’t the whole story. Out of his six patients, only the first one showed a perceptible loss of weight. The others had mixed results so they were discarded. Since none of the dogs lost weight, that was all the proof he needed.

This is a story that made headlines in the New York Times in 1907, but the entire episode was based on one of the worst research studies of all time.

So how do you know when you’ve been lied to?

In a situation where one of the country’s most reputable newspapers reports the findings of a reputable doctor, the average reader will naturally assume it to be true.

In spite of those who argued with the findings when they came out, the “21 gram weight of the human soul” became a cultural meme that permeated society for decades, even though several other experiments since then showed no measurable difference.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the term, a meme is “an idea that spreads from person to person within a culture.”

Rest assured, not all memes are based on lies. In fact the vast majority are based on some measurable evidence of being true.

But here’s where it gets confusing. Virtually every lie has some portion of truth in it, and virtually every truth has some amount grey area or falseness associated with it.

This becomes a critically important point to consider as we build artificial intelligence engines based on trillions of “grey area facts” and the primary reason why the topic of ignorance made its way to the top of my list.

Hollywood has turned the distortion of reality into a fine art!
Hollywood has turned the distortion of reality into a fine art!

Living with a Distortion Index

The world is neither black or white, right or wrong, or truth or fiction. Rather, every statement comes with a percentage of correctness that we unconsciously filter through our personal “bullshit meter” and file it accordingly in our brain.

Yet we’re being lied to in so many subtle ways its nearly impossible to separate reality from distorted reality. Here are eleven quick examples commonly used by Hollywood:

  1. LIE – Most Hollywood fight scenes show people getting punched in the face repeatedly with no ill effect. REALITY – Even a single blow to the face can be enormously debilitating.
  2. LIE – Teenagers today commonly believe you can jump out of a car at 50-60 mph, roll a few times and they’ll be fine. Hollywood shows this happening all the time. REALITY – Jumping from a car, even at 20 mph, will kill most people.
  3. LIE – In Hollywood, the good guys always arrive at just the right time to save the day. REALITY – This has only happened one time in the entire history of the human race.
  4. LIE – Good hackers can always outsmart any form of encryption, and they can do it in a matter of seconds. REALITY – Nobody is that good.
  5. LIE – Every bomb has a countdown clock and colored wires. REALITY – Very few have either.
  6. LIE – Any gun with a silencer becomes whisper quiet. REALITY – Typical gunfire is at 140-160 decibels while a silencer will only reduce it to 120-130 decibels. A silenced gun is still roughly as loud as a jackhammer.
  7. LIE – Most guns never run out of bullets and Hollywood gunfights often drag on for 10-20 minutes. REALITY – Even a large capacity gun like an AK-47 can fire 30 bullets in 3 seconds. Most gunfights are over in less than a minute.
  8. LIE – Assassins always use lasers sightings that put a red dot on their target. REALITY – They never do.
  9. LIE – Gunshot wounds are quickly cured by extracting the bullet. REALITY – Removing a bullet is unnecessary and will typically cause far more tissue damage than the original gunshot.
  10. LIE – Dogfights always happen at close range where pilots can see each other. REALITY – Close range dogfights are nearly a mile apart and are as exciting as watching a blip on a cockpit screen.
  11. LIE – Bulletproof vests will stop anything. REALITY – Even military-grade vests are vulnerable to an assault rifle closer than 40 feet.

Because of the enormous influence of movies and television, every distortion of the truth, regardless of business decisions based on market demand, creative license, or even good intentions will foster a widely distorted view of the world among impressionable young people.

People make decisions today based on their life history of “perceived truths.” Young adults who consume tens of thousands of hours of movies and television will have great difficulty making sound decisions based on these distorted truths.

Is it ignorant to think there are only five laws governing human stupidity?
Is it ignorant to think there are only five laws governing human stupidity?

Defining Ignorance and the Five Fundamental Laws of Human Stupidity

The word ignorant is an adjective used to describe a person who is unaware and is often used to describe individuals who deliberately ignore or disregard important information or facts.

Ignorance is different than stupidity even though they have overlapping characteristics. Ignorance involves “not knowing” but stupidity is more about “knowing incorrectly.”

Carlos Maria Cipolla, an economic historian rose to fame by authoring the five fundamental laws of human stupidity:

  1. Always and inevitably each of us underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
  2. The probability that a given person is stupid is independent of any other characteristic possessed by that person.
  3. A person is stupid if they cause damage to another person or group of people without experiencing personal gain, or even worse causing damage to themselves in the process.
  4. Non-stupid people always underestimate the harmful potential of stupid people; they constantly forget that at any time anywhere, and in any circumstance, dealing with or associating themselves with stupid individuals invariably constitutes a costly error.
  5. A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person there is.

To put this into perspective, if you were unaware of the fact these laws existed, you could appropriately be labeled ignorant. If someone called you stupid for being unaware, well, that makes them ignorant of the fact that they are they stupid one.

But I digress!

The tobacco industry was the first to make "confusion" one of their primary marketing goals!
The tobacco industry was the first to make “confusion” one of their primary marketing goals!

Agnotology and the Fine Art of Distorting the Truth

Agnotology is the study of willful acts to spread confusion and deceit, usually to sell a product or win favor. It’s an area of research that got its start in the heyday of the tobacco industry.

In 1979, a secret memo from the tobacco industry came to light that revealed many of the tactics employed by big tobacco to counter “anti-cigarette forces.”

Using a rather generic report title to mislead those who might come into contact with it, the Smoking and Health Proposal was drafted a decade earlier as something akin to a quarterback play-list for the Brown & Williamson tobacco company.

In one of the paper’s most revealing sections, it described one rather deceptive approach for marketing cigarettes to the masses. “Doubt is our product since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the best means possible for establishing controversy.”

As outrageous as some may find this statement to be, it is not much different than marketing tactics used for nearly every other product on the market – use testimonials to emphasize the good, gloss over the bad, and confuse the terrible.

Every person has a number of products that they surround themselves with. Whether its clothes, food, makeup, shoes, furniture, cars, or appliances, we’ve made a conscious decision to associate ourselves with those products.

Do we always select the very best product? Not always. Very often a cheaper product will be good enough.

So if a product came along that was both cheaper and better, would we select that one? That’s where we enter the murky waters of truth, half-truths, and politics. Perception is worth far more than some point-by-point analysis that few people ever do.

At what point are we merely pawns in someone else's agenda?
At what point are we merely pawns in someone else’s agenda?

A New Era of Ignorance

We live in a world with amazing levels of ignorance.

At a talk I gave recently on the “future of advice,” I showed how in the past the advice-givers were the privileged few that had access to the information, but in today’s world, with information being free and easy to access, only the advice-givers will know what to pay attention to.

With today’s abundance of information it has become easier than ever confuse an issue and turn every fact into a series of arguments.

For example, if we consider the fight over climate change, the fight is not just over the existence of climate change, it’s over whether scientists have a political agenda, whether God has created the Earth for us to use, whether government has the right to regulate industry, whether environmentalists should have this much power, and much more.

What somehow got lost in the blurring of issues is the fact that pollution is bad for us and we should stop polluting the earth.

It’s not just about the facts, it’s about motives, hidden agendas, puppet master, conspiracy theories, and just enough facts to make every argument sound plausible.

Most of us today are living with a false sense of expertise.
Most of us today are living with a false sense of expertise.

Ignorance – The Big Picture

Most of us today are living with a false sense of expertise. Any answers we need are only a click away, and whatever preconceived notions we may have, its easy to find supporting arguments online.

If we were to dissect every college course and hold a truth meter next to the core subject matter, we would find a substantial percentage that falls into the arguable category.

Even our most foundational subject matter comes with built-in grey areas. For example, 2 + 2 does not always equal 4. It depends on what type of measurement scale we are using. There are four types of measurement scales – nominal, ordinal, interval, and ratio. Only in the last two categories does 2 + 2 = 4.

As we move into an era where artificial intelligence is making exponentially more decisions on our behalf, we will want the AI to be rooted in solid facts before making those decisions. But the basis for decision-making will likely come from our personal preferences, a compendium of online perceived facts, and the thoughts and attitudes of those in our social circles.

Studies have shown that our most authoritative source of information today is Wikipedia, created through their time honored tradition of having experts argue with experts until the wording is close enough for everyone to live with.

Ignorance 8Final Thoughts

In what year did the human race reach “peak ignorance?”

Many will argue that we’re still not there yet.

Misinformation cycles reach their peak every four years leading up to the presidential elections in the U.S. where our bullshit meters are tasked to work overtime.

We are indeed intelligent beings, but with all of our limitations, the intelligence we possess is never enough.

As we think through our systems for automating our decisions, unless they’re based on something far better than the decision points we’ve used in the past, we will achieve little more than having more efficient ways of making poor decisions.

Perhaps a more important question to ask, at what point will we achieve an optimal level of ignorance, and how will we ever know?

As for me, I’m looking forward to the day when I can adjust the dial on my own ignorance settings to “just right.”

By Futurist Thomas Frey

Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything





4 Responses to “The Future of Ignorance”

Comments List

  1. <a href='http://cureforusa.weebly.com' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Frederick Scanlin</a>

    It never ceases to amaze, confuse, & disappoint me when I hear so much and read so many articles about how advances in technology are going to do so much to better the future of the human race, and the authors of these articles virtually never even mention the one 'advancement' that unless it is successfully addressed in the very near future---and the intellect that was capable of coming up with the mind boggling 'advancements' that were responsible for creating both our present 'quality of life', as well as all of the other technological wonders that exist in the world today, should have no trouble doing so---will virtually assure that these 'technological advancements' and any others that come after them, WILL NEVER come close to realizing their full potential &/or usefulness, if they are ever even used at all!!! . If our country/world is going to continue to flourish in a manner that is acceptable to all peoples of the world, it is absolutely imperative that all sectors of our society continue to advance/improve in a manner relative to any additions/advancements to our current storehouse of knowledge & technology which may be relevant to that progress---if we hadn't been 'derelict in our duty' for the last 200 or so years, and had been following this principle(and a few others that can be found at the 2 links below)we would now be living in a relatively 'utopian' society instead of a world in chaos & turmoil!!!! . I find it extremely hard to understand how the kind of intellect that is capable of coming up with the amazing technology alluded to above, can be so completely blind to this fact: "that the many different 'infrastructures' that comprise the makeup of certain key sectors of our society are mandatory to the continued existence of the kind of country that AMERICA has always been". They also seem to be blind to the fact that these sectors of society must continuously be advanced/improved & maintained in a manner that is easily accomplished as new knowledge & technology becomes available!!! . Adding to the above 'ignorance', is the fact that for some time now, there has been a race that is running rampant out there in society in the form of a frantic and madcap quest for UNNECESSARY 'social' and technological advancement in certain areas of both the public and private sectors of our society, WHILE AT THE SAME TIME, OTHER, MUCH MORE IMPORTANT AREAS OF IT(many of which are imperative to the continued existence of any free society)ARE BEING COMPLETELY NEGLECTED OR IGNORED ALTOGETHER, even though they can be easily 'upgraded' to the max with just existing technology!!!! . In the private sector for instance, seemingly intelligent investors of every size & shape--also apparently blinded to the above alluded too facts--are trying to find & fund new 'start ups' that are based on creating & marketing BOTH more & more 'gadgets' and other 'creature comfort' type things, AS WELL AS trying to create various 'futuristic' type projects(drones to deliver consumer products to households, a nationwide compressed air tube to take people from coast to coast, consumer space flights, outposts on both the moon and mars, driverless cars, etc, etc.), all of whose success are dependent upon our country having/maintaining a strong & stable economic infrastructure, so that if any of these ventures eventually proved to be fiscally/technically feasible, there will still be ample people left in the country with enough money/resources to be able to use/purchase them. . Unfortunately too, as intelligent as 'the powers that be' in both the public & private sectors of our society think they are(they are after all, members of that same 'species' of life whose intellect was responsible for creating both our present 'quality of life', as well as all of the other technological wonders that exist in the world today), they seem to be blind to the fact that, among other things, our current economic policies have permanently weakened the very foundation upon which, not only the success of the above alluded to projects depends, but also that upon which our continued quality of life as well as the entire economic & political future of both our own country & the rest of the worlds depends on as well!!!! . We should therefore IMMEDIATELY put some of these more 'creature comfort' type advancements TEMPORARILY on hold, and allocate a big portion of our time, effort & money to doing whatever it takes in order to 'shore up' our nations rapidly deteriorating economic infrastructure(and those few other key sectors of society which upon which our country's continued survival is inexorably dependent on as well)before we have passed 'the point of no return', at which time even an instant return to sanity/common sense on the part of 'the powers that be' will be to late to save society from the many 'dangers' that await it/us at the end of the perilous road that we as THE FAMILY OF MAN are speeding headlong & recklessly down. . P.S.: IF I MAY BE SO BOLD AS TO SUGGEST THE FOLLOWING: GIVE ME 300 million dollars, and in less than a decade, WE(THE AMERICAN PEOPLE & MYSELF)will do our part in 'changing the world' by transforming AMERICA into the kind of country that it would be now if THE TRUTH & THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE had been properly respected for the last 200 years or so!!!! cureforusa(http://cureforusa.weebly.com) Discount Convenience Stores(http://discounstores.weebly.com)
  2. <a href='http://Website' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Jerome</a>

    Nice and thought provoking variations on the "ignorance" theme. But let's be careful, confusion can be spread in many ways. For instance, it is confusing to suggest that the main issue about climate change is that "pollution is bad for us". Many kinds of pollution which are actually bad for us have nothing or little to do with climate change (e.g. garbage littering, noise pollution, electromagnetic pollution, or small scale water pollution). And the concerns about climate change is not about the direct effect of pollution but rather the indirect impact of some specific pollutants on the equilibrium of e.g. air temperature, water vapor, ocean levels, canopy or deserts, which are natural elements. Shall we consider that the Earth is "for us to use" now ignoring the future, or shall we evolve from ignorance to a recognized uncertainty that will help us to manage the risk and shape a sustainable development scenario, preserving for our children and their children the time to adapt to the changing environment and the possibility to "use" the Earth as well.
  3. <a href='http://needletails.tumblr.com' rel='external nofollow' class='url'>Michael O'Donovan</a>

    A lot of the above is excellent and thought provoking but I disagree with the concepts of ignorance and stupidity. Both are relativistic concepts and everyone is both stupid and ignorant within differently defined parameters. As an example, let us look at the possible futures of Homo sapiens sapiens. As has already been stated here, although as individuals, we are capable of making simple rational judgments that appear to be necessary for our continued survival and well being (pollution, habitat destruction, population levels etc.), collectively we are incapable of carrying out these objectives and seem preoccupied with other goals. Is this a result of ignorance and/or stupidity? Now this scenario seems to go against the widely accepted fact/factoid that modern humans are adaptable to an almost infinite number of changes and will do the right thing in the end. But even if, for example, we were to discover a perfectly clean and free energy source, what evidence is their to conclude that we would create a Utopian society rather than an enormous population explosion leading to a devastating destruction of the Earth's resources. Would you consider ignorance and or stupidity to be a factor of the possible results? If I were to say that I believe that free will is a human construct and the future of our species is not actually within our control and consequently the latter is more likely to me, because nothing I know of in our past history would make me believe otherwise, is my rational based on ignorance and or stupidity or maybe an informed intelligence? To take the point further, let us say that I think that we may be more akin to the ant or bee colony than we might imagine. And imagination is just the point. Complex biological colonies, though highly successful, tend to become locked into a very definite future path, a destiny if you like. Another way of looking at this is that collective intelligence can lead a species into a dangerously narrow evolutionary niche eventually leading to a dead end. If it were possible for us to step outside of ourselves and view our species collectively, it's interactions with the ecosystems it has come into contact with, we would predict a very large reduction in population number leading to either speciation or extinction, which begs the question, are any or all extinct species an example of ignorance/and or stupidity? But life goes on and our very existence is predicated on the existence of a continuous line of other life forms. Do our egos go far enough to believe we can end all known life, and if not, what place is there for the concepts of ignorance and stupidity. Then of course there's the whole intelligence chestnut. Just some rather random thoughts....

Leave a Reply