Wednesday, 14 July 2021

Equally Ignorant

With regard to social problems, owing to the number of unknown quantities they offer, men are substantially, equally ignorant.

Gustave Le Bon - The Crowd; study of the popular mind (1895)

A striking aspect of life since the internet monster rose among us has been the increased transparency of ignorance. Pundits are almost never polymaths, the media do not employ polymaths and polymaths rarely climb the greasy pole. Le Bon was right - men are substantially, equally ignorant. And women of course. Displays of abject ignorance within the public arena have become perfectly normal. It is not an easy thing to assess, but I don’t think ignorance was ever this transparent.

One point of the previous post was to follow on with this one, because real life harbours major complexities and complexities harbour ignorance. Nobody knows what the future will bring. Tiny effects have vast, unforeseen consequences. The invention of the transistor was never suspected of enabling totalitarian surveillance.

Yet ambitious people, including government experts, have to know more than we do. As they usually do within their field, but government is about politics and that widens the field beyond the expertise of experts. SAGE members may disagree of course.

This is where complexity and ignorance come in. So often, the big decision for ambitious people is to accept complexity or deny it and climb the greasy pole on the back of that denial. One might say that an aspect of complexity is the public display of ignorance in all of its silly, unattractive, often evil incarnations.

TV news readers solemnly read the latest scare story about climate change from a position of the most abject ignorance as to how climate actually changes over the decades and centuries. What we see over and over again is a confident and entirely assured display of the most miserable ignorance.

We have seen something similar during the coronavirus debacle, although here, complexity is mingled with reality. Exaggeration shrouds itself behind a genuine disease, censorship fails to blur the boundaries between what we know and what we do not, between what we suspect and what we are expected to accept.

Yet even with the blurred boundaries there is a solid official determination to hide ignorance, gloss over uncertainties and project confidence where many people know quite well that the confidence is based on very little.


Sam Vega said...

I think a lot of this comes down to Macmillan's "Events, dear boy, events". A government can appear competent when it comes to power and knows what it wants to do. (Good examples are Maggie in 1979, and Blair in 1997). Even if it pulls the wrong levers, it looks as if it is getting on with it, and there is an air of competence.

Boris had some of this when he came to power: his job was to deliver Brexit, and at first he got on with it brilliantly. What he didn't deliver, he bluffed, and people seemed impressed. Then, however, came covid. There was then a race to see how quickly the government could develop a veneer of competence. I suspect a lot of this is down to what experts you call on. Maybe the chief requirement of a PM then is the ability to spot a good reliable performer; and conversely the knack of avoiding the useless and the bullshitters. Knowing that the complexity of the situation defies any one person understanding the whole thing, and that polymaths are likely to be spread so thin as to be useless, it might all come down to the emotional and social intelligence to intuit people's characters.

Cummings, Hancock, and that Dido Harding woman. Poor show, Boris.

A K Haart said...

Sam - it is a poor show although he can't get away from the MPs he must work with. Maybe good ones exist but choose not to work with Boris. One of the frustrating imponderables, but it is a poor show.