People frequently over-estimate how much they know. They also confidently share things they donâ€™t know.
There are likely many reasons behind these tendencies. One of the reasons may be that often times lay conjecture, more colorfully known as â€˜pulling something out of your assâ€™, in face of ignorance suffices as a substitute for knowledge; in fact such conjecture works well when narrated amongst uninformed co-partisans. More loosely, people make up stuff when they assess that there is little chance of getting caught. Formally, propensity to make up â€˜somethingâ€™ depends on the commenterâ€™s assessment of audienceâ€™s information level, and its partisan affiliations about the topic under discussion, and the exact taint of the â€˜factâ€™. Now as any professor will tell you â€“ many students very confidently and happily make things up on the spot even though they are in presence of â€˜expertsâ€™. So the rate of decline in propensity to make up stuff in presence of experts is low, and the absolute level of propensity to make up stuff high. It is also likely that the confidence with which people typically say such â€˜liesâ€™ is an attempt to cover up their ignorance for confidence is likely seen by others as a sign of surety about facts.
Thus never seriously threatened by their own ignorance, people build a somewhat more positive assessment of how much they know. People themselves rarely stop themselves from such â€˜lyingâ€™. But why? â€˜Lyingâ€™ may be an attempt to please, simply keep up oneâ€™s reputation, or show off, be seen as intelligent among peers, etc. Can it be that people think that lying about their own ignorance is only a minor transgression? Do people have this innate belief (which rarely gets challenged) that somehow when they speak, they will be able to be right; some sort of a ‘God bias’ – that they will be the exception to making sense without knowing?
We have hitherto given a negative account of motivation for making up facts which runs something like- if there is no police, people shall steal. This presupposes that people have an innate motivation to in fact make up stuff, and that the propensity to do so depends on lack of a monitor. But why is there this desire to appear make up facts? One reason simply is social desirability – motivation to appear knowledgeable. Another is that conversations are carried not typically for any epistemological purposes but for emotional and social purposes (Muhchyun Tang, personal communication). So we make up things because truth is unimportant and at times a hindrance. For example, envision a topical conversation where both parties profess their ignorance. Such conversation simply cannot happen. So fencing oneself within one’s realm of knowledge will typically disallow a variety of conversations about salient topics.
Modern era of knowledge production has brought its own challenges. As rate of knowledge production has exploded, so has the complexity of knowledge production. Increasingly substantive discussions about important areas of human activity (public policy more broadly but say health, fiscal policy etc.) need more sophisticated thought, and deeper immersion in the wealth of knowledge that has been produced. None of this should lead to an increasing tendency to make up stuff but conjecture based on partial and imperfect knowledge is perhaps increasing.
There are many likely consequences to such habits. One such is – once said, repeated many times, some of those â€˜conjecturesâ€™, often wrong, in time, become â€˜factsâ€™.
It is often said, many a times without surprise, something of the order â€“ â€˜the more you know, more you realize how much you donâ€™t knowâ€™. But why would that be? Are limits of knowledge so obscure to be not known by the proverbial (and now literal) average Joe? It is in fact easy to deduce oneâ€™s ignorance and comes down to honestly assessing our ignorance.
For example, we are surrounded by phenomenon we canâ€™t describe well, much less explain. To infer our aggregate levels â€“ one may do the following â€“ recognize the fact that even in areas where we claim expertise we often fall short, hence we must really know very little about the things we donâ€™t spend time learning. But it seems we shy away from taking account for such a task would easily and unambiguously reveal the limits of our knowledge.
The point about limits of our knowledge is broader and not there to malign the average Joe. There are real limits to what any human can achieve. Think about the following – If one were to read a book a week for the next 50 years, one would end up reading 2500 books. If the smallness of the number surprises you, then let it be a lesson in humility. This point allows me to segue into the next one and that is – ‘the myth of being well-read’.
The myth of being well-read
Many a times, people confuse being well-read to mean reading a few bad books poorly. To be well-read, one must satisfy three criteria â€“ 1) read at the least 100-150 books; 2) a substantial majority, if not all, of which ought to be â€˜goodâ€™ – literature or non-fiction; 3) and they ought to â€˜read wellâ€™.
The 7 step program to correctly self-classifying oneself as â€˜well-readâ€™ or not ‘well-read’
- Only a few people (<< 1%) are well-read. Do you think you are in such elite company? And then again, do you want to be in that company of â€˜nerdsâ€™ and â€˜geeksâ€™?
- Force yourself to list as many books that you have read in the past year (or life). If that number is less than 10, you may not be well-read. Apply this to specific areas as needed. For example, one may ask whether one is well read in Political Science.
- Alternately, think hard about how many books you bought or checked out from library last year. If you havenâ€™t spent more than $100 on books in the past year, and/or havenâ€™t checked out more than 10 books from the library, you are unlikely to have read much.
- If you catch yourself citing one book repeatedly, whenever the topic of books comes up during conversations, you havenâ€™t read much. In U.S. it is typically â€˜Catcher in the Ryeâ€™, though that may be changing â€“ Harry Potter, Dan Brown, Twilight series, etc. may be the new â€˜go toâ€™ books; for a colleague of mine, it is â€˜White Noiseâ€™; in some circles it may be some Malcolm Gladwell or Thomas Friedman book.
- Relatedly, if Harry Potter, Blink, Atlas Shrugged, Catcher in the Rye etc., are among your favorite books, it is unlikely that you are well-read.
- If you are younger than 21 (or typically 25), you couldnâ€™t have read much. There are few exceptions. They help make the rule.
- Count the books you own. If you donâ€™t own more than 50 books, you are unlikely to have read much.