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Opinion psychology

The Profundity of Minutiae (Week 45 of Wisdom)

It is typical, that in times of political and economic uncertainty, for each person to imagine themselves a head of state, and to devote significant energy into trying to conceive of alternate systems of governance, a new social contract, or a better economic system.

Without the constant renewing and vitalizing supply of progressive thinking and innovation, society reaches a state of political decadence, whereby the ideas of the past are preserved like mummies, and cherished as if they were a kind of final truth, that no sane person is allowed deviate from. Clearly, such a tyrannical state, as history has taught us, is better avoided.   

But the society that transforms its politics successfully can only do so when its people learn about which traditional ideas that are worth preserving. And that can only happen through an investigation into history, rather than a renunciation of it, as something that is no longer relevant to the problems of modernity. Anyone who is capable of having a serious political dialogue has done the serious work of understanding where important ideas have come from.

Most people know, by intuition, that it is better not to solve problems of plumbing or engineering if they do not have the expertise, but to allow plumbers and engineers to do so. Yet, each person has a political opinion and believed that they are expected to have a political opinion, and each will hold to a premeditated set of arguments to use when challenged. It is as if with politics, knowledge and expertise is discounted. Each opinion is equally valuable. But the democratization of political opinion leads to the proliferation of echo chambers. Each person selects from a menu, which political package most closely resembles their beliefs. And after all choices have been made, few are brave enough to review and reverse their original positions.

The problem of confirmation bias exists, not as an accident, but as a result of a collectively accepted meme: each person believes that their own perspective is equally valuable to everyone else’s. But if there is no hierarchy of quality, then no one thinks they can improve their own political ideas. Whenever the individual falls into the narcissistic trap of discounting the countless work that has preceded him, he deceives himself with the illusion of knowing.

The few individuals who have done the work know of even the minutiae of their field; they have an understanding of each opposing position to theirs and its merits, and know, precisely, in which ways they can be mistaken. The profundity of minutiae is that it is an indication of a deep well of knowledge, it is a signal that can be used to mark the expert from the novice. The many books on expertise (Deep Work, Peak, Mastery) teach us an important lesson: it takes many years of hard work to become a professional in a given endeavor.

And yet, we see many people willing to engage in heated debates about topics they scarcely understand, that are outside their field of expertise. The Socratic method was a way to force people to become aware of their ignorance. Whenever Socrates knew that someone was not thinking carefully about something, he asked them a series of questions which demonstrated the hidden weaknesses of their convictions. Often, unchecked beliefs masquerade as self-evident truths, and absent the Socratic method, either performed by the individual on themselves, or on someone else – many unfounded presuppositions pass without scrutiny. But there are ways of recognizing when this has happened.

The first red flag is when you hear recycled points of view that make general statements that accuse the “other” of either immorality or stupidity. “If someone doesn’t agree with me, they are either dangerous or stupid” . Yet any person who has read only a few high-quality books that contradict one another, written by geniuses can see how no side can be truly be considered dangerous or stupid.

The reason why it is hard for people to admit this is not clear, but it may have something to do with the paradoxical nature of such a consolation. If you admit that the other person’s perspective is not stupid or dangerous, then you have allowed for the possibility that you are either stupid or dangerous. As an instinct against this apparent paradox, most people will stick to the more favorable assertion that casts doubt on the mental faculties or motivations of the other, rather than on themselves.

In summary, we desire to have opinions about politics, even when we are not qualified to. Those who have developed well-informed opinions, who understand even the minutiae of the problem are discredited if their opinions are not agreeable. Each person is plagued with a distinct blindness which differentiates them from others. It is not what a person knows that gives her a unique identity, but what she does not know. Ignorance is what animates people to believe in an idea strongly, not knowledge. The latter can only elucidate the ways in which any opinion is subject to problems, while the former is capable of giving strength to even the most shocking ideas, simply by omission.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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