Enforced ignorance

Fifteen, twenty years ago I was placed on a jury in a medical malpractice case. This disturbed me as I knew almost nothing of medicine, how was I to judge? I resolved to do some research in the library (this was before google) and gain some background information.

— Only to be told this would be illegal.

To this day I find that a shocking position. If I’m ignorant I can’t make an informed decision.

The judge told us not to worry about that; experts in the field would tell us all we needed to know. One expert for each side, of course, each, presumably, contradicting the other. Well how were we to judge the experts? Oh, just believe the one who seemed most credible.

Again, I found this appalling. Humans are far better at telling lies than we are at detecting those lies.

I was naif; it was the first time I was picked on a jury. I entered the trial assuming that one side would try to tell the truth while the other sought to obscure things. I was shocked that both sides seemed to trying to mislead me.

And this is the foundation of our judicial system. Ignorance and deceit.

When I was in school I was taught that education was necessary so that I could be an effective voter. And it makes sense to me that if I don’t know what’s going on I can’t make informed decisions. Somehow I haven’t heard this claim recently. We’ve made lots of attempts to reform education, but I no longer hear that education is essential for a functioning democracy; the claims are more along the lines of education being needed to make a useful worker.

Perhaps it is impossible for me to know enough to judge many issues. For anyone.

How can I guess what might be an effective policy with Iran? I certainly don’t know enough, nor could I find out. How can I guess what effects increasing the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere will have? I don’t have the skills needed to write climate models.

It isn’t illegal for me to research the issues, but I know I can only scratch the surface (and I tend to think I’m smart).

It is probably possible, by dint of huge effort, to learn enough in a lifetime to judge one tiny issue. Out of how many hundreds or thousands?

But how can I trust an expert who isn’t me? It will always be possible to dig up another expert who will contradict him (or her).

It looks to me as though an essential pillar of democracy is no longer feasible. I cannot know enough to make effective decisions. Nor do I believe than someone I elect can know enough.

Can we govern ourselves effectively in the face of complexity?


The next day Utah announced plans to do away with 12th grade.

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2 Responses to “Enforced ignorance”

  1. Jim K Says:

    No. But what choice? Even your example about lying: we’re good at detecting some kinds of lies, terrible at others. Even something as straightforward as that dissolves into nuances when examined closely. There are limits to what we can know; there are limits to the degree we can predict the effects of our actions. We act as though the world is a linear system, but it’s not.

    I wonder if there’s a linked, inverse relation between increasing difficulty of predicting the effects of actions and polarization of political systems around intentions? Belief flooding in to fill the void where knowledge fails?

  2. Dave Crossland Says:

    You might like http://www.schoolhouse.org.uk/uploads/2009/11/the_fourth_purpose.pdf – this author explains well how schooling shifted from its important original 3 purposes to a 4th purpose, which you describe here. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TiQmYYVeM-0 is a nice audio of a similar speech.

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