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Critical Thinking

02 - Ignorance and Bias


There’s a kind of unsaid yet apparent-through-behaviour attitude people have whereby being ignorant of something makes you ignorant. Being an ignorant person is a super general description. It’s a product of an overly simplistic world-view. You’re ignorant or you’re not. That’s a bad way to look at things. Ignorant to what? Surely someone isn’t ignorant of everything? You’re ignorant on what food is or how to sleep? Weird examples but it demonstrates the need for specificity. 


I will use myself as an example. In my young adult years, I was heavily into conspiracies. I was mostly ignorant of science, I was completely ignorant to basic philosophy, and ignorant to a lot of psychology. I was totally ignorant to politics (which is probably why I was so malleable). Now I am not. However, I am currently totally ignorant to a lot of law-related stuff. I know next to nothing about law. It’s not something I’ve spent my time learning.


Does this make me ignorant? No. Does it make me ignorant to law? Yes. Is that OK? Yes. Do I have opinions on laws? Very loosely but not anything concrete - certainly nothing I would be willing to share. This brings me to the point of this section - understand your own ignorance. This isn’t to degenerate yourself, but to understand the limits of your own knowledge.


Why is this important?


Everyone has an opinion as you probably know (painfully well). They’re entitled to it of course, but how many people have opinions that are just so widely inaccurate and how many people are informed? It’s a disproportionate ratio. We’re entitled to our opinions, but should we strive for an opinion on everything when we don’t know everything to begin with? I don’t think so. This is the point of this section - you don’t have to have an opinion.


I don’t have an opinion on football because I have no understanding of football. I don’t have an opinion on geology because I have no knowledge of geology. You might think that this approach disarms you from understanding the world but the complete opposite is true - it’s liberating to know that you don't believe falsehoods on limited knowledge.


Here are some examples: 


Do you know the process by which vaccines are tested? Are you aware of the preclinical trial phase, the phase 1-2-3 process and the follow up phase 4 monitoring and regulatory approval? Have you read through vaccine phase published studies and examined the data? No? Then you shouldn’t be making claims that vaccines aren’t tested.


Do you know the safety profile of various vaccines and do you understand the difference between solicited adverse events, unsolicited adverse events, and do you know what a reaction background rate is? No? Then don’t be making claims about how vaccines are unsafe. 


Otherwise you are arguing from ignorance. To argue against something you don’t understand is extremely common and is the foundation of continued belief in misinformation. More times than I can count, I’ve debated and debunked people online who make claims that they would know are wrong if they just looked it up. 


“Masks don’t protect you” - Masks are for source control, not self-protection. You don’t know what you’re arguing against.


“Vaccines aren’t tested” - They are, you don’t know what you’re arguing against - you haven't looked.


“Your vaccine protects you so why should I get it?” - You don’t understand how this works at all, herd immunity ptotects the community including those who can't be vaccinated.


The sad irony is that when you’re ignorant on a subject but don’t know it, you sit on the peak of the dunning kruger effect, basking in your self-perceived informedness while being totally blind to reality. It happened to me, and I see it in so many people.


How do we stay stuck in this world of ignorance? Our bises play a huge role in this. Biases are essentially ways we process and transmit information which skews towards a certain psychological trait. For example:


Groupthink bias - you are more likely to agree with the group you belong to.

Confirmation bias - you are more likely to accept information you already agree with.

Selection bias - Picking out the things that agree with you and leaving the rest (cherry picking).

Backfire bias - protecting an opinion that is under attack even if it is weaker than the counter, even if it's not worth defending.

Cause-effect bias - Making causal connections from correlated data.

The horn effect - Anything someone does is bad and any good is explained away.

The halo effect - Anything someone does is good and the bad explained away.

Self-serving bias - Positive outcomes are from us, and negatives are explained away. The standard play of narcissism.


Our biases keep us from stepping out of the shadow of ignorance. When we’re ignorant to something and haven’t taken time to examine our ignorance or even accept that we might be, what keeps us from getting there? Our biases. What stops us from overcoming our biases? Our ignorance - more specifically our ignorance of biases. It’s a tricky feedback loop. 


Biases are turning on Fox news to listen to extremely biased “reporters” talk about the crazy liberals while nodding your head and then thinking you’re informed on the news. Biases are defending Trump when he clearly lies and gets things wrong, and explaining it away as some CNN fake news. Biases are thinking anything Bill Gates does is part of a new world order nefarious depopulation dystopian microchip global domination plot. Biases are hearing a claim about a democratic candidate, whether it’s Obama, Hilary, or Biden, and immediately accepting it on hearsay. 


Biases are thinking that everything Trump does is wrong and everything he says is hate speech. Biases are supporting black lives matter but not condemning the rioting and destruction of property. Biases are exclusively reading the Huffington Post and the Daily Beast and thinking you’re getting centered well-rounded news. It is blindly believing that veganism will save the planet or that organic foods are superior to conventionally grown crops because lots of other liberals do. It is thinking that democratic candidates are above corruption.


Biases have you either thinking that Brexit is the saving grace of the UK, or the downfall of civilisation. They keep you stooped in ignorance as they guide your view to and from information that you do and don’t agree with. 


How do you overcome this? How do you prevent this? How do you kill all your biases and extinguish all your ignorance? You can’t, unfortunately. The best you can do is learn about biases and try to spot them in other people. Try to spot them in the group you belong to, and train yourself to spot them in yourself and correct them. You will never release your biases - only minimise and correct them.


How do you eliminate your ignorance? The first step is to self-reflect and question where you really know what you’re talking about. A lot of the time when people say “no one knows whether…” they’re really saying “I don’t know…”. Do you have a robust understanding of the topic? Can you discuss specifics? Have you examined the raw data yourself? Can you talk about that subject beyond the talking points you've heard from others? If no, then you’re ignorant to some degree. If you are, then listen instead of talk. 


Apply critical thinking to what you already think and examine whether your own views stand up to your own level of scrutiny. Source information and learn, and make as close to no assumptions as possible. If your opinion requires an assumption - abandon it, or at the very least understand it isn’t robust. If the standard of proof to support your views wouldn’t be accepted to debunk them, then reexamine your views because you're holding onto some biases that are preventing you from being objective.


Next I will write about politics and the snowflakery on both sides. Next page: Politics and Snowflakery.

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