A Little Knowledge is Dangerous . . . But How Little?


PikettyShortly after Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind was released, The New Yorker featured a cartoon of a bookseller telling a customer, “No, I haven’t read it. But it’s wonderful!” Point taken, even though it was people who loathed the book who were more likely not to have read it. But hundred of thousands of people purchased it, took it home, leafed through it, discovered it had chapter headings such as From Socrates’ Apology to Heidegger’s Rektorastrede and decided it could be set aside until after they’d read A Different Drum by M. Scott Peck, another bestseller from that year.

Mark Twain had us pegged: A classic is something that everyone wants to have read, but no one wants to read. There are old classics such as The Wealth of Nations and Das Kapital that sit lonely on the bookshelves of the world. I have a copy of each and have dipped into them from time to time, but I’m not ashamed to admit I will never actually read either of them cover to cover. And there are more recent ‘classics’ that induce a twinge of guilt whenever it comes time to dust the coffee table. Gödel, Escher and Bach and A Brief History of Time are handy examples. Impressive titles, pretty book jackets but, excuse me – you didn’t tell me there was going to be math!

Which brings me to Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Picketty. That thrumming sound you hear in the distance is the statist hive undergoing an oceanic mind-meld. Finally, someone has updated Marx and has explained our present predicament. Look, he even has graphs and tables and oodles and oodles of statistics and everything. Try arguing against that, Mr. Neoliberal!

Will I buy it? Nah. And do I feel a need to read it? Again, nah. And very few people who buy the thing will go on to read it. Even fewer will profit from reading it (pun inadvertently stumbled upon – thanks, English Language!). Do you have the wherewithal to track down every statistic and fact that Mr. Picketty has collected in his book? I know I don’t.

So my question is: how deep into a subject — evolution, economics, climate change — do we have to go before we can think and speak sensibly on a topic? For instance, I wouldn’t know a fossil record if it crawled up onto my old turntable and began to play itself. Does that disqualify me from having an opinion on evolution?

Most of what I know about climate I have learned from looking at the sky and watching weather segments on the local TV news. Do I need to get at least a Bachelor of Science degree in Meteorology before I can venture a thought or two on global warming?

We know the dangers of being half-educated on a subject (Al Gore, heh). Should we leave the jabbering and opinionizing solely to the experts, or can reasonably intelligent and informed people be permitted to form their own opinions on the great issues of the day? Or should we just throw up our hands, say our experts can beat up their experts, and get on with the day?

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  1. Leigh Inactive

    Well, if we just leave it to the experts, still the expert with the biggest microphone is probably the winner — not the most expert expert.

    I’ll never know enough about most of those to argue statistics with the experts.  I can potentially learn enough to answer some equally-informed person on the other side who thinks his experts have the last word.  I can learn the role that underlying assumptions play and can know how to challenge those assumptions and demonstrate their influence.  Before I start arguing in any serious way I need to be sure I’ve been exposed to their arguments, and to their better ones, not just the most easily caricatured.

    I don’t argue global warming and touch on economics carefully, when I’ve had time to read and think the topic through.

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  2. philo Member

    My personal rule of thumb is ~1500 pages on a particular topic. Three to five books (generally all by different authors) should provide a diversity of perspective and depth / span of material to begin to think intelligently about a topic.

    As an example from my book shelf: a good primer before diving into any topic using terms like “Global” and “Climate” that presumes even a minor human contribution to the forces of nature might be: The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg, Rare Earth by Peter D. Ward and Donald Brownlee, The Privileged Planet by Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards, and *(A Short History of Nearly Everything) by Bill Bryson

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  3. user_138562 Moderator

    It depends who you are talking to.  A little knowledge and a bunch of BS can go a long way if the person you are talking to knows even less.  A person who knows just a little bit about golfing (or any sport, really) might sound like an expert to me because I know almost nothing about it.

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  4. Western Chauvinist Member
    Western Chauvinist

    Love, love, LoVe this post! What a hoot!!

    If it weren’t for YouTube, select websites (Watts Up with That), podcasts (h/t Ricochet), and DVD courses, I’d be a blithering idiot. As it is, I’m just an idiot on most subjects. 

    Seriously now (ahem), there’s just too much information out there for any one person to absorb. You have to start by deciding what your trusted sources are and go from there. It helps to “know” people, too.

    BTW, Goldberg’s reading Piketty so we don’t have to. Thank you Jonah!

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  5. user_5186 Inactive

    Well, it’s really easy on most things that impinge on the political. Most complicated subjects will emerge into the light sufficiently to be apprised by common sense.
    1) Global Warming – All the work and effort to produce the climate models coalesced into a measurable prediction: 1998 was a pretty high point in recent years for global temperature and it was predicted a couple years later that the temperatures in the next decades were going to go much higher (the hockey stick graph — now, come on, admit that it’s easy to understand) and then within a few years we could all see that the models were so contrived and lied about that their predictions were completely wrong —  things cooled down from the 1998 high. The thing about predictive computer models is that they are most accurate the closer they are to the initial conditions. They tend to get more inaccurate as they go along. This is just plain common sense reasoning — someone got something wrong. OR the likelihood that we have been lied to increases in direct proportion to the political and/or financial need someone may have for it.
    My conclusion: We have been lied to.

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  6. John H. Member
    John H.

    So my question is: how deep into a subject — evolution, economics, climate change — do we have to go before we can think and speak sensibly on a topic? 

    Deep enough, or broad enough, to draw a laugh, from the whole audience. Which for some subjects might be impossible, as there are a lot of humorless people cordoning them. A good rule of thumb, though it doesn’t directly address Mr. D’s question, is If you utter a heresy, will it go unpunished? If not, watch out!

    Just an off-the-top-of-my-head answer. My opinion is that everyone can have an opinion.

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  7. user_5186 Inactive

    2) Darwinism and Evolution — First read a layman’s book on the political and logical issues involved — really, you can’t do better than Phillip E. Johnson’s Darwin on Trial. It’s 247 pages and very easy to read and understand. (Or here’s a speech he gave on the subject.) Prof. Johnson is a truly gifted communicator. He is retired now and was a UC-Berkeley professor of law. He simply followed the logic of the arguments of Darwin and all the people who have followed his theory over the last 150 years. All the major predictions made by the Darwinists have been proven wrong or found to be unable to be proven. This hasn’t daunted the Neo-Darwinists in the least.
    Another problematic issue that comes up on this subject is how politicized that it has become. People lose their jobs, “scientists” become apoplectic and they say that the science is settled. These are evidence of politicization and I have found that this is very suspect when this happens.
    My conclusion: This does not require scientific rigor. Science and politics don’t mix — politics usually wins and the truth is secondary when it should be primary.

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  8. SParker Member

    Kevin Williamson’s recent observation that each one of us knows approximately nothing has to be right.  (Pretty sure that’s the universal instantiation of William Goldman’s “nobody knows anything,” which applied to the domain Hollywood originally.)  But any critter possessed of reason ought to be able to follow the arguments.  I share Noam Chomsky’s faith that it’s possible to obtain the necessary knowledge in a reasonable amount of time if your critical faculties are operational and you have the need or desire, and that the suspicion–if you can’t– that the subject experts are waving hands or blowing smoke is probably justified.  But then there’s quantum mechanics.   In any case the right approach in failure’s face is to simply recognize that further engagement is a waste of time.  Which may be something Wittgenstein said.

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  9. user_199279 Coolidge

    Avik Roy goes over this book with a guest knowledgeable on the subject in his latest American Wonk podcast.  If you want the short version as to why Piketty’s wrong, and has used data in a way that misleads (more than a bit), then it’s worth a listen.  The income equality metric that’s being touted tends to fade when accounting for other factors.

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  10. Rodin Member

    Is the data replicable?
    Are results reproduceable?
    Do the conclusions have demonstrable predictive power?

    A “no” to any of the above reveals “opinion”/”theory”. Everyone can have one. Bounding acceptable “opinion/theory” = religion.

    There is nothing stronger. Facts cannot withstand it.

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  11. user_11047 Inactive

    Larry Koler: Most complicated subjects will emerge into the light sufficiently to be apprised by common sense.

    Once on a radio talk show a guest was talking about the rapid decrease of species because people didn’t care.  I couldn’t resist calling and mentioned that over 99% of all species that once existed are now extinct. Moreover, it seems that today’s environmentalists list sub, sub sub (ad infinitum) species on the endangered species list for reasons having to do more with control over peoples’ lives than actual concern for the environment. And was it possible they also wanted to take a snapshot of what exists today and try to preserve that picture for all times, and wouldn’t that be denying the idea of natural selection, i.e., evolution?

    He responded by asking what was my background was.  I said I had studied biology and chemistry, and some organic chem on the graduate level.  His entire answer, in a very condescending manner, was that I couldn’t possibly know anything about his area of expertise.  Ah.  We just don’t understand. 

    Not really.  With very little source work, we can spot the frauds.  And that’s a start.


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  12. Owen Findy Member
    Owen Findy

    From the post:  “So my question is: how deep into a subject — evolution, economics, climate change — do we have to go before we can think and speak sensibly on a topic?”

    My reply (I think it will have to span two comments):  It depends.

    In the case of global warming (please let’s not let them get away with changing the language to “climate change”, which makes any of their claims tautological), you merely need to be a rational, informed layman to break the alarmists’ claims into a sequence of sub-claims:  1) there is global warming; 2) a significant amount of global warming is caused by man; 3) global warming will cause large changes relatively soon; 4) these changes will be bad for us, not good for us; 5) we can avert these changes; 6) the aversion requires a massive violation of individual rights planet-wide.

    If any of those is shaky, that’s enough reason to question the entire typical warmist agenda, since the latter claims generally depend on the preceding ones.

    Number (1) is a bit shakier than it was, since there hasn’t been warming for 17-18 years. 


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  13. Owen Findy Member
    Owen Findy

    Roughly claims (2) – (5), esp. (3) and (4), depend on computational models. It’s not legitimate to rely on computational models unless they’ve been shown to faithfully represent the physical systems they model. If the climate models faithfully represented reality, they would’ve predicted the 17-year, global temperature flatline. They didn’t, so their reliability is in question.

    That’s enough to pronounce every claim that follows (2) shaky.

    But, even if warming had continued, and we were certain it was caused by man, the rises in water level and temperature happen over several generations. And, every time the IPCC comes out with their latest report, the rises are smaller and smaller. Why the hell can’t the people who are affected adapt as they go? That’s at least reasonable option to consider.

    Also, I seriously doubt we can be certain that a temperature rise will not be a good thing.

    Also, we all know that leaving people free maximizes the chance solutions to any problems will be found.

    I think these are all questions, suggestion and objections that a rational, informed layman can make without even reading any of the studies.

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