On the wrongness of “common wisdom” and “received opinion”

When someone knows a great deal about a topic, it is a very common experience to find that the way it is being reported on, and the “common knowledge” on the topic, is wrong. The tendency then is to think, oh well, the reporters messed up on this one thing, but then to go back to trusting that they are reporting reasonably accurately on other topics. We are all limited finite creatures with limited time and we can be extremely well-informed on only a few topics, so none of us will ever know just how many false things are being presented to us. But, it is reasonable and rational to extrapolate from the fact that when you do know a lot about a topic the “common knowledge” is almost always wrong, to the idea that perhaps most of what we are told is incorrect. This includes leaving out things vital for an adequate understanding of events – lying by omission. An extra reason for being skeptical, is that experts on other topics have the same experience. If it were just one person whose special knowledge contradicted “received opinion” it could plausibly be a fluke, but it is not.

Anecdotally, I read and enjoyed a book The Great Conversation: A Historical Introduction to Philosophy. The chapters summarized the thinking of dozens of famous philosophers. I took notes and found it informative. However, when it came to a philosopher who I had written my dissertation about, I found the description utterly unrecognizable. I would never even have known it was supposed to be about him if it were not for his name in the chapter heading. Likewise, because my wife is Serbian, I necessarily was a relative expert on the Yugoslav Civil War. I discovered that nearly all the reporting on the topic on US TV and newspapers was hopelessly either just completely wrong or one-sided. I could prove it was wrong because, for instance, I had documentary videoed evidence available on YouTube proving it unambiguously. Just to watch the video was an hour and a half investment of time. So, millions of people were being deceived. One last example is from Solzhenitsyn’s book Gulag Archipelago about Stalin’s prison/death camps for political prisoners. People would be sent there for being “counter-revolutionaries” or “an enemy of the people.” The person being sent there would know that the charges were false, but would assume that a mistake had been made in their case but that the other prisoners were all guilty as charged. In fact, almost none were “guilty.”

16 thoughts on “On the wrongness of “common wisdom” and “received opinion”

  1. When I went to the Received Opinion home page in order to cancel my subscription, none of the options permitted me to do what I wanted. At most, I could downgrade from the deluxe package to the basic package. I will probably need to get in touch with my credit card company and file for a stop-payment. The experience made me want to shout, “Go on, then, walk forever — PORK PIE!” Either that or punch Paul the rabbit. I was only able to regain my composure when I contemplated the scientific innovation, ascribable to Einstein,* that “E equals MC Squirrel.”

    *That would be Einstein the Talking Parrot — a veritable fountain of actual common sense.

  2. gell-man amnesia effect:

    “Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward—reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.
    In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.”

    from a speech michael crichton made, (scroll down a bit), why speculate?

  3. Pingback: On the wrongness of “common wisdom” and “received opinion” | Reaction Times

  4. You may have read Jacob Burkhardt’s 1889 premonition of “the terribles simplificateurs who are going to descend on poor old Europe.” He meant the demagogues who would have to boom terrible simplifications to the newly enfranchised masses. It strikes me that “terrible simplifiers” can be taken in two senses: as simplifiers who are terrible at simplifying, and as simplifiers whose skillful and misleading simplifications fill the heart with terror. How much of our terrible simplification is just inept? And how much do you suppose is intentionally misleading? My impression is that our prestige journalists mix ineptness and deceit in equal measure.

    • JMSmith – Yes, well, then there is just perfidy. Some of them, like the NYT, have just announced that they are engaged in activism and regard impartiality as immoral. So, I’d go with your last sentence.

      The kindest thing you could say about journalists, and I dislike them as much as politicians so I’m being a bit ridiculously charitable here, is that they are often having to write about something they know nothing about. They’re not very bright, they haven’t mastered logic, they know nothing about history, and then an editor says – Write something on this random topic! I have been interviewed about once and the result was an unintentional travesty of nonsense.

      A journalism degree in New Zealand in the good old days was done at a Polytechnic – a trade school – for the students who couldn’t get into university (5% acceptance rate). They were not our best and brightest. Polytechnics also trained secretaries, graphic design, low level engineers, and chefs. Good practical stuff; more useful than philosophers. But piercing insight, not so much.

      • My suspicion, here in Ireland, is that our journalists have been ‘educated’ in much more ideological faculties. At least, the New Zealand system only implies a lack of brightness and a deficit of knowledge. It appears to me that the Irish model is the dominant one in the West, because if the problem was mere ignorance one would expect there would be right-wing errors just as much as left-leaning ones, but almost all the lies lean to the left.

      • mickvet: Good point! New Zealand is a disaster zone these days. As an ex-pat I’m 30 years out of date. Like a lot of non-US countries they get a steady diet of CNN, etc. Hence, to a lot of Europeans, being a Trump supporter seems unimaginable.

  5. More and more of this seems to fall under what I recently called “rank skulduggery in a good cause.” The more a journalist becomes part of a great moral crusade, the less they will feel themselves bound by the everyday virtues of honesty and fairness. I think great moral crusades appeal to journalists because moral zeal partly hides their mediocrity in other respects. As you say, most journalists are not particularly smart or well educated. This has become more and more apparent as newspaper and magazines have laid off their copyeditors and fact-checkers.

  6. I once was a reporter. I’m so very incredibly stupid, ignorant, and all around no-account blue collar hillbilly that I read the Orthosphere regularly. I try to understand all points of view. I try to actually understand them. Of course, that kind of also means that I haven’t been able to get a job in journalism since 1993 and am condemned to life as an even lower level clerical worker …

    • Hi, nellperkins. Well. This does make me feel abashed. Am I allowed to make exceptions? At this point your personal qualities would disqualify you for most journalism jobs. Mainstream journalism, academia, and the government have all been captured by one of the political parties and a particular ideology. I am an academic, but I am the lowliest possible kind as one of my colleagues decided to remind me recently. And I am an exception also, in this case to ideological capture – at least of the prevalent variety.

    • Today’s reporter needs only ask, how would this story be reported in the New York Times? All other points of view have meaning as they relate to that one.

  7. Pingback: Cross-post: a question of expertise – The Orthosphere

  8. Pingback: The measurement problem – Jim's Blogging

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