This is a bit harsh, and a bit preachy and self-indulgent. You can rightly accuse me of all of these things. My only defense is that I already knew about it.
Let’s face it: People are stupid. Everyone knows this, even the stupid people themselves. It’s such a cliché even saying it out loud is embarrassing. The trick is that we all think everyone else is stupid. We, and maybe those that agree with us, are the only ones that have it all figured out. But the fact is that everyone is stupid. The human brain is basically a piece of shit. Oh, sure, humans have done amazing things with our crappy hardware, but not without a ridiculous amount of stumbling in the dark and breaking toes in the process. It took the better part of 100,000 years for our neolithic ancestors –who were genetically identical to us as species – to create a technology that even the least advanced people living in the world today would find laughably primitive.
Humans are prone to superstition and magical thinking. We leap to conclusions with little no to evidence. We do things for irrational, emotion-driven reasons and then fight bitterly to justify what we did as reasonable. We suck at math. We suck at communication. Our observational apparatuses ignore almost all of the stimuli around us and do a shitty job of interpreting the few they actually pick up. We rarely cite sources when we make sweeping generalization, and an embarrassingly small number of us even care.
If you are like most people – and I’d bet my parietal lobe that you are – you are thinking right now that you don’t exhibit these flaws as strongly as most people. You are wrong. Oh, sure, you might be part of the tiny intellectual elite who takes this kind of thing into account. But I can assure you just about everyone reading this believes themselves to be in that special minority. That fact alone is reason for doubt.
But just as that bird house for your mom can be built with the crappy public school wood shop equipment, impressive feats of intellectual prowess can be achieved by that bundle of neuroses and jury-rigged cognitive functionality that is the human brain. This is obvious, and I’d be even dumber than I am claiming everyone is if I didn’t admit it. The key to doing it is also obvious, and it’s the same thing it requires to build that bird house even though the circular saw sparks and there is never a fresh piece of sandpaper. Socrates figured it out over 4,000 years ago, and I’d bet my occipital lobe he wasn’t the first. The key is this: know that your tools suck, and how to work around them.
Science is the most powerful device human kind has ever discovered, as evidenced by the computer you are using to read this article. The underpinnings of science are built around the fact that the universe is complicated and the human brain is a piece of crap. Don’t trust your ideas without testing them. Don’t trust your tests without repeating them over and over and over. Don’t trust your conclusions about your tests until you’ve done other tests that lead to the same conclusions, in case your first tests sucked in a way you didn’t see because you are an idiot. Don’t trust those conclusions until other people have repeated your tests and others that gave supporting results, just in case your method was stupid because your stupid brain stupidly did something stupid it was too stupid to even realize.
The biggest problem in the world isn’t that everyone is an idiot. This has always been true, and as a species we’ve done pretty fucking well so far with school cafeteria tater-tots for brains. What humans have created with neural structures that evolved for finding edible bugs and producing kids that don’t die as fast as other people’s kids is bloody staggering. No, the biggest problem in the fact that people are unwilling to admit that they are idiots.
One of the major steps of growing up is the moment when you realize that adults don’t know what the hell is going on. They know more about the world, of course, but the amount they don’t know on just about any subject of any complexity is always going to outweigh what they actually do know. Of course it is. The world is complicated, and its potential depth of knowledge is deep. This is easy enough to accept. What is less easy to accept is the natural conclusion of the thought: You are almost completely ignorant about everything. Sure, you might be an expert on pulmonary surgery, and I won’t call you ignorant about that particular subject. But even a micro-specialization like that can only be understood to the extent that humans understand it at all. Until people stop dying from surgery, I’d say we still have a long way to go.
On any subject, be it political, scientific, economic, or social, the among you do not know outweighs the amount you know by a vast margin. All of your opinions are founded an hilariously incomplete information. The people who disagree with you don’t necessarily do so because you are smarter than them. They might know something you don’t know, and you might not be aware of it. How could you be?
The fact is that everyone else does know things you don’t know. You know that idiot neighbor you have? The one who lives on Cheetos, quotes Jerry Springer like it is Shakespeare, and digs holes for a living? There is something he knows about and understands much better than you do. You might have a higher IQ than he does, be much better educated, and be able to wipe the floor with him in Trivial Pursuit. But there is absolutely some particular field where if you went up against him you would embarrass yourself. This is an absolute guarantee. If you have never observed this in another person, then you are too stubborn or you have not been paying attention.
Okay, so everyone is an idiot. What’s the solution? Am I suggesting that no one have an opinion about anything? That no one fight political battles, or try to get their ideas taken seriously? Of course I am not. What I propose is much simpler. You just need to admit that you are an idiot, and your knowledge on everything is incomplete. You need to accept that even when other people are demonstrably wrong, they may have some reason for believing what they believe that you don’t know about. If you go around scoffing about how most people are idiots, while tacitly exempting yourself from stupidity, knock it the fuck off. You are part of the problem. We’re not going to solve this whole human condition thing until we all accept the massive limitations of our own intelligence. Empathy, the next vital part of the equation, is likely to follow.
At least, I think it is. I certainly hope it is. I might be wrong.
Also, don’t feel too bad if you didn’t realize that Socrates lived more like 2,500 years ago, not 4,000. If you accepted it without questioning, then you should feel bad. But don’t worry about it. We all do it. Every single one of us.