Public Intellectuals and The Confidence of The Ignorant Man In The Information Age

Further Thoughts on Established Knowledge and the Campaign Against It

In my last article on the American Muslim campaign against established knowledge, scholarship, and academia, I attempted to bring to the forefront of Muslim discourse the current wave of anti-intellectualism and the rise of the “pastime” scholar and public intellectuals. Such a “scholar” has proven to be most destructive to real discourse. He is under increasing pressure to read, understand and formulate an opinion on everything. This pressure, social pressure, for cultural literacy has never been more difficult to maintain. The information age forces each one of us to consume far more information than humanly possible. This has forced many of us to master two skills: perusing and presenting ourselves as informed when in fact we aren’t. Dr Ed Finn, Founding Director of Center of Science of and Imagination, Assistant Professor in the School of Media and Engineering at Arizona State University, explains perfectly, “the gloss and comment have overtaken the article and the book”.[1] Editor and Journalist Karl Taro Greenfield further breaks down this situation on media consumption,

“it’s never been so easy to pretend to know so much without actually knowing anything…What matters to us is not necessarily having actually consumed this content firsthand but simply knowing that it exists- and having a position on it.”[2]

The Information Age’s never ending data streams are exponentially growing,

“In 2011, Americans took in five times as much information every day as they did in 1986— the equivalent of 175 newspapers. During our leisure time, not counting work, each of us processes 34 gigabytes or 100,000 words every day. The world’s 21,274 television stations produce 85,000 hours of original programming every day as we watch an average of 5 hours of television each day, the equivalent of 20 gigabytes of audio-video images. That’s not counting YouTube, which uploads 6,000 hours of video every hour. And computer gaming? It consumes more bytes than all other media put together, including DVDs, TV, books, magazines, and the Internet.” [3]

This increase in information has forced us to make a critical decision, we either pursue through as much as we can, so that we can pretend to possess a deep cultural literacy or we admit the wisdom in the saying of Prophet Muhammad, “indeed in (the pursuit of) some knowledges there is ignorance” and consciously choose to ignore what doesn’t matter to us. Unfortunately, generally speaking, we have chosen the former. If we follow the logic of Dr. Finn, then we should fear the irreversible death of nuance and even of expertise overall, as more and more people gain a superficial, shallow knowledge of everything.

Following the perspective of Prophet Muhammadﷺ , there is a simple solution to combat the rise of pretension in knowledge and understanding. Understanding that solution requires that we look at why cultural literacy is so important. Perhaps the common situation we encounter of people sharing articles they have not read, will offer insight into the psychological causes behind such an arrogant ignorance.

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Why We Share Articles That We Haven’t Read

Perhaps you have found yourself reading the headline of an article and sharing it right away. Sometimes you may go a little deeper into the article or read the section headings just enough to get the author’s gist before you actually share, but the reality is the same. We have created a culture of media sharing. Which means share information before we have actually consumed the information firsthand.

Why would someone share something they haven’t read? Because humans desire Social Currency. Simply put, people want to be liked. They want to be perceived as smart, intelligent, hip, cool, and “in the know” and the first to share. Others work in the media industry or in Muslim advocacy and the onus is even greater on them to substantiate what is being shared. From the Islamic perspective, news should be verified before sharing. Organizations who work in Muslim advocacy have a special responsibility to vet before sharing as they are considered an authoritative source and can contribute to this phenomenon.

By sharing certain types of information they are telling the world, “this is what I consume, I’m cool right?” While this is definitely a low state, I wouldn’t worry too much about the desire to be accepted as part of the group and to be looked upon favorably, as this is naturally inherent in every human being. Social media platforms have normalized this psychological tendency so much that you may start to seem weird if you too do not shop for social currency.

An even more interesting phenomenon is that social currency, like any other currency, is only given value when exchanged between two parties equally. What this means is that just as you raise your social currency by giving out the perception of cultural literacy, likewise, you are forced to accept the fake cultural literacy of other stooges. This is scientifically supported by multiple research studies and is commonly known as “Equity Bias.” This theory holds that smart people will pretend not to know something, while dumb people will pretend to really know a thing, with both doing so for the sake of raising their social currency. Just imagine what would happen if scholars of religion started worrying about their social currency. The Prophetﷺ (peace and blessing be upon him) called this type of interaction mudaahan (sycophancy). Interestingly, this comes from a root word that refers to putting oil on something. This is similar to a common English phrase, “butter him up,” which means to treat someone favorably in order to gain their favor.

So far I have only highlighted a few factors that are impacting the overall culture of anti-intellectualism and the death of nuance. However, perhaps more entertaining are the psychological biases that affect one to one dialogue between experts, academics, scholars, bloggers, and other opinionated critics.

Dunning-Kruger Effect

By far the most frustrating cognitive bias for any expert is the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Although named after its contemporary founders, The Dunning-Kruger Effect was recognized by Islamic scholarship many centuries ago. Imam Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (d.1111 CE), in his well-known Ihya Uloom Ad-Din, discussed this cognitive bias in a section titled “Scholars of the Hereafter and Evil Scholars.” This theory states that the more ignorant of a subject a person is, the more confident they are that they are not actually ignorant of said subject. David Dunning concluded that humans all overestimate themselves, but the less competent actually do so more than anybody else. As we look at this mental bias, we must bear in mind that all of us are experts in some areas and completely ignorant in others. The place of caution should be the area in which you have received the least amount of formal tutelage. Imam Al-Ghazali explained this bias very elegantly:

رجل يدري و يدري انه يدري فدلك العالم فاتبعوه.
رجل يدري ولا يدري انه يدري فذلك النائم فايقظوه
.
رجل لا يدري و يدري انه لا يدري فذلك مسترشد فعلموه
.
ورجل لا يدري ولا يدري انه لا يدري فذلك الجاهل فارفضوه.

 

“There are four types of people, a man who knows something and is aware of his knowledge, that is the true scholar so follow him.

Second is the man who knows something but is not cognizant of his knowledge. He is sleeping so wake him up!

The third is the man who doesn’t know something and he is aware of his ignorance. This is a student so teach him.

Last is the man who is unaware of something and is not cognizant of his unawareness. This is an ignorant man so run far away from him.”[4]

Confirmation Bias

It is almost impossible for human beings to remain completely objective while engaging in research and the exchange of information. This natural subjectivity affects how we interpret the world around us. The purpose of rational discourse is to highlight illogical conclusions and faulty reasoning. Confirmation bias teaches us that we often project our fixed ideas on the subjects that we are researching or reading about. The information that supports what we already believe naturally stands out to us, while the information that goes against what we understand as truth seems less significant. It is for this reason that all research and the conclusions derived therefrom need one less invested in the findings of the project to judge the accuracy of those findings. Confirmation bias affects not only how we interpret information but also how we search for information. If you are trying to convince your spouse or best friend that such-and-such a product is healthy, you would most likely do a web search for “health benefits of XYZ.” This is clearly an example of beginning your research with the assumption that you are already correct in your thinking. Experts, of course, are not exempt from natural human tendencies like confirmation bias; however, academic discussions by design and structure seek to avoid irrational thought and discourse based on emotion.

Stop Stereotyping! I’m not, I’m generalizing 

It is common knowledge that stereotyping is not a good thing and does not represent a sound basis for discussion. What is not common knowledge though is that stereotypes and generalizations are not the same things. One is a judgment, while the other is the result of scientific research that should lead to further exploration and analysis. This failure to differentiate between the two is a problem and hinders effective discourse. While stereotyping is a bad social habit, generalization is in fact at the root of all science. Generalizations such as, “people in America are taller than people in India,” are scientifically supported by evidence. The non-expert, when exposed to such generalizations, immediately looks to the exception to the generalization, i.e. a particularly tall Indian athlete (Sim Bhular). Even worse, this subtle difference between stereotypes and generalization is often completely rejected when it is a negative generalization. And therein is another difference between experts and laypeople. Emotional detachment and an attempt to remain completely objective are clear and distinguishable signs of an experts approach to intellectual discourse.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The desire for elevated social currency forces the individual to constantly check how each action and share will affect his or her status. This has terrible effects on sincerity and prevents individuals from focusing on who they really are. The next time you share something ask yourself, “Why am I sharing this?” If your whole life has become one long share, then know that it is time to wake up.

Secondly, research in the area of cognitive bias highlights that our ability to interpret events and information is deeply affected by our cognitive states, emotions and past experiences. We have a collective responsibility to recenter issue discussions around the expert who are at least attempting to reduce the influence of cognitive biases and emotions on our conclusions.

The Prophet ﷺ taught us the seek out beneficial knowledge and emphasized that “seeking some types of knowledge can be a source of ignorance”. In the age of information overload trying to be an informed specialist on everything will snatch away your spiritual and mental health. Admitting ignorance is a sign of true intelligence, and will bring back mental health. The Prophet Muhammad said, “Half of knowledge is saying, I don’t know.” Perhaps this Prophetic narration predicts the subsequent death of established knowledge when everyone thinks they know everything.

Finally, this short article does not attempt to exhaust the factors influencing the death of nuance and expertise, rather it serves as a warning and a wake-up call regarding the direction we seem to be heading in.

 

[1] What Algorithms want, Ed Finn 2017 MIT Press

[2] Death i=of Expertise Tom Nichols 2017 Oxford Press

[3] The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload, Daniel J. Levitin 2016

[4] احياء العلوم الدين , كتاب العلم

9 / View Comments

9 responses to “Public Intellectuals and The Confidence of The Ignorant Man In The Information Age”

  1. Rakhtan says:

    Thank you so much sir

    I can’t tell you how helpful that was for me
    Could you please provide more on this topic (links ,books, articles etc)

    And how should we approach knowledge

    • If the 1.7 Musim Umma know about Islam and the Sunna there would never be poverty shedding of blood and observing the obligatory prayers in the manner they observe it in their mosques today. They are overwhelmingly illiterate and ignorant. They are that dog described in the Holy Qur’an

  2. MK says:

    Salam. Nice one as was the first one.
    However, there are significant redundant (please check at the beginning of the article and the end, especially reference 3 and 5 mentioned in the article).

  3. Ibn Azhar says:

    A very important read.

    There seems to be a typing error:

    ورجل لا يدري و يدري انه لا يدري فدلك الجاهل فارفضوه.

    Last is the man who is unaware of something and is not cognizant of his unawareness. This is an ignorant man so run far away from him.

    Should it not have been (a لا is missing):

    ورجل لا يدري و لا يدري انه لا يدري فدلك الجاهل فارفضوه.

  4. Bryan Winters says:

    Good article, so long as you can direct it back to Muslims as well. As one particularly interested in this topic, (Author, The Bishop, the Mullah, and the Smartphone. https://www.amazon.com/Bishop-Mullah-Smartphone-Journey-Religions/dp/1498217923) I frequently attempt online discussions with Muslims, only to find they cease once we get to the Catch 22 areas. But I understand why. There are too many Pandoras boxes. And the Prophet didn’t always encourage debate by the way.

  5. DI says:

    Yes this is why I left Facebook. If I really like an article, I print it and keep it. If its not worthy of that, I don’t waste time on it.

    As the hadith saying goes: The believer is like a bee, only consume and excrete what is wholesome and good.

    di.

  6. Jean Dough says:

    Well, I am in the 3rd Category. I am Ignorant of most of the things, and I am aware of it. Helpless perhaps !
    I couldn’t follow the article. I read it. Will try several times more to see, If I could smell the Fragrance of the “Title”. I felt it went over my head. Please forgive my Ignorance !

    Salaam.

    PS:

  7. Safi says:

    Assalaamu alaikum,

    I am having a hard time referencing some of the narrations mentioned in this article…

    “indeed in (the pursuit of) some knowledges there is ignorance”
    “Half of knowledge is saying, I don’t know.”
    “seeking some types of knowledge can be a source of ignorance”

    Can the author/admin/moderator please assist?

    Jazaakum Allah khairan

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