The informed vs
the uninformed

Nearly 37 years after physicist and author Isaac Asimov penned “A Cult of Ignorance” for Newsweek, this sentence is still often cited:

The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

For those who find “ignorance” a little harsh—I do—I offer this softer version:

… the false notion that uninformed opinions are as valid as informed ones.


Perhaps you have run into situations where an uninformed opinion overruled your expertise. Say, when a decision-maker pooh-poohed a conclusion validated by testing and data purely on the grounds that it contradicted a prevailing, often comfortable assumption. “I don’t care what you saw through your telescope, Mr. Galilei. It’s my opinion that the sun orbits Earth.”

When facts contradict closely held opinions, a convenient out is to cast aspersions upon expertise. Consider some of the words society uses for expert that damn by connotation: Egghead, nerd, geek, pundit, elite, ivory tower, and intellectual, to name a few. A criticism recently levied at a friend sums up the attitude: “What is this obsession you have with facts?”

What Asimov didn’t see coming was the Internet. It has spread the above-cited quote farther and wider and, ironically, spread misinformation even more.

The rise of satire sites like The Onion and The Borowitz Report hasn’t helped. More than one well-intended dupe has taken satire pieces as factual and spread them via social media. Perhaps you are familiar with Poe’s Law, coined in 2005 by Nathan Poe:

Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humour, it is impossible to create a parody of fundamentalism that someone won’t mistake for the real thing.

Besides this blog (thank you for reading, by the way), I write for various financial services industry publications. Yet for me to assume that having an audience makes me an expert would be to get things backward. Expertise is the product of doing your homework. I take seriously the responsibility to get my facts straight, and to promptly correct errors when I blow it. Would that more writers would do the same.

Verifying facts and informing one’s opinion is also the reader’s responsibility. We are not helpless. Here are a few tools to keep at hand for sorting sense from nonsense:

• Search in “incognito” or “private” mode. Google and other search engines learn and play to your proclivities. That’s no way to challenge your assumptions. Going incognito disables that bias.

• After a search, search again adding the word “fraud,” “scam,” or “con.” This can help you find your way past propagandists who front-end load the Internet.

• Consult factcheck.org, which follows up on claims made by public figures. No one is consistently accurate, so expect to find the site confirming and contradicting your most-liked as well as your least-liked people, which I take as a sign of commitment to fairness.

• Bookmark Merrimack College communication and media professor Melissa Zimdars’s page, “False, Misleading, Clickbait-y, and/or Satirical ‘News’ Sources.” Keep in mind, however, that the list is by no means complete, nor can it ever be. Zimdar pledges to continually update, but don’t assume that absence legitimizes a source.

• Give expertise its due. Where the title expert is fittingly bestowed, it’s an indication you’re dealing with someone who knows more than the average Joe in a given area. Yes, experts can be wrong; but when a majority arrive at the same conclusion, you’re dealing either with something that is likely true or a vast conspiracy. That’s where Occam’s Razor can help. Which reminds me …

• … Keep Occam’s Razor in mind. It’s not a surefire validity gauge, but it’s a help. Named for a Franciscan friar by the name of William of Ockham (1287–1347), it states:

Among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected.

The above resources can be useful when making marketing decisions. Marketing is an area with an abundance of sound data, but it’s also an area with an abundance of unproven opinions brandished as facts. Sorting informed from uninformed opinions can increase your odds of a marketing success. Or, at the very least, it can decrease your odds of an embarrassing failure.

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