Know-It-All Society: Truth and Arrogance in Political Culture
4 of 5 stars. ****
"There's nothing certain except that nothing is certain"- Montaigne
"It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.", Mark Twain
"Reason is the slave of the passions" - David Hume
How did we get to this point? As a species, we know more about our world and everything in it, yet we lack any sense of awe or humility about all of the things we don't know. The Dunning Kruger effect has shown that a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. We tend to overvalue our mastery of any field after learning just a bit, and have no idea what lies between the lines of everything we think we know. Things like the Iraq war, 2008 financial crisis, and Vietnam all came from the minds of people who assumed they had the world figured out only to be shocked at how everything went all wrong.
Michael Lynch tackles this thorny question with the help of a bevy of top thinkers and philosophers in this new book. The author takes a deep dive into the outrage factory he calls the internet, and the vast echo chamber there that rewards emotions over reflection. Outrage feels good and sanctimony makes us feel better than others.
The problem starts when our beliefs turn into convictions. Those convictions become integral to our very identity. Once that happens, our brain sees evidence that conflicts with our viewpoints as an existential threat. We demonize the evidence and those who present it in a desperate act of self-preservation. Our brain seeks out others who confirm our biases, and rejects those that threaten them.
Lynch dives a bit into politics, pointing fingers at viewpoints both left and right of the spectrum, accusing both sides of a tribal arrogance that has them believing in their own superiority and cleverness.
Unfortunately, the author has no easy solutions to this dilemma, other than to encourage others to be more intellectually humble. We must have room in our worldviews for new evidence, and be willing to admit they can be improved, sometimes from sources that we don't much like. We need what he calls a space of reasons, where honest discussions about issues can take place. His main example is the Socratic method, a cooperative exercise in asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking, looking for basic values and assumptions.
American politics has evolved into a screaming match of know-it-alls, with a president who claims that "Nobody knows more about ____ than me." This book points the way to a better way of valuing truth and humility over gut feelings and certainty.