Rational Ignorance

November 12, 2008

Some people who like to be difficult argue that facts aren’t neutral, because the “facts” of reality can only be seen through the lens of bias. Unfortunately, these people are correct. Take this article about Sarah Palin as an example:

On NAFTA, she said, “I remember that discussion, but there was never a question about, well, who are the participants in NAFTA? So for my discussion there to be spun into something that it was not and then being broadcast on national television, again, based on anonymous sources, that’s been another puzzling thing to me.”

On Africa, “So we discussed what was going on in Africa. And never, ever did I talk about, well, gee, is it a country or is it a continent. I just don’t know about this issue. So I don’t know how they took our one discussion on Africa and turned that into what they turned it into,” said Palin.

Now, the comments revolve around a particular theme, which is well-represented here:

Seriously? She wished she had done more interviews? Has she ever watched one of her interviews or read the transcripts from one? I had to read her comments above multiple times just to get a partial grasp on what she was trying to say.

This is a person with a journalism degree? People should be destroying the school where she got that degree as proof that they graduate unqualified people.

To which I say, “Seriously?” If you can’t understand what Sarah Palin is saying the first time you read those paragraphs, you are very, very stupid. More stupid, in fact, than you think Palin is.

So the lesson here is, don’t make yourself stupid in order to confirm your current beliefs. Holding on to your current beliefs is not worth it.

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5 Responses to “Rational Ignorance”

  1. Tom Says:

    I’m not sure what your point is in this post, but as far as I can surmise you are criticizing specifically finding fault with Sarah Palin for being difficult to understand for some and more generally, finding fault in those who make criticisms of such nature because you feel that it is an expression of conformity not reflective of the facts or over all truth of the situation.

    I agree in your general concept and think that it could be discussed in relation to your previous post about the Obama Personality Cult. However in the case of Palin, the fact does clearly exist that she not only makes grammatical mistakes in her interviews, though not in the quotes above. Whether or not that makes her difficult to understand or would exclude her from being a good Vice President are entirely a different questions.

    Also you say “so the lesson here is,” suggesting that you have proven a point while you have merely stated that you get what Palin is saying and think that those who don’t are stupid.

    I would argue that your reaction to this situation is fueled by your own sense of superiority over the average blogger and not necessarily indicative of some societal lemming phenomenon. If you were to persuasively argue your point you would need to look at the frequency and nature of Palin’s mistakes and show that one should be able to nevertheless understand her with a reasonable degree of ease. Not by merely stating that you are smart and everyone else is dumb.


  2. The point isn’t that Palin never makes mistakes, nor is it related to how smart I am compared to other bloggers. The point is facts aren’t facts. The people who read the above quotes and can’t understand them probably aren’t stupid, they just make themselves stupid when they prepare to read a quote by Sarah Palin, because the “fact” of not understanding her confirms their view that she is an incomprehensible idiot.

    So they have this view, “Palin is an idiot,” and then her words are taken as “facts” bolstering that view, but they’re not really facts in the traditional sense. They were formed from the view, not from an objective judgment.

    How often she makes mistakes is not relevant to my point. The only thing that needs to be established is that what she says in the quoted section is, in fact, easily comprehensible for someone who doesn’t realize that it was Palin who said it. If you disagree with that, then I don’t know what to say.

  3. Thomas Says:

    “facts aren’t facts” eh?

    That sounds kind of postmodern! I’d be interested to hear more about how your statement jibes with economic orthodoxy

    ~T


  4. Thomas,

    In all my communications, I do have to make a tradeoff between pith and precision. When I say “facts aren’t facts,” I’m not going so far as to say that there is no such thing as objective truth. What I am saying is that bias is possible even in ascertaining the facts of the situation.

    I see your point about economic orthodoxy as it relates to rationality assumptions, homo economicus, etc. But as I posted a while back, I don’t deny that people make mistakes (where you were talking about heuristics), I just deny that there exists some reliable, uninterested entity that can do better at producing desirable outcomes.

    I’d say the tendency to self-impose stupidity is greater where it affects you less directly, so the lesson is more valuable for Political Economy (e.g. Bryan Caplan’s Myth of the Rational Voter) than for neoclassical economics. Yeah, economists’ view of the world might be influenced by their worldview, but no more than any other group.


  5. […] can be harder, because your worldview tends to shape what you see as objective “facts.” My post on Sarah Palin wasn’t intended to be political, only to illustrate this […]


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