How do people become (and stay) so ignorant?

I’m routinely amazed at the ignorance that surrounds me, both in my actual, face-to-face life and on the internet.

I mean, I hear people in one breath talk about how Wal-Mart is great because they “provide low prices; what people really want”, and then say in the next breath that they’re against govt. subsidies because “they cost people jobs”. (truth is, Wal-Mart isn’t necessarily the lowest price, and they cost people jobs, and subsidies may or may not cost people jobs, but removing them sure as hell will)

Another category is people on internet message boards (not SDMB in particular) who claim that the high price of gasoline is a plot by oil companies to raise prices, not market forces. :rolleyes:

Or people who got hoodwinked into variable-rate loans, or rent-to-own schemes.

How do they get this way? Is it intellectual laziness, or some kind of stupidity, or misinformation?

Considering your views that Wal Mart “costs people jobs” and that removing subsidies will cost jobs, I’d be careful about thinking you are smarter than those “ignorant” masses you deride.

The fact is, all of us are smart about some things and ignorant about others. All of us pretty much grope blindly at life, perhaps developing something that resembles an expertise in one or two areas.

Furthermore, your assumption that people are making ignorant choices about their lives may or may not be true. You don’t know as much about their lives as they do. To presume you have more information than they do about their own lives is, well, ignorant.

If you can find a copy, (it’s usually available at the major bookstores) buy Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer.

Essentially, once we believe something it’s very hard to let go of a belief and we’ll find ways to rationalize it. And our brains make us very good at rationalizing beliefs, even if we have to bend logic into a pretzel to do so.

I eat paint chips.
They’re non fattening, and ever so tasty.

What color? I find that blues that contain cadmium make me vomit blood, so I’m looking to change.

I know we’ve recently recovered from a spate of “OMG Dopers are smrter than ANY1!” threads, and this really is honestly not meant to be another of those. But…donning flame retardant clothing

A person of average IQ is a lot dumber than you probably think. You are not one. I am not one. I haven’t seen anyone on this website who is one last more than a month, in all honesty. That doesn’t mean we’re *better *than anyone, but it does mean that our impressions of what “normal” is are way skewed high, because we interact with bright people on a daily basis. If you want to check out “normal”, have a stiff drink and go to Yahoo! Answers .

Have you tried teaching? I have, although not professionally. Just last week my chemistry teacher asked me to teach the lab portion of the 121 class. My job “teaching” was to review the main concepts, go over the general procedure, and help with any procedural questions (“How do I carry this hot crucible to the balance?” Answer: “Let it cool first. Then move it with crucible tongs…no, those are for test tubes, *these *are crucible tongs…and a wire mesh supporting it underneath.”) Mind you, before the day of lab, we all have to read the directions in the lab book and rewrite them all in our own words. I said *nothing *that was not in the lab book except, “Part B takes a long time, so get it set up before you start Part A.”

One pair tried to tell me that their 2 inch high ceramic crucible and lid weighed 24.843 kilograms. They could not see the error in this figure, even after I explained it.

Another told me their crucible and lid weighed 39.232 grams empty and 6.264 grams when filled with the unidentified crystals. Again, they couldn’t understand why I knew this couldn’t be correct.

An on, and on. This ain’t, as they say, rocket surgery. This is college level chemistry. They’re all applying to the nursing program in the fall, and most of them will probably get in. Not a single person in that classroom has an IQ less than 100, I’m sure. And yet they’re total fucking morons.

If they can’t grasp why a filled crucible should weigh more than an empty crucible, why on earth would you think they’d grasp the market forces’ impact on gasoline prices?

Everybody is born almost completely ignorant. It’s a lifelong struggle to try to become otherwise. It’s not easy, either. You have to learn about stuff that’s not always easy to understand, and maybe even give up a cherished idea.

Oh yeah smart guy? What if the crubible was filled with helium, huh? Not so smart now are ya?


As soon as helium is available in white crystalline form marked “hydrate #122”, I’ll worry about that!

First of all, I wasn’t trying to point figures at people and go “Oooh! Ignorant!” or anything like that. I know (and took as a sort of given that we’re all ignorant in some ways and not in others).

What I was trying to clarify was how people stay so ignorant about things that are either easily deduced, absorbed readily from a variety of common sources, or easily discoverable if you’re doing your usual due diligence on something like home loan shopping.

And as for Wal-Mart and subsidies, (not to hijack my own thread)

I suppose it depends on where you’re talking about- Wal-Mart does cost some people their jobs, when they move into smaller towns and out-compete the smaller niche stores.

And, removing some subsidies will definitely cost jobs- if you took away the sugar prop (for example), then American sugar production wouldn’t be as lucrative a proposition as it is with the subsidies, and (although it’s not a 100% chance) it’s likely people would lose their jobs.

The costs to remediating ignorance are perceived to be higher than the benefits. People use heuristics in their daily lives because for the most part, it’s just not worth it to abandon them.

What heuristics we abandon in favor of a more granular, fact-based kind of thinking depends on our expected return for our efforts and at what point we are indifferent between the costs and the benefits.

And in the end, after traveling down a long, dark tunnel toward an unearthly light, you find out that it has all been an extended viral marketing campaign for a new type of margarine spread that tastes amazingly not entirely unlike butter. If you look carefully, you piece together clues of it from Brahms Piano Concerto No.1 in D minor, Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, the collected poetry of Charles Bukowski when translated into Magyar, and the second half of Kieślowski’s The Double Life of Véronique.

But most people live their entirely lives utterly ignorant of this. Consider yourself privileged to be in the know.


While I’m neither trying to insult you nor continue the hijack, there are two tendencies worth noting. You’ve demonstrated both.

First, people have a tendency to assume that people who disagree with them are less intelligent.

Second, you don’t know what you’re talking about, or at least are not displaying that knowledge, and are blaming other people for it. And you are creating in your mind a contradiction which doesn’t exist in their thought.

It’s well established that subsidies do not create jobs, but move them (usually inefficiently) from one sector of the economy to another. Yes, some people will lose their jobs. Others will be created, and more or less inevitably at a net gain. I’m hardly an iron-handed libertarian, but this particular economic principle is very real and is virtually a freakin’ law of nature. (I’m not totally against subsidies in principle, but that’s a horse of another color for another day.) It’s not in the least a contradiction.

“How do people become ignorant?” By not knowing stuff. That’s what ignorance is. You don’t become ignorant like you catch a disease, you start off ignorant. If you never learn something, you’ll always be ignorant of it. How else is it going to work?

Basically, I think it works like this: when people explanations for a particular event, they usually don’t know, and don’t think to wonder, what alternative explanations might be out there. If the explanation they hear is simpler than the truth, they’re that much more likely to believe it and it’s that much harder to reason with them about it. People like to put human faces on events, it’s more understandable. So “the oil companies raised prices” or “the Arabs want more money” is preferable to “market forces including A B C D X Y and Z go into the fluctuations of oil prices.” If the subway is behind schedule, people blame the mayor even if the subway is only late because the conductor came to work late.

And people certainly get attached to point of view, even if those POVs aren’t their own. About a week ago I got stuck in a conversation with a friend of my girlfriend’s about Eliot Spitzer and his expensive taste in women. I said something about his downfall, and she said 'my friend told me] - you see where this is going, right - ‘[blah blah blah a Wall Street conspiracy brought him down somehow.]’ I told her what I know about that whole situation from reading about it, but the more I explained things, the more credible she her friend became, in her eyes, even though she was only repeating about one sentence of something she didn’t really understand. She didn’t know how the Wall Street conspiracy got him, but somehow, it just did. Most people on the SDMB know about Occam’s Razor and try to apply it, but in the real world, most people go with their gut, and choose whatever fits their preconceived notions.

That’s not to say that never happens here. We’re all people and nobody runs on pure reason. But most of us over here make the effort, and that’s not how everybody works.

Well, look at your own life. How do you do it?

I’m not trying to pick on you, since we are all pretty ignorant about a lot of stuff. In my own life, for example, I’m sure whenever I take my car in the mechanic is like “how is this dude so ignorant about basic car stuff?” I guess I could choose to educate myself, but for a variety of reasons I choose to leave it to the experts at the auto shop.

Of course, this is basic economic ignorance, focusing on what is seen and ignoring what is unseen. Freeing up inefficient uses of money (whether through eliminating subsidies or through closing inefficient businesses) creates jobs by putting that money to a better use. Instead of going to businesses that are not making the best use of the money, it goes to businesses that make a more efficient use of it, creating wealth and jobs.

It takes a little digging to find out, but every Wal*Mart gets massive gov’t subsidies. They won’t build anywhere if they don’t get tax breaks for a few years, city-laid utility lines and entrance ramps, and in some cases, free utilities. The city is eager to get a new business, but they’ll do their best to hide the handouts.

The price of gasoline is tied to market forces, but not directly. When the price of crude oil goes up by $4 a barrel, gasoline prices immediately spike. The gasoline from that 104 a barrel oil won't hit the streets for 3 or 4 weeks. The price of gasoline goes up .40 a gallon on Thursday, and back down $.50 on Tuesday. We can call that market forces, but sometimes I think it’s more “whatever the market will bear” than “supply and demand.”

How do they get this way? Sure, there’s intellectual laziness. Some folks won’t look past flashy advertisements, and they get conned. There’s also genuine stupidity out there. There’s plenty of misinformation, there’s lack of information, and there’s simple, ugly lies. It must be true, it’s on television!

I’ve honed it to an art form.

People are lazy. I know there’s lots of things I don’t care enough about to learn.
People don’t like to admit they’re wrong. Me, I’m never wrong, but lots of people I know are and can’t stand to admit the error of their ways.
People like to seem knowledgeable. It makes them seem special.

Mix these things together, and you get not just dogmatic religion, but also my otherwise very intelligent dad, who when he doesn’t know something, will make it up - and then try and defend his invented position. :rolleyes: (He does this less now, now that we all will instantly deride the invented position the minute he proposes it.)

Oh, and on top of the first three, there’s also the sad truism: Average intelligence is only modertely impressive, usually in only one or two areas. And half of people are even less intelligent than that.

As has been pointed out above, you don’t “become” ignorant, you start that way and if you’re lucky you learn stuff.

But if you have no curiosity, you will never really learn very much. That’s the key.

Unclean! Unclean!