Tuesday, November 18, 2014

When Ignorance Feels So Much Like Expertise

You come across people in life who because they happened to get one thing right, begin to fancy themselves as an expert at everything.

It’s only annoying until you realize these people are often also consummate lobbyists, not in the professional sense, but individuals with an ax to grind and expert at bending ears.

Typically, they also secretly despise data-driven decision-makers or anyone really who prefers to be strategic.

You would think anyone whose ear these people seek to bend especially those in every level of governance would have their “B.S.-O-Meter” dialed to deflection mode.

Fortunately many do.  But far too many seem to embrace these B.S. artists as kindred spirits, particularly among those who never seem to be able to hold information, detectible because they fail to see the humor in  Jimmy Kimmel’s Lie Witness News.

It’s probably because they are candidates ripe for a guest appearance.

During my long-ago concluded career, for some reason I always got on the wrong side of people like this, maybe because by nature, the threshold of my B.S.-O-Meter is set pretty low.

Unfortunately, the nature of my job meant that I couldn’t entirely ignore them.  It doesn’t excuse it in the extreme, but none of us is entirely immune from masking reactions to our own ignorance.

Never having to bother with listening, reading, having to learn from mistakes or providing evidence to back up their claims, and often in league with those who are similar, these folks have a lot of time on their hands in which to wreak havoc.

They are beloved by journalists, not because those in that profession can’t usually see through it, but because people such as they perpetuate conflict, and conflict often gives story ideas a life of their own.

Finally, just as I was starting the final decade in my career, cognitive researchers zeroed in on this behavior which was christened the Dunning-Kruger Effect for which they were awarded a Nobel Prize.

A lead-in to an article by one of the researchers, Dr. David Dunning, quipped last month in one of my favorite journals, Pacific Standard, “The trouble with ignorance is that it feels so much like expertise.”

Dunning notes at some level none of us are immune from feigning to know more than we actually do, but, as in my experience, there are some who take it to an art form.

They propagate what he terms “purpose-driven misconceptions” or “motivated reasoning.”

What I call our “B.-S.-O-Meter,” a term I coined in my previous life, was a tool to give ratings to those who promoted inaccuracies about one of the communities for which I was guardian.

Our personal “B.S.-O-Meter,” actually kicks in before our second birthday.

Unfortunately, that is also, according to Dunning, when we begin to accumulate misbeliefs.

Education is meant to set things straight but no amount is a guarantee that someone won’t be susceptible to those who deliberately promote misinformation for agenda purposes or even just because they have an ax to grind.

Often those who exhibit Dunning-Kruger Effect are also more vulnerable to being unethical and have a way of getting to elected officials who may, at some level, share that trait and be prone to be unethical.

An example in current events today is the corruption among those governing major sports events.  The latest manifestations are the decisions by FIFA officials regarding the selection of two future World Cup venues.

I know firsthand that this problem permeates sports events down to the local level and it all starts with public officials who insist on going along with demands from promoters for cash subsidies.

I wasn’t in Durham a month before a sport event in a community nearby came knocking with its hand out.  Fortunately, that is also about the time I met the late Dr. LeRoy Walker.

Doc was an officer then with the U.S. Olympic Committee and soon to be its President.  He was also very unpretentious, a trait common among Durhamites, and would, until I retired, swing frequently by my office, sometimes weekly, just to talk.

He embodied all that is so honorable in sports but he hated the corrosive effects that cash underwriting and subsidies had introduced into sports event venue selection at every level.

Fortunately, subsidies weren’t permitted by our organization’s legislative mandate and Doc taught me much more effective ways to draw sports events without handing them cash.

But that didn’t stop powerful interests including a few elected officials from doing everything possible to try and corner our organization into “pay outs,” even though we always managed to outperform communities that walked that slippery route when it cam to sports.

One end run involved subterfuge regarding nomenclature that even clerks in the Secretary of State’s office failed to detect.  Local officials chose to look the other way, even playing along when they saw advantage or to appease special interests.

So I am not at all surprised that FIFA officials are attempting to whitewash an investigative report.  Corruption and cover-ups are oxygenated when as many people as possible are splattered with blood.

Some otherwise very honorable people get caught up in this stew of unethical behavior.

It all starts when they allow their ears to get bent by individuals, who might also be otherwise honorable, but who hoodwink them into thinking subsidies are harmless.

A famous 2007 study by researchers including Dr. Daniel Kahneman found elected and government officials are no more rational than the rest of us when it comes to this kind of decision-making.

They are as irrational as any of us even when they have so much better information at hand, such as the fact that there are plenty of groups that don’t have their hand out, that the economic value added rarely covers the costs of the handouts, and that providing cash subsidies leads to unethical behavior.

Often they get caught up in decisions that make no sense in order to make less transparent past decisions that made even less sense.  But the real culprit is a faulty B.S.-O-Meter.

During my career stretching over four-decades and in each of the three communities I served, I had a front row view of how corrupt decisions got made.

Whenever I protested, either my well-being or that of people I cared about was threatened, three times in Durham alone.

The news media that society relies on to expose this corruption either doesn’t see it or is too caught up in “he said, she said” to give whistleblowers cover, perhaps because their B.S.-O-Meters burned out a long time ago.

Ironically, some of the most corrupt are often also the highest vote getters.

Even incorruptible officials who are peers become enablers when they fail to call this out perhaps for the same reasons I couldn’t.

The genesis of this “legalized” corruption is not within government but because we fail as voters to keep our B.S.-O-Meter turned up.

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