Saturday, May 18, 2024

Is it wise to argue with experts?


In recent years, I've noticed a growing tendency for people to argue with experts on topics they know little about. Is this wise? Undoubtedly, asking questions is a good thing. A well-constructed question can lead to a clearer explanation. Sometimes, a very well-constructed question may lead an expert to recognize an error in their own reasoning. But, does the asking of such questions make one an expert? I don't think so. Without expertise, one must provisionally accept the answers given by experts. Why? Because, one cannot tell whether or not the expert is correct without holding equivalent expert knowledge. So, I recommend asking questions that clarify assumptions, evidence, and implications. But let's not argue about matters beyond our own expertise.

Friday, April 19, 2024

Misinformation - knowing that we don't know


I have always been somewhat suspicious of the written word. Not so much because of the information conveyed by writing, but because of how it can be misused. For one, it can, in some ways, imprison knowledge. The information is there, but cannot be directly questioned. You may have some expertise in the subject and know that the words presented contain false information. But you cannot debate it. You cannot dialogue with it. You cannot help improve it. The words remain there, locked in place, impervious to criticism.

The other reason the written word causes concern is the way it can be misused. People read snippets of information such as misleading headlines, opinion pieces, or conclusions taken out of context, and then think they have knowledge. However, if they have no prior expertise in the subject, they cannot assess whether or not the information they are reading is reliable. Don’t we see this all the time on the internet? People with no specialist knowledge will read an article that concludes something they don’t like, then dismiss it. They will then engage in an extensive search for articles that contain conclusions they do like. And they will share the information contained in those articles, as if they, themselves, have expertise. This can be harmless in cases of personal taste preference. But in the domain of science and medicine, this can be damaging, and perhaps even lead to life-threatening decisions.

So, what is real wisdom? Is it skimming articles and cherry-picking favorable conclusions, and then masquerading as an expert? Or perhaps the wisest of us are the ones who comfortably admit the limitations of their knowledge.

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Winning at life

 My friends, have you noticed how often we hear people talking of ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in life? It seems that many people consider life to be a game that can be won or lost. And when someone ‘wins’, we often deem that win to be well deserved. For example, people may say that the rich deserve their wealth. And I suppose people may also claim that the poor deserve their place in life.

But is this true? Can you win and lose at life? Is life akin to a game? In ancient Greece, people didn’t speak that way. If someone was poor, people wouldn’t think of them as losing at life. Instead they would suggest that the will of Tyche, the god of fortune, had not been working in their favor. The Romans also had a god of fortune. Her name was Fortuna. She was depicted as holding a tiller by which she could shift one’s fortune. Because her actions were totally out of our control, people would suggest that the poor were ‘unfortunate’ rather than losers at life.

Perhaps people who consider life a game will find this a strange way of talking. But it does depend upon what sort of game they consider life to be. Is it a game with well defined rules in which a person can win or lose by using their skill and intellect? Is life, for example, like a game of chess? If so, it may make sense to speak of winners and losers. After all, we wouldn’t hesitate to say that the winner of a chess game deserves their win. To win they must have played better than their opponent. And, of course, we presume that they started the game with an equal number of pieces, and that they both played by the same rules.

Would we use the same language to describe someone winning at a game of chance — for example, a slot machine or lottery? Would we suggest that someone who wins the lottery deserves the win? I don’t even think the word ‘win’ in games of chance means quite the same thing as it does in a game of chess. There is no skill involved in a game of chance. The outcome is totally in the hands of fortuna. I wonder if life is more like this than we care to believe.

Of course, we do need certain skills in life. But much of what happens in life is well beyond our control — including our position at birth. Is it not true that fortuna decides who is wealthy and who is poor at birth? And is it not true that this starting position can have a massive impact on a person’s life? If so, it would seem incorrect to suggest that a poor person is losing at life and deserve their position (if by ‘losing’ we mean in the sense of a game of chess rather than a game of chance).

I am interested in what would happen in society if we shifted our language. Rather than speaking of winners and losers in life, shall we instead speak of those who are fortunate and those who are less fortunate. Seeing things in this way may prompt those who are fortunate to help the unfortunate more so than if they truly think they deserve to be ‘winning’ at life.

- Socrates (21c)

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Measure one's worth


We crave the approval of others. This seems to be part of the human condition. Everyone wants to be liked, and what better signs of approval are there than applause, trophies, and certificates? We finish our performance and glow as the crowd claps their hands. We adorn our shelves with our hard-won trophies and decorate our walls with certificates that prove our worthiness. All symbols of approval.

But after the crowd leaves the auditorium, their applause is nothing but a memory—an echo lost in time. Our certificates fade in the sun, slowly degrading to nothing. And our trophies tarnish as the years pass.

What does this tell us? Should we conclude that the approval of others is not worth seeking? Not at all. We need social relationships, and approval is better than disapproval or mere indifference. But we should put things in perspective. Aim to be the best person you can be, regardless of awards or applause. External validation does not last, and a life pursuing them for their own sake will never bring contentment. After all, there's always another certificate to be hung on the wall, and we may ask how many are required for fulfillment. Do they really matter?

Perhaps we should remind ourselves that happiness can be found in our actions rather than pieces of paper.