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Sunday, 04 May 2008

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Mike,

Since English is not my mother language I can't tell the fine finesses of all the words. Ignorant to me means not knowing something because I don't care about the subject. Although my sisters used to ride horses and one of them still does (no racing) and I knew that a horse with a broken leg would be difficult to cure, I didn't know that it is (almost) impossible. The "don't care part" (ignoring it) of my understanding of the word ignorant is not true. I'm a very broadly interested person and I have spoken with many people interested in horseback riding and a few about racing.

These horses are bred for their specific purpose. These specialized horses are on the edge of the physical possibilities of the structures of bones and muscles. They are like Formula 1 cars always working on the edge of blowing out or winning. It's ignorance of people betting on or enjoying these sports that they don't see this.

It is my opinion that people just should not use animals for their sports and of course there are levels of cruelty and ignorance. Let the jockeys run themselves of give them a bike. I bet this will also give us nice photos.

I know nothing about horses, so I won't comment on that. I do have an interest in ignorance, however. Some friends and I began talking about a concept we called "situational ignorance" when I was working as a newspaper reporter. Situational ignorance was the underlying topic in our mini-controversy last month involving David Pogue: the simple fact is, newspaper reporters are almost always situationally ignorant (as are most of us, most of the time.) Reporters try to solve this problem by, well, reporting...but unless the story is an extremely simple one, they can't learn enough, and they don't have enough space, to report with perfect accuracy. The more complicated and novel the situation, the greater the risks of intense situational ignorance. A reporter like Pogue actually has a head start, because he specializes in tech; but tech is so varied that even there, there is no possibility of really staying current. He is literally, and through no fault of his own (probably), ignorant most of the time.

On fast moving stories, involving crime or disasters, most of the early reporting is a pastiche of rumors, lies and supposition. If you ever read coverage of a major prison riot in which guards are taken hostage, you will immediately read stories of various sexual mutilations, which are almost never true, but are always among the first and most-insisted-upon stories. In New Orleans at the time of Hurricane Katrina, rumors passed on by the media that relief helicopers were being shot at were almost certainly untrue, but the stories persisted.

This situational ignorance, which was always present, is one of the reasons that newspapers are in such dire straits right now -- not so much on breaking news, but because of internet "news" coverage on specific topics like (for example) photography, where situational ignorance is much lower. Newspapers simply cannot replicate the kind of coverage available on, say, a mix of Digital Photography Review, Luminous Landscape, and TOP. Net denizens have to learn how to pick and choose, to avoid the b.s., but the information is there, and to almost any degree of specificity that you might wish. Pogue covers tech; you can easily look around the net and find people who cover only, say, Leica cameras, or large format cameras, or whatever you wish. You can go on other forums and actually argue with people who write the books on Photoshop or Lightroom or whatever.

David Pogue surely is a really smart guy; but his situation is difficult. With guys who are less smart, covering topics that are broader or less clear (politics, crime, natural disasters) ignorance rules.

JC

Mike -

Sad as the misuse (or: morphing meaning) of the word "ignorant" may be, we recognize that it has become a near-pejorative and adapt our English accordingly. One can use a synonym of your intended meaning of "ignorant" easily, and without euphemising. For instance, "uninformed about [subject X]" or "unaware" or something along those lines. As you no doubt already know, effectively communicating your intended meaning isn't easy and takes effort, especially with an audience as varied as on the web.

Dave

JC,
A very interesting topic--I'm broadly interested not only in ignorance, but in thinking styles in general and logical fallacies in particular.

And you're right about reporting. In September of 2007, one of my favorite writers, Anthony Lane of "The New Yorker," wrote a piece called "Candid Camera: The Cult of Leica."

http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2007/09/24/070924fa_fact_lane

Originally I was very critical of it, first because the title is a horrible cliché, and second because the article is filled with errors. (And possibly also partly because of sour grapes on my part.)

But the more I thought about it, the more impressed I was. Lane obviously had some very knowledgeable sources, and, when I looked at it from the other direction, I was impressed with just how well he had managed to come up to speed on all the issues involved, some of which were fairly subtle.

Ultimately the article fails because it doesn't have its own outlook: that is, by merely "reporting," Lane falls into the error of simply repeating conclusions that are, to an expert, old canards or repeated trusims or conventional wisdom. Lane eventually pretty much repeated all the hoary clichés you come across again and again on the Leica forums.

Personally, I'm big on admitting ignorance--I want people who read my words to have a decently accurate way of evaluating just what my level of expertise is on a particular topic. Reporting too often does the opposite: presents knowledge as if the reporter knows more about the subject than he or she actually does.

When it works best is when the reporter actually BECOMES an expert. In that case, sometimes the reporter's broader overview or lack of subjectivity can make them more reliable rather than less so. Some of my favorite books were written by reporters.

Mike J.

I'm not very well educated, I've no qualifications to speak of. But I'm not ignorant of the fact that few people love horses more then those involved in breeding, racing and training them; as sure as a trainer loves his boxer, a trainer loves his horse. Some might say that a boxer has a choice, but being from a tough working class area I can say confidently that there's a reason why you don't see many University graduates in the ring. Boxers love to box and horses love to race; sometimes sad things happen and we all wish it was otherwise, and as much as possible is done to avoid it. But to stop a horse in its prime from racing would be like clipping a bird's wings.

I'd say with respect that like those who call for a ban on boxing, those that wish to see Horse racing banned do not know enough about the sport to make such judgements. Judgements which are often based on emotion rather then logic.

Sean

John, Mike pointed out the real problem in journalism: "Reporting too often does the opposite: presents knowledge as if the reporter knows more about the subject than he or she actually does."

The situational ignorance is very easily curable. But what is not nearly as easily curable is the feigned knowledge. Even less easily curable is the lack of intellectual curiosity. In Croatian, there's a word, "ignoramus", denoting a person who doesn't know anything with the conotation that they don't _want_ to know anything.

I'd say it's the same case with reporting now. Many so called reporters don't want to know anything beyond the barest fact they see.* They don't bother with checking, double-checking or even triple-checking. And there's nothing easier than checking now. Just like people on the Internet can read various sources, so can reporters. There's not much excuse for such kind of ignorance anymore. The said Mr. Pogue could have checked the facts about LiveView, but he hadn't. He was certain about his knowledge...

* And - hopefully - many of us have seen Kurosawa's _Rashomon_ or otherwise learned what a sad mess eyewitnessing can be.

I think the situation is like that old joke, "Is it ignorance or apathy? I don't know and I don't care."

Both at once, willful ignorance, is probably arrogance. Science on the other hand is knowing that you are ignorant and caring deeply about it.


Dear Mike,

I think there are epithets du jour, so to speak. People just toss them out in place of "bad." They wind up used so generically that they've got no connection to the proper and useful meaning of the word. And they come into and eventually go out of "fashion.

"Ignorant" is a good current example.

So is "arrogant" (not as Hugh's using it, I'm pretty sure), though it seems to be on the wane. Probably in another ten years, you'll be able to use it meaningfully [wry smile]. I'm guessing-- arrogant" was preceded by "egotist" but the latter has been out of fashion long enough that one can sometimes get away with using it (properly!) in a sentence

"Coward" became uselessly generic after Sept 11, 200 (thank you White House).

"Elite" is still a popular and meaningless generic epithet. Probably won't go away soon, since 'populist' (ahem) politicians still think it makes a good talking point.

Back in the 'olden days' (yeah, they are!) there was the less erudite "pig." Originally applied only to obnoxious cops and sexists, it became generic for a time, and so pretty much useless.

All of this makes life very difficult for those of us who like to main eloquence of invective. We are constantly being forced back to the dictionary as the hoi polloi corrupt and degrade our tools of vituperation. It is SUCH a burden being a member of the elite, lemme tell you.

pax / Ctein

On the other hand, ignorance is a virtue. I work in a place that specialises in knowledge, and we've all got degrees up the wazoo. Still, I think the object of a good education is to leave people *more* confused than when they came in. That really would be progress. Then they wouldn't be so sure they knew something when, in fact, they didn't *quite* know what was going on, or didn't even actually have a clue beyond accepted mainline unconscious unreflected opinion. Yep, send your kids to us, and we'll set 'em up for life in the REAL world.

What I see on the news on TV here in England is how ignorance has transformed tragedy into something very strange. It is too serious to be comic, but it is odd.

For example, a criminal is tried and found guilty. The parents/relatives of the victim make a statement about how justice has given them the next best thing to having their child/relative back - and usually the delivery is false, and full of stock phrases.

It is not that the motives or feelings of those speaking seem false, but somehow they cannot fill the roles they have set themselves but instead have to copy what they have heard before.

It is as though they believe their part in the story that has unfolded is to make 'the statement'.

I suspect people are being led around by the media - afraid not to make 'the statement' lest they be seen as uncaring.

This is ignorance promoting ignorance.

Quote from Erlik: "Mike pointed out the real problem in journalism: 'Reporting too often does the opposite: presents knowledge as if the reporter knows more about the subject than he or she actually does.' The situational ignorance is very easily curable. But what is not nearly as easily curable is the feigned knowledge."

The trouble goes deeper than what you suggest. I'm saying that you can have very intelligent reporters (like Anthony Lane) acutely aware of the situational ignorance, but the only alternative to this form of ignorance is to stop reporting -- ignorance is built into the situation. It's a default mode that can't be escaped. By the **very nature of the reporting enterprise,** you are often, and perhaps usually, sending (ignorant) people into a situation in which they have no hope of discovering any underlying truth of the matter, because they simply do not have time or space to do that. So what is a newspaper or magazine to do? It's unlikely that they would print a statement up front that says, "We are sending ignorant people into difficult situations and our reporting is actually only a semi-informed guess as to what happened..." Who would buy the product? So, instead, they lie: "All the news that's fit to print." Better would be the old canard, "All the news that fits, we print."

I make a distinction here between ignorant and stupid; some of the most exquisitely intelligent reporters are keenly aware of their situational ignorance.

Quote from Ctein: "Back in the 'olden days' (yeah, they are!) there was the less erudite "pig." Originally applied only to obnoxious cops and sexists, it became generic for a time, and so pretty much useless."

Sort of like "fascist," which used to actually mean something [a romantic form of nationalist socialism.] But the thing about "pig," is, I believe (I'm not certain) that the term grew out of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. When the Chicago cops attacked the counter-culture people and the Eugene McCarthy backers with tear gas, they actually wore old-fashioned black rubber gas masks with "snouts," that literally made them look like pigs. I think sexist pig grew out of that, hundreds of young radicals screaming, "Here come the pigs."

JC

You're quite right about "ignorant". And it's telling about your own low such that you often have to explain words before using them.

I've been accused of arrogance before. Usually after I've been right about something.

My return,"But is it arrogance if I really can do what I say?"

Ruffian, so true.

All you had to do was mention Ruffian's name and I started to tear up here at work. I guess I haven't gotten over it either.

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