Brian Ross

Publisher & Editor-in-Chief , TheRossGroupFT LLC

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Ignorance Plagues Progress: Finding New Avenues to End It

Ignorance is the anchor that drags on progress. Technology's rapid advance in less than a handful of decades has created a social, religious and political backlash. Ignorance is not stupidity. Some of the most educated people in the world have been some of the most willfully ignorant. With 5 in 10 adult Americans barely able to read and write, and nearly 9 in 10 exhibiting varying degrees of difficulty in synthesizing information, 2 in 10 taking in any kind of non-entertainment news, how do those who propose to advance humanity "catch up" the vast majority of the planet to become broader, more rational thinkers?

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    Jul 5 2012: It is not only ignorance that hinders progress. Arrogance also plays a part.

    I am not convinced that there is a vast majority of rational thinkers that the 'ignorant ones' have to catch up with.
    I believe the answer is in the educational system. A system that would produce a generation of learners who will be able to acquire knowledge from scholars and from interactions with other global citizens, without being restricted in their minds to only the things that has been learned. An open mind asks questions; but does not arrogate the monopoly of answers to itself.

    This form of education also rests on self-examination, critical thinking and the recognition of the intellectual/creative capacities of other people.
    By this I mean that a Bishop, a physicist, a journalist, or a poet should not try to explain the complex ideas and theories outside their field.
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      Jul 17 2012: Our systems of learning only channel a select few into schools and programs where we teach people to challenge assumptions and rethink the world. The vast majority of those educated learn by rote, are trained to fill lower-level task specific jobs, and are given very few tools to think for themselves outside of narrow parameters.
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        Jul 17 2012: Do you have empirical support for the claims that most people are educated by rote, that they are not taught to challenge assumptions, that they are trained to fill lower-level tasks, and that they are given few tools to think for themselves?
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          Jul 19 2012: If you will allow observational over empirical...most people are mediocre; it is mathematically so. The bar itself for mediocre is falling - rapidly, at least here in America. They work their brains as little as possible, the least amount required by an education system which itself has a decreasing bar, and barely succeeding at that. Teaching is rote, learning is rote; it's more like flash-programming than learning. To challenge an assumption one would have to step outside the normal, approved process of shuffling along. There may be moments of vague doubt, but stepping out of line? That takes a particular kind of character, a personality type which is not exactly fostered. The mediocre, the masses, are thus mainly suitable for activities some future automaton may perform. Tools exist, but they are ill-equipped to recognize them, let alone harness them. The TV beckons, and it's back to American Idol; the unsettling, amorphous notions thankfully slip away.
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        Jul 19 2012: But is this actually true, V, or a widespread misconception drawn from unsystematic observation? Does this idea come from believing what various others assumed to be authoritative have argued perhaps without rigorous evidence?
        Looking to actual evidence (not just some supporting examples close at hand) can be a great way of thinking outside the box of "common wisdom."
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          Jul 21 2012: I'll meet you over half-way on the first part and suggest it as a personal (I could almost hazard widespread) perception drawn from unsystematic observation, perceived without rigor or the benefit of any citable expertise. That is, I got nothin'. :) I wonder if any true potential authority exists, or if that authority is not already satisfied with the way things are.

          I appreciate the gentle rebuke - supposed "common wisdom" is less useful than facts, possibly just an ambient sense of something, and shouldn't suffice for any analytical effort.
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        Jul 21 2012: V, people who keep themselves informed of what is going on right now in schools (curriculum and pedagogy) are not at all satisfied with the way things are. They tend to be at least as eager to solve the problems in service delivery as everyone else is and are working the hardest to improve things every day.
        There is an interesting assumption in popular culture that those who inquire deeply into or immerse themselves in a hands on way in an area have less awareness of the need for change than those who are on the sidelines.
        In my experience, this assumption is typically not true.
  • Jul 5 2012: There is a chicken and egg issue at play. The parents have first access to the developing minds of children, so if a parent is willfully ignorant, they are likely to indoctrinate their child to their same school of thought. By the time the educational system (if they even make it there, with homeschooling existing) gets to them the child is brainwashed into the same irrational willful ignorance and distrust of science as the parent is. This, of course, is exacerbated by the recent removal of science from the curriculum of many schools. In California, USA the latest state budget questions the need for even a single science class. It is getting worse, not better.

    There is a knee-jerk inclination to create a new law to ensure children are raised without indoctrination, but how is that defined? Where is the line between indoctrination and healthy, rational education? Do you ban child rearing to those who express willful ignorance? Do you have teachers report the parents of children who are clearly indoctrinated to child protective services? What happens then? Is foster care, in its current state, a better alternative?

    Unfortunately, many people have begun to think indoctrination and willful ignorance are rights, immune to prosecution. This must change first. The 'right' to lie to others is the protective legal blanket these people wrap themselves in. Remove that blanket and willful ignorance will be nearly impossible to pass on to both current and future generations. Now, laws against lying are already on the books in many countries, so this is not as massive a change as you may think. In the US, 'infomercials' advertising palm reading and psychic readings must have a disclaimer of "for entertainment purposes only". Even minor laws such as that still don't exist for every other non-evidence based claim.

    Start requiring all claims with no demonstrative evidence to follow: "The following claim has no evidence and is purely conjecture" and we'll have a good start.
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    Jul 5 2012: I've spent the last couple of months researching more root causes to the highly partisan political turmoil in the United States. It all keeps boiling down to a pair of articles that I wrote, one on ignorance in America and how it shapes the political discourse ( ) and one on how academia is being changed by state and federal budget cuts, increased placement of non-academics and business faculty into the management of colleges and universities, and the cash ceiling that is making higher learning too expensive for more poor, middle and upper-middle class American families. ( Most disturbing was this report on adult literacy:

    Our education system creates a sub-group of 3% of the population that is natively smart. 6% that are higher functioning and get most of it all, and 94% that just don't. Some because of aptitude, on the bell curve won't understand much. The vast majority of Americans, though, on that same bell curve, should be doing far better. Ancient cultural moires are a huge drag on learning, and a huge wellspring of ignorance.

    So how do we leverage our huge advances in information technology, and develop new methods of education? How do we culturally educate the population to be broader-minded socially, politically, and economically? Is it possible to bring religious people "forward" to embrace faith in the scientific realities of the 21st century?
    • Jul 6 2012: I think we have already a great tool - TED. The more people and youth learn about TED the better the world will be.

      I also believe that sites such as Wikipedia and Khan Academy are making great contributions toward decreasing ignorance.

      Finally the breaking down of typical media channels and publishing industry where only a few were choosing what news or information masses will receive the Internet is making revolution in how people learn more from each other (social networks), blogs, youtube and independent publishers.

      I think we will gradually see improvements esp. with the new net generation which has to know how to read and write to use computers, tablets, phones and social networks for example.
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    Jul 5 2012: While I cannot say I have seen evidence myself of the statistics you cite, there is little doubt that education is the key to giving us all the tools to reason and to communicate. In terms of willful ignorance, there is a common mindset that I find uncomfortable when I encounter it of distrusting those who are highly educated or articulate.

    Research is clear that we are as a species less consistently rational than we believe we are and less self-perceptive than we believe we are. (see Kahneman on this). More specifically, well over half of drivers consider themselves above average drivers, and I believe, similarly, that people (including educated people) tend to have an exaggerated view of their critical thinking skills.

    So I don't think those who you describe as willfully ignorant purposely reject critical thinking so much as they are confident that they are thinking critically.

    Again, none of us are as rational as we may think in how we sift through and synthesize data, and people have understandable difficulty knowing whose data to trust or whose representations to trust.

    Trust is part of gathering and using data intelligently together.
  • Aug 3 2012: Seeing as everyone seems to agree that ignorance spreads due to influence from ignorant parents or because of an ineffective educational system, I want to give my opinion as a student (please forgive my grammar, I am not fond of the English language). I think that the educational system in america would need to be entirely redone to fix all the issues we have, but seeing as this would be incredibly difficult, we should most likely start by having the elementary and middle schools teach everything they can on each subject instead of teaching explicitly what is on federal and state examinations like the S.A.T., F.C.A.T., T.A.K.S., and allow children to have discussion type classes (this would be most prevalent in middle school and would hopefully promote an interest to learn on ones own as well). We should also get rid of Tenure, or at the very least make it how it is for university professors (they need to be evaluated as opposed to simply working for 2-3 years).
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    Jul 24 2012: If I am working on a project with a group. I want us to have previously read the current state of the art information and have common definiitions.
  • Jul 20 2012: Get the Feds out of the education system.
  • Jul 18 2012: We need to take back control of our education system. Get the government out. Just start asking questions. Why do we do things this way? With all the money we give the government to educate our children, where does it all go? It certainly doesn't show itself in academic scores. Let's get the government out of education and take back control. We go to school to make money. Where are the classes that teach how to make money? The teachers and government are teaching history incorrectly. The government is only there to protect individual citizen rights - not tell us what to do! We need to make changes now. Obama is only going to continue to destroy this nation. I want America back. I want my freedom! I want to educate my children to prepare them for the real world in working with others and MAKING MONEY. The government doesn't make money. They TAX! We are at over 60% taxes people! Why?
  • Jul 11 2012: IMO, this is partially a result of income inequality.

    Most of the people I work with would be better informed if they had more time to follow the news and issues. As it is, most of them have spouses who must work to support themselves and their children. Even with two incomes, they must still do all of the chores themselves, including time consuming projects like car maintenance. Seems to me this is just how the powerful people want us, employed and too consumed with daily living to stir up trouble.
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    Jul 9 2012: If the circumstances are not for progress , the progress won't happen , that Americans (and not only ) live in certain circumstances , I think we should change them ; it implies some hard things to do , I'm not an optimist about this .
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    Jul 9 2012: I note cults try to deliberately limit exposure to outside information.

    Poor reading skills and limited interest in reading or more thoughtful TV/Internet, makes whatever the primary sources of information are more powerful e.g. Church or Fox News or Family.

    I guess most of us gravitate to media that reinforces our views.
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      Jul 9 2012: Yes the Fox viewers are certainly obtuse and have a limited vocabulary that is why Fox news stories are remedial in comparison to the erudite stories on main stream media with their in depth reports displaying great epistemology, really good point.. Or in the vernacular of psychobabble is this a case of projection? Is the crepuscle settling on you?

      Some of us just look.
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    Jul 5 2012: Kahneman says we, including the very educated among us, have an exaggerated idea of our rationality and self-knowledge. Still, education is surely a big piece of giving people practice in using data, asking questions to establish the validity of sources, and so forth.

    People would be better able to reason together with data if there were more trust that everyone at the table is thinking things through in good faith.
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      Jul 17 2012: And how do you achieve that in a mass media where liberals distrust it because they believe its owners have an agenda of keeping stupid and complacent, and extreme conservatives don't trust anything other than Fox because they have been conditioned for 35 years to believe that the media holds a liberal bias?
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    Jul 5 2012: "Ignorance": n.The condition or quality of lacking knowledge, education,and/or awareness."
    Omniscience is the opposite of ignorance. No natural being is omniscient. Therefore all beings are ignorant to a widely varying degree. I think it could be said that ignorance DRIVES progress. Man's hunger to know, to learn, to observe, to discover is rooted in the desire to fill the voids in his knowledge base, to supplant his ignorance with knowledge. Somehow it seems what we do not know is more invigorating than what we do know. Set your sights on eradicating apathy, Mr. Ross. Ignorance goes the way of apathy. Thank you for your work and best wishes for success!
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    Jul 5 2012: The question is the answer.