What We Talk About When We Talk About Shit We Know Nothing About

There’s this way people think about things that I always find surprising and more than a little pernicious.

In general it goes like this: Person A is doing something about X and actively engaged with it. Person B is not engaged with X, but thinks they know something about it because they once read an article/saw a movie/watched a youtube documentary on the subject. So while Person A has experiential, nuanced knowledge of X, Person B believes they have just as comparable and useful knowledge without really ever experiencing anything first-hand about X.

Another way of putting it is like this: when people say they know about X, what they actually know about it tends to be three pictures that they think about when they think about X.

So, for example, when I talk to most other Americans about South Korea, their knowledge of the country is pretty much the Korean War, Kim Jung Un, and kimchee; a weird incongruous  mix of 1950s world events, current cable news, and a pop culture reference or two. As if at this moment I lived amid a ruined city under North Korean siege with tanks outside my window while Psy gungnam-styled all around.

But, like I said, I find this way of thinking to be pernicious, where we mistake our thin veneer of knowledge about something, for actually knowing about it. I’d rather people, myself included, admitted to ignorance and say, “I don’t know.”

More to the point, I think it gets interesting when we start to see where those pictures originated and how they got inside our heads. What purpose is served by their being there? Maybe they say more about us and our own assumptions than they do about the thing we believe we know something about. Maybe we’d be wise to learn how to discern actual knowledge from the billboards we put up to cover our ignorance.

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8 responses to “What We Talk About When We Talk About Shit We Know Nothing About”

  1. J. Spinazzola says :

    This is a fascinating subject I’ve thought about many times. Seems people always want to be considered experts in their field with an implied monopoly on the topic, but don’t want to grant the same privilege to others. As a lawyer I’ve experienced this many times when talking to doctors. They think lawyers know nothing about medicine, and shouldn’t share their opinions freely, but they feel quite comfortable to talk about legal issues, on which they are self appointed experts.

    In the example of South Korea, for instance, what if we are discussing a business issue affecting Pohang? Who would be an expert (or to use your language, who would be considered actively engaged) a business person in Boston with an MBA in international business, or a nurse living in Pohang? Or is it possible that neither can claim expertise? What about the back seating governing people do when they talk about politics? Does a person by virtue of living in one corner of South Korea really have the expertise to critique broad decisions made by the President or Prime Minister or only to speak about how those decisions impact things locally?

    And take writing. What makes a person an expert? The number of hours one spends writing, whether a person has taken workshops or worked the slush piles, formal degrees in literature or writing, paid publishing credits, awards of recognition from ones peers?

    What counts as being actively engaged?

    • Justin says :

      The first step would be to see where your “expertise” comes from and whether it is in fact expertise. Can you recognize the limits of your knowledge? If not then you’re probably too far gone.

  2. Jeff says :

    Guess there’s hope for some of us. Wonder, though if this kind of post, could have a chilling effect? Make people reluctant to share their opinions? Or is that the goal, you old curmudgeon?

    • Justin says :

      Of course, it is. Would it be terrible if people took an extra 10 seconds or so to check their assumptions before they spoke?

  3. J. Spinazzola says :

    No, it wouldn’t. Your grumpy-ness has led you to a higher truth this time.

  4. gordsellar says :

    Ha, of course, this isn’t helped along by the fact we live in a world where the quick, off-the-cuff answer is more highly valued than the answer someone comes up with after thinking things over intensely for a day or two, or a week, or a month, or a year… or a lifetime. Which is why, in my own work experience (and not just in universities) meetings where things are “hammered out” quickly are most highly valued by the least competent of organizational heads…

    … not to mention the worst politicians:

    Also, I think you summarized my whole “What We Talk About When We Talk About Music” series, or at least the frustration that led to it. Given the similarity in titles I can’t help but think that’s not completely coincidence. 🙂 This is how I feel every time someone says they don’t like XYZ and then reveals no experience with XYZ, ever:

    “I don’t like opera. It’s boring and uptight.” “Really? Which operas have you seen performed live, on which experience you based this opinion?” Silence. That always feels a bit like someone saying PKD is a shitty writer because they thought Blade Runner was boring… which is, at least, the wrong reason to slam PKD.

    (It’s telling that my wife credits her love of instrumental jazz music to seeing Roy Hargrove and Christian McBride play a live show at the Java Jazz Festival: like opera, it’s an art form that one really, truly “gets” best in a live performance situation. She said to me that prior to that show, she was more interested in vocal jazz, but when she saw those virtuosos playing, she realized what jazz was really about. And that’s one thing the Internet really can’t give us… well, not for now, anyway.)

    There’s the other shoe that you didn’t quite drop in this post, though, which is that people not only fail to recognize their own ignorance, but they also usually are bound and determined to dismiss or discredit any “experiential, nuanced knowledge of X” that someone else might have, in order to defend their own ignorant positions. I remember one evening back in Korea foolishly assuming that creative types would be less prone to that crap, and commenting in passing over dinner how I love Bach, but find that Renaissance music is more, I don’t know, wild and organic and fun in some ways. The reaction I got was that it was implied I HAD to be posturing, that nobody actually listens to that stuff in real life, and that my iPod surely couldn’t have any of that music on it.

    (It did, but by then I was familiar enough with this dynamic not to bother showing the heaping handful of Renaissance and Medieval albums I had been listening to lately on it. Once someone has committed to the notion that you’re posturing, in order to defend their own ignorance as a valid position, nothing you do will convince them otherwise. The best you can do is convince them that you’re so heavily invested in that posturing that you load music onto your iPod without listening to it, or that if you listen, it’s only to get bragging rights or whatever. Sad. Especially since I’ve seen poseurs before, and they’re easy to spot. They don’t treat their odd musical tastes as if they were normal (as I do) but rather treat them as if they were special, elevated, and so on. The passion for looking cool was always greater than the passion for the music, and that’s always rubbed me the wrong way; but what baffles me is when people who are actually passionate about something–which usually is pretty clear early on–get panned as showoffs.)

    I should note that this was far from the first time this happened to me. I’ve actually learned not to talk about music with people unless they signal an interest in anything that intersects my interests. The negative behaviours I’ve seen over the years prior to adopting this were just too wearying not to avoid. (And there is a sort of self-compounding effect where one starts defensively rubbing others noses in one’s actually deeper knowledge; which is not just off-putting, but also a great shortcut to becoming blinded to your own remaining ignorances, which we all have. To me, ironically, that’s the biggest problem: the difficulty of living amid all the bullshit-informed prattle makes it hard to stay humble and open, the more you know, and makes it hard to find people who can actually kick your ass and school you on the subjects you know well… the people who know better, and and challenge you, are harder to track down but also often more cagey–except on their blogs or in their books–because they’re tired of know-nothings implying they’re all just poseurs. At least, this seems the case outside the various meccas for whichever field. If you’re in the Midwest (or the Canadian equivalent) I’d guess you’re pretty much doomed no matter your passion is.)

    It makes me think of the Peter Watts blog post I go and read whenever I wonder how someone so stupid can be so convinced of their rightness and brightness:


    Though of course, the lesson in all this is as you suggest: a vigilant distrust of one’s own received notions, and a conscious examination of how one received them, is important… that’s been my biggest lesson trying to articulate all this: I know close to jack shit about clothing and fashion, or cuisine, or most of the visual arts, or architecture. We all have our blind spots, which we all fill in with pseudoknowledge, on which we all too readily lean in a pinch… and I keep thinking of the bells that hang from the eaves of monasteries in Korea, which have those fish-shaped danglers attached to the clappers because some (all?) fish eyelids are transparent, giving rise to the idea that fish don’t sleep, that they are ever-conscious. When you hear the bell ring, you’re supposed to remind yourself to be “awake” in that Buddhist sense…

    • Justin says :

      Jeely… a lot to digest here, but now that you mention it I probably did steal the title from your posts.

      Much of my inspiration for this post is encountering in conversation the attitudes you bring up, “I don’t know anything about X, except this vague inherited idea I haven’t explored and my own unfounded actions, but I’ll cling to those instead of accepting a more nuanced understanding.” And I am as guilty of this as anyone.

      As far as the poseur stuff goes, I think that’s a threat response, “Oh, you just like that to be different”, when it’s easier to say that than accept someone else might exhibit more suriosity about a thing than you. Plus a lot of it seems more akin to high school / university era status struggles.

      I wonder if it comes down to how you address your blind spots and whether you accept them instead of generating place holder pseudo-opinions.

      • gordsellar says :


        Ha, no worries, steal away! 🙂

        I am guilty of this in areas too, of course. We all are, but I find that for me, studying music again has sort of hit me in the face with how much I don’t know or understand in that field, despite knowing a lot. Which has sorta woken me up to how little I know in so many fields, and how my own threat-responses work. (Didn’t hurt to read Ezra Pound’s miscomprehension of basically everything in economics, either: the man is a great example of this dynamic you discuss, being carried to the point where a life obsession leads to further study of junk theories and threat responses prevent moving forward to a better understanding.)

        The poseur stuff does sound like high school, but sadly, I’ve been out of high school over twenty years and have seen it just as much on the outside. But threat-response, yes: that’s how pseudo-opinions ossify and begin to take on the appearance of inviolable truth inside our heads, I’d guess.

        I’m sure that one thing is consistent: probably everyone has blind spots they filled by placeholder pseudo-opinions… the question is how aware it’s possible to become about the general tendency, and how much energy one is willing to devote to maintaining that self-awareness.

        (For example, I’m aware that I’m pig-ignorant about fashion; I have a placeholder opinion that the whole field is basically institutionalized bullshit; I am vaguely aware that’s not completely fair and that some clothing designers regard their work as art, and approach it thoughtfully and creatively, and that clothing can be fulfilling in the way beautiful kitchenware can… but I just don’t seem to be wired enough to care enough to put in any time learning about it.)

        This is complicated by what I’ll call “naïve” (ie. unschooled, not simpleminded) or “instinctual” reactions, which, you know, we can’t completely dismiss, but can’t hold up as the be-all and end-all either. I have a suspicion, rooted in my instinctive reaction to his work, that Andy Warhol is a hack, where Jackson Pollock was a serious artist. The problem there is that I can’t back up those opinions, though, beyond how their artworks have made me feel, or what my untrained eye sees in each; and I know from experience hearing to how nonmusicians talking about how this or that piece of music makes them “feel” that ignorance can be an impediment to appreciating truly wonderful things, and can very easily lead one to missing the point completely. And yet, even aware of all of that, it’s hard for me to move past that intuitive rejection of Warhol.

        Which is to say, sorting a valid intuitive response from an indefensible pseudo-opinion can be difficult sometimes, especially when the relative importance of intuitive response is sorta unclear. (Obviously, this is less the case when it comes to ignorance of a factual sort, like believing all of Korea is North Korea, or that all Koreans dance Psy’s little dance.)

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