Think carefully before buying that red car. Any fool knows that red cars attract the attention of police faster than legislators attract the attention of well-heeled special interest groups. That’s why red car drivers receive an undue share of speeding tickets.
Except, no, they don’t. Dig through police records, and you’ll find that red car drivers receive the same share of tickets as anyone else. No disrespect to fools, but it’s enough to make you wonder what else they know that might not hold up under scrutiny.
As it turns out, they get plenty wrong. For instance: lemmings do not commit mass suicide; sugar doesn’t make kids hyper; neither crime nor births increase under a full moon; chocolate won’t give you zits; standing in the cold won’t give you a cold; ancient Egyptians were perfectly capable of building pyramids without extraterrestrial help; and, despite ample cases where it appears otherwise, humans use 100 percent of their brains.
With the exception of promoting needless chocolate abstention, misinformation like the above is arguably harmless. In matters of life and death, however, what any fool knows can cause serious problems. Consider the current pandemic. Thanks to any fool who knows more than infectious disease specialists and epidemiologists about infections and epidemiology, SARS-CoV-2 has better than a fighting chance of making a spectacular comeback.
Pity the average media consumer who must sort fact from fiction. “Whose advice should I follow?” ask the befuddled. The answer is surprisingly simple: Follow the advice of people who know what they’re talking about. Less simple is the answer to the follow-up question, “OK, wise guy, how do I recognize people who know what they’re talking about?”
If I may offer five suggestions:
First, acknowledge expertise. It is the product of years of education, focus, practice and research. The odds that a non-expert will detect a gaping error that the experts somehow overlooked are extremely low. That’s why, when my sense of direction tells me the plane is headed the wrong way, I still trust the pilot.
Second, bet on expert consensus. It is your best protection against the misinformed, the uninformed, the dishonest and quacks — including credentialed quacks, which every profession has. In matters of expertise, the lone wolf rarely turns out to be right. That’s why you should take your immunology advice from a consensus of immunologists and not from disgraced ex-M.D. Andrew Wakefield or model-actress Jenny McCarthy.
Third, hold out for good evidence. Good evidence is not an isolated anecdote, what a celebrity said on “Oprah,” or what you feel in your bones. It’s a tire that produces the same results nine out of every ten times you or anyone else kicks it. That’s why I didn’t stop taking my physician-prescribed meds when a guy sitting next to me on TRAX assured me that a product from an MLM he’d recently joined cures everything.
Fourth, allow expertise to adjust its course. Although expert consensus is rarely flat-out wrong, it does and jolly well should fine-tune itself as new knowledge presents. Relativity didn’t mean that Isaac Newton was wrong, only that his laws needed a footnote. And when infectious disease specialists revised their position on masks, it didn’t invalidate their other recommendations.
Fifth, fact-check the important stuff. If your buddy says there’s a slowdown on I-15, you can be forgiven for not heading over to see for yourself. But if your buddy says that Mitt Romney is keeping hostages in the basement of the Judge building, you might want to check the facts before orchestrating an armed rescue. You may be surprised at how often friends, pundits, and media get things wrong. I even fact-check The Salt Lake Tribune. I bet they would be the first to encourage that. I’ll know for sure if the editor doesn’t cut this paragraph.
An admitted drawback to the above recommendations is that they require diligence and mental discipline. I’m afraid there’s no getting around that. It’s way easier to skip the homework and simply go with what seems reasonable. This may explain how what any fool knows maintains so a firm grip on so many minds. It’s not that any fool’s alleged reasoning is unassailable. It’s that assailing it takes effort.
Steve Cuno is an advertising writer, a columnist for Free Inquiry magazine, and the “as told to” author of the book “It’s Not About the Sex My Ass: Confessions of an ex-Mormon, ex-polygamist, ex-wife,” by Joanne Hanks. He lives in Sandy.