Flat Earth Knowledge: Our arrogance over knowing what ain’t so – Marc MacYoung

Get a cup of coffee, this is a long one, even for me.

“The trouble with people is not that they don’t know, but that they know so much that ain’t so.” ~Josh Billings
That’s an important distinction, but, if you haven’t made it yet, it’s pretty easy to just think of people as ignorant. What I’m going to do with this article is to get you thinking about what you know that ain’t so.

I recently came across a keen commentary. One that only seems to work if you haven’t made the ‘ignorance’ and ‘ain’t so’ distinction. The comment is: There are lots of ignorant people in the world and with ignorance comes great confidence.
I’m going to suggest that statement applies to both, ignorance and knowing so much that ain’t so.
In fact, it especially applies to the latter. In that case, it’s not just confidence, it crosses over to arrogance about what we think we know. In other words, flawed knowledge is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s an entire phenomenon that comes attached to our beloved misinformation.

I call this bundle of behaviors ‘flat earth knowledge.’
In the West, there is a persistent myth that our ancestors thought the world was flat. ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myth_of_the_Flat_Earth )

What a lot of people don’t know is this idea was popularized by writer Washington Irving. He wrote a *cough cough* ‘history’ of Christopher Columbus. To give the voyage a more epic bent, Irving claimed people of the time believed the earth was flat. Like a rumor in the blogsphere today– but at horse-and-buggy speed — this flat earth idea spread until it became ‘common knowledge.’ This so-called ‘knowledge’ has hung around almost 200 years.

While there is some basis to the idea, mostly the whole flat earth myth is a conceit of the Industrial Age. It largely involved how superior people of the late 1800s — with their vast scientific knowledge — thought they were to the ignorance and stupidity of their ancestors. (There’s that ‘confidence,’ again.)

The Greeks, Egyptians and Muslims knew the world was round — as did navigators, scholars, astronomers and merchants of the Middle Ages. In fact, a whole lot of people did. The question for Christopher Columbus wasn’t was the world flat. It was, “Is the globe small enough for us to sail across it to reach India?” The economics and faster time for shipping by sea vs. the cost of caravans made this a really important question. (Gee, faster service for less money, sound familiar?)
Having established it as a myth, I want to play with the idea of people thinking the world was flat in order to show you something bigger.

But first let’s look at the significance of knowing the earth was round. Even back in ye olde days, if you lived by the sea, you knew about ships disappearing over the horizon and then coming back. They didn’t fall off the edge. Ships coming over the horizon were about as common as seagull shit and — for the average person on the shore — about as important.

“Yeah, yeah, it’s round. So what? We have to get back to loading and unloading cargo from the ships that didn’t fall off the edge.”
If you were a navigator, though, knowing the earth was round was an important part of finding your way and not dying because you got lost. It wasn’t all there was to navigating, but it was a significant issue. The position of the stars in the sky told you where you were on a round planet. Or more specifically out in the middle of the ocean on a round planet.

But what about a peasant in a landlocked country? Let’s call him Holger. From where he’s standing things look pretty flat to him. One day someone mentions, in passing, the whole flat vs. round issue. Holger started thinking about it and decided to go to the smartest person he knew, the village priest. “Hey, padre, flat or round?”
Uhhh ….err… homina, homina, homina.

Well, that would be the case, except, the priest had a reputation of being smart, all knowing and the source for answers. In short, he had a reputation and position to uphold. A big part of that was having confidence in his answers. So the answer was immediate, “Flat.”

It was an answer that was delivered with complete confidence. This despite the fact that the priest was from the same land locked country and didn’t have a clue either way. But boy did he sound confident about what he ‘knew’ about the shape of the planet. (That’s the problem with someone who thinks he has to be all-knowing. He sounds just as confident about the BS he’s making up as the stuff he does know for sure.)

I want to step back for a second and point something out. Right or wrong, flat or round, the accuracy of the information meant exactly NOTHING to Holger’s life. He was a peasant who spent a lot of time looking at the ass end of an ox when plowing fields and standing knee deep in barnyard poop. While our boy Holger had a pretty good working knowledge of things that did pertain to his life, the shape of the world wasn’t one of those pertinent issues.

Therefore, on one level, the accuracy of the information was meaningless. Right or wrong, it made no difference.
What did matter was:
1) By knowing, Holger got cool points from the other peasants (some of the priest’s confidence rubbed off on him).
2) He got AN answer.

This last one is important in a couple of ways. First because now, instead of wasting time wondering (or actually learning) about such things, Holger could turn his attention to things relevant to his life. Like what the pig ate that gave it that color poop. In light of Holger’s need to eat that winter, a sick and potentially dead pig was an important issue. Plants toxic to livestock and cures were something our boy did have a solid, in-depth knowledge about.

Second, the ‘answer’ — whether right or wrong — became part of his ‘world view.’
Now those are a simple couple of words for a very big concept. A concept that entailed a lot of other stuff. His world view wasn’t just about what Holger believed about life, the universe and everything, it was also about who Holger thought he was and where he fit into the scheme of things.

The things you need to know about people’s world views:
1) Everyone has them
2) Folks can be mighty tetchy about having them challenged
3) Most of them are made up of information that, if not flat out wrong, is so simplistic as to be useless.

Number 3 can be summed up as: It doesn’t matter if the answer is right or wrong, what matters is there’s an answer in place.
Now in theory this is information on a big ticket item, but, in truth, it really doesn’t have much to do with your everyday life. That’s why accuracy isn’t necessarily an issue. There are lots of examples: Homosexuality is wrong. Violence is wrong. Corporations are evil. The war in the Middle East is about oil and profits. I’m a good person. ******** (my political party) is good, ******** (another political party) are selfish, out of touch idiots.

Any of these simplistic summations save people from having to actually think about the issue. (Remember, a conclusion marks where most people got tired of thinking.) These answers ‘work’ because such topics are pretty meaningless to their everyday lives.
But, if the issue does come up, these pre-existing responses guide them with pat answers about the subject. And yes, you’ll find a lot of cultural memes are examples of flat earth knowledge.(But then, so too are political agendas … just sayin.’) We mistake soundbites and clichés for indepth knowledge, just as we mistake ‘judgment’ for knowledge (take another look at that list of examples and see if you can spot the judgment factor).

Since I’ve opened up this can of worms, let’s look at the idea from some distance. To do this, we’ll go back to Holgerstadt.
Two points come up about this. First, is a glaring inconsistency between flat earth knowledge and what we do know about something that is so. Incredibly, a gaping hole slides past our notice when it comes to our cherished flat earth knowledge.

Take a look at Holger’s extensive knowledge of the interaction between pig poop and the local flora. That’s a lot of complex and indepth information; information he posses about a specific topic. It’s not just Holger. We ALL have lots of sophisticated knowledge about the complexities, subtleties, complications and problems of topics relevant to our lives.
So why is it we believe ‘big ticket’ subjects have simplistic, flat earth answers?

Take another look at that list of examples. Contrast those simplistic conclusions about extremely complex subjects against Holger’s encyclopedic knowledge of the nuances of pig shit. Then look at a subject that is relevant to your life (like your profession) and how much complex knowledge you have about it. Want to guess which one is actual knowledge vs. knowing something that ain’t so?

The appeal of flat earth knowledge is that you can pretend you know something about big issues when you don’t know (insert Holger’s area of expertise).

Second point. What do you think would happen if a traveler came to Holger’s little hamlet and heard Holger talking about how the earth was flat? Let’s also say this wasn’t a merchant (who knew not to piss off his customers by correcting their flat earth knowledge) or a navigator (whose job it was to actually know). It was, instead, someone else. A traveler who had heard the earth was round. How well do you think Holger and the rest of the village was going to react to being told, “Wrong answer. It’s round”?
Not likely to go over well was it?

But let’s complicate this a bit. What if the traveler said the earth was a square? The traveler knew this because he’d listened to a lecture by the great and wise naturalist philosopher, Crap-olius.

I ask you this because now we have a throw-down between so-called ‘experts.’ In this corner, the village priest (representing the church and, by extension, his god). In that corner, the traveler (representing thought, philosophy and pseudo-science). Both these ‘interests’ were embattled over which wrong answer was the right one … oops, excuse me, a battle over who was ‘right.’
Notice the subtle shift. It really wasn’t about the accuracy of information — information not germane to either Holger’s or the traveler’s life. The argument became a battle over pride, status, authority, self-esteem and protecting what people believed (instead of knew).

Moving it up a notch, it was about the credibility and authority of the church vs. the credibility and authority of so-called ‘science.’ This was because both Holger and the traveler used a dinged up version of ‘appeal to authority’ (a logical fallacy). Which authority was more credible? Who had the bigger ‘right’ on their side? This is what Holger and the traveler are going to be climbing the walls and going apeshit over as they argue.

All of which had absolutely NO bearing on the actual shape of the earth. But remember, above all else, flat or round didn’t have a damned thing to do with the in-depth knowledge of pig poop and ox asses Holger and his homies needed in their everyday lives.
It did, however, have a whole lot to do with protecting Holger’s and the traveler’s world views. THAT is what they were fighting over. What was at stake was the power to ‘control the universe’ through your world model. And with those kinds of profits at stake… well … to quote the movie “Robocop,” “Who cares if it doesn’t work?”

It should be pointed out that you don’t actually control the universe through your world view, you just control your comfort zone — something many people consider the same thing. This allows us to smugly stand knee deep in pig poop and not have to change a thing because we are RIGHT! We KNOW how the world works!

This is why I say flat earth knowledge doesn’t just describe all the things we think we know. It also includes our smug self-satisfaction over all kinds of meaningless information ‘that just ain’t so,’ as well as our tendency to fiercely defend it. This, no matter how how simplistic the information is or unrelated to our day-to-day lives.

You’ll see a lot of arguments over flat earth knowledge on the internet, in the media, on college campuses, in coffee shops and at truck stops. In fact, there’s a lot more flat earth knowledge out there than there was in Holger’s time. (Which might explain how smug we are about how much we know.) What hasn’t changed is disputes over flat earth knowledge aren’t about the accuracy of the information.

“But, wait … no… what we’re really arguing over is whether the information is right or wrong. Really, that’s what’s important here, not all that other stuff. That other stuff … well, that’s not even happening. And I’ll tell you this to your face!” (Read, ‘I’m going to shout in your face or insult you while denying this is EXACTLY what it’s about.)

Pay close attention to that tactic. Not only is it the elephant in the room, but — due to a bunch of other ‘flat earth knowledge’ — to most of us, it’s an invisible pachyderm. It isn’t that we aren’t talking about the elephant in the room, but we don’t really see it, even when we run into it face first. Or in this case, when it slaps us in the face.

Remember, flat earth knowledge helps define our world view. But, by carefully selecting which flat earth knowledge we accept, we use those ideas to reinforce who and what we believe we are. Putting that another way, not only does our monkey brain love stories, but we use these stories to self-define who we are. We then use alleged knowledge to support these stories. We cling to these stories, regardless of what we actually do.

One of the more common ‘stories’ Americans tell ourselves is that we are educated, intelligent, informed and rational people; people capable of understanding all sorts of complicated topics at the drop of a hat. Then we use a boatload of flat earth knowledge to assure ourselves that is true. That’s a really important part of our strategy to deny to ourselves what we’re really fighting over is all that selfish ‘other stuff’ and protecting our world view.

In fact, let’s take a look at our story about being intelligent, well informed and rational people. How much of that is flat earth knowledge pretending to be so?

I ask you this because it has a lot to do with getting knocked on your butt by an invisible elephant
That whole intelligent and knowledgeable self-identifier … what does that mean exactly? I mean really?
We set our own standards of what an intellectual is, and then we tell ourselves that we meet that criteria … when in fact, we spend most of our ‘free time’ vegging out in front of the TV or chatting it up on social networks. Yet, if your story is you are intelligent, educated and rational you’ll believe it no matter how much time you spend in front of your TV and surfing the net.
But what are you really doing to meet that standard? For example, how many logical fallacies do you know? ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fallacies ) I ask you this because arguments over flat earth knowledge pretend to be logical. But also how many times do we defend our flat earth knowledge with these same logical fallacies? Not only to the other person, but worse to ourselves!

That’s important when you’re getting all emotional about someone being a jerk. This as you argue by throwing not only logical fallacies and insults at each other. Because when you are pretending to be logical, you can also pretend that your argument over flat earth knowledge is NOT about all that other stuff — including preserving your world view. That’s how and why we lie to ourselves that our flat earth knowledge is, not only true, but god’s own truth. (Which is really ironic when you find an intellectual with the same conviction about what he/she believes as TRUE as a religious fanatic.)

If we really want to get uncomfortable, let’s ask ourselves: How many of our arguments, flame wars and blogging are really over flat earth knowledge? (The specter of Holger’s scatological knowledge looms over what we tell ourselves we ‘know’ about a subject.)

I freely admit that actually going out, researching and getting an in-depth knowledge of a subject is a lot of work, much less doing it on a whole bunch of subjects.

It really is easier to limit your flow of information to sound bytes by a pundit who confirms your world view. After all, it doesn’t matter if the answer is right. It only matters that we have an answer on that topic. That is the appeal of flat earth knowledge. It lets us keep our world view with the least amount of work.

That’s our comfort zone. That’s what makes flat earth knowledge so insidious. And it’s why we fight so hard not only to preserve it, but to perpetuate it. If other people buy into in the same things, that proves we’re right. (Think Kipling’s Jungle Book with the monkeys dancing around chanting it’s true because we say it’s true.)

When it comes down to it, we love flat earth knowledge. It’s damn near our hobby. Hell, for some people arguing over flat earth knowledge is their form of entertainment. You can get all excited and emotional, feel self-righteous, superior and contemptuous of those ignorant brutes who believe differently than you. Yippee! We’re having a great time being all upset and arguing over useless *cough cough* knowledge.

The truth is, in many situations, flat earth knowledge is pretty harmless. Like I said from a functional perspective, flat or round doesn’t really mean much to our old pal Holger’s way of life. The same goes for us. We can believe what we want to believe. We can tell ourselves stories about who we are, how we’re right about what we believe — and in reality, it has very little to do with our survival.

There are subjects, however, where flat earth knowledge IS bad news.
While these circumstances may not be normally germane to a person’s everyday life, when the subject does become pertinent, the accuracy of what you know can be a life saver. Unfortunately, that is not hyperbole. In every survival training topic I have ever encountered, I have heard the mantra: “What you think you know will kill you.”
Obviously, in my line of work, bad information can get you robbed, raped, beaten and — if it’s a real bad day — your brains blown into a fine pink mist. Then there’s the whole hassle of cops, courts, prison and someone gunnin’ for you for revenge after an incident.

Fortunately, most people don’t often encounter situations like these. Even if they train in a martial art or so-called ‘self-defense,’ they live nice, safe, middle class lives. (Never mind his Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales’s Everyday Survival is an interesting insight on how we exist in what he calls the “vacation state of mind.”) Most of these nice, middle class people can live in a vacation state of mind without negative consequences. More than that, they can even believe flat earth knowledge about the martial arts, what self-defense is and what ultimate fighting system is ‘street effective.’

(Gah! I hate that term as much as I do ‘real fights.’ Street effective is like the term ‘hypoallergenic.’ The latter is a scientific ‘sounding’ word that was made up by advertisers. Instead of asking a scientist or doctor, “What does this mean?” [and who would tell them it’s bullshit] people ask the salesmen — or they pretend to know what it means. Then they carry on as if they know something. This advertising campaign eventually becomes ‘common knowledge’ — when in fact, it doesn’t mean anything scientifically or medically. [ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypoallergenic ] ‘Street effective’ is the same thing. It’s a made up phrase that seems to make sense, but is, in fact, advertising and marketing. More than that, though, it is based entirely on your thinking you ‘know’ enough about violence to understand what is ‘street effective.’ In short, it’s a marketing ploy to exploit your flat earth knowledge on a subject.)

I tell you this because a lot of what is out there these days regarding ‘training’ in self-defense, defensive tactics and martial arts is itself flat earth knowledge. It’s not only dangerously shallow for application, but there’s a lot of pride and ego involved in knowing it. Much of it is presented with the image of all-knowing confidence — except it’s from people who have no actual experience with violence (or just a limited spectrum). We’re talking Holger’s priest and Crap-olius as the sources.
But there are a LOT of Holgers and travelers willing to argue over which form of flat earth knowledge is ‘right.’ They’re going to spend a lot of time squealing, squabbling, badmouthing each other as well as the others’ ‘sources’ and all the while they’ll both swear they’re being reasonable and that it’s about the topic at hand.

At the same time, legitimate information and discussions regarding the complications arising from violence are dismissed as not relevant to the issue. I’m not talking about being treated like a third version of flat earth knowledge. I’m talking about claiming legitimate information about the subject is meaningless to the subject. This is like them claiming they can walk onto the train tracks and that freight train coming at them isn’t important. You can believe that in the safety of an internet forum or in the dojo, but when you’re standing on those tracks that train is real damned important.

One particular form of this ignorance that scares the beejeebers out of me is military combatives being ‘sold’ as self-defense. Talk about flat earth knowledge being passed off as what you need to know in order to function in a dangerous environment. This may come as a surprise to you, but the rules of engagement that the military operates under are entirely different than what you are allowed to do in the streets of your hometown. But, boy howdy, are these urban commandos excited to be the possessors of this deadly — and elite– hand to hand combatives. (BTW, ever notice it’s never the secret fighting systems used by camp cooks or clerks?) Oh, yeah, and when it comes to actual combat, the military shoots people … from a great distance. It’s actually both a preferred and proven strategy.

As long as people remain ensconced in their nice middle class (and non-violent) lifestyle, they can love, cuddle and cherish their flat earth knowledge about violence. But, if you want to actually navigate the dangerous waters of violence, you need to not only know that the world is round, but a lot of other detailed information. Information that you have to get from other sources than martial artists, self-defense studs and — most importantly — internet forums.
That also means not setting your standards and living up to them about what it takes to be an uber-bad ass by knowing some ultimate fighting system.

Mostly it’s knowing pig shit details about how violence happens, the legal restraints on use of force, how to accurately assess how much force to use, how to make a statement to police, when it’s time to shut up when dealing with the police, what the court system is going to do to you, how criminals operate, what works (and doesn’t) as a deterrent to violence, how to de-escalate a conflict and — most importantly — how not to piss off people so they want to pop you one in the nose.

Oh BTW, these are things that people who are familiar with and who deal with violence on a regular basis know about and face all the time. Those complicating issues about violence are the equivalents of the whole flora and pig poop details Holger knew.
I know it’s not as uber-cool as believing you know some deadly fighting system and telling yourself that you can beat Godzilla to death with your dick. But that kind of flat earth knowledge is only safe if your life doesn’t depend on it. (Read, if you live a lifestyle that you never have to use it.)

When it comes to actually engaging in violence (instead of just playing in the gym or dojo) you need accurate information for the situations you will be facing. In other words, you can neither be ignorant nor know so much that ain’t so. This no matter how much you want to believe it, have your ego invested in it or gain confidence from knowing the earth is flat.

Leave a Reply