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The ignorance enigma; billionaires fight about money; Scrabble and the human brain: Newsletter 20 March 2024.

Dumb and Dumber

Newsletter 37: Ignorance amid abundant knowledge, traumatic writer’s block, burgeoning book bans, plus three people to follow and three books to read.

The problem with ignorance

Ignorance bugs the hell out of me. The urge to eliminate ignorance is the driving force in my career and much of my life. This is a good thing.

First, let’s be clear about what ignorance is: it is the absence of knowledge. It’s very different from stupidity, which is an inability or unwillingness to reason. Stupidity is, generally, not curable, and I lack patience with the stupid. But ignorance is curable: knowledge cures it.

In contrast to stupidity, which tends to be an overall mental condition, ignorance is localized and specific. All of us are ignorant about some topics because none of us is omniscient. I know little or nothing about ice hockey, gardening, microprocessor design, or commercial real estate — these are just some of my vast areas of ignorance.

But over my long life, I have reduced my ignorance and expanded my knowledge on an amazing variety of things. These include writing, publishing, analytical thinking, the development of ideas, how people adopt technology, the media industry, television, social media, artificial intelligence, mathematics, statistics, survey design, prostate cancer, nutrition, gender, homeschooling, and relationships. The amount of information I have on these topics is still dwarfed by the things I don’t know yet — there is always lots more to learn — but over the years I have researched these topics and built experience with them, whether by curiosity or by necessity.

When I say I have a strong urge to eliminate ignorance, that take two forms.

Firstly, when I know something and someone else needs that knowledge, I am powerfully driven to help the other person. While I resist the urge to give unsolicited advice (as we all should — it rarely works), I am eager to contribute where I can. If you ask me for help, I will most likely help. If you are a client, I will give you all the advice you can handle. And if I sense that a lot of people would benefit from know what I know, I will write about it so it’s available to everyone.

Secondly, when I don’t know something and the answer is knowable, I really want to find it. This can take the usual form of Googling and reading, but often I want to know things that either nobody knows, or very few people know. I will contact the people who might know, and I might even work on an experiment designed to create new knowledge. This is primary research, and it helps everyone. But I don’t do it just to help. I do it because I am intensely curious about the world.

For example, I am now preparing to ghostwrite a chapter for a client about truth and artificial intelligence. I am intensely interested in the topic and am researching the heck out of it with all the experts I can find, as well as using the AI tools myself. This is beyond the scope of what the client is paying me for, but I’m not charging extra for it, because I am intensely interested in the answers (and because the client’s readers will need to know, too).

It takes some chutzpah to believe you can find things out that are not yet known. But that’s where the world gets interesting. If you research such things and you are lucky, you will find out where your original assumptions were somewhat wrong, or often, completely wrong. A lot of people are afraid of this. I find it exhilarating, because it means I’m squashing a lot of ignorance at once. Often, when I’m wrong, it also means lots of other people are wrong, too, so I have the chance to create knowledge that might reduce the ignorance of a lot of people.

We as a species have made epochal improvements in our reduction of ignorance. I’m not just talking about the new knowledge that primary research is creating. I’m talking about the spread of knowledge to more people. The web created a vast collection of knowledge accessible from anywhere. Mobile devices made that knowledge instantly available to billions of us. Now AI-based models like ChatGPT are making it possible to query that knowledge and get a summary of it. Right now, those summaries are clunky and imperfect and sometimes in error, but improvements in accuracy are on the near horizon. A summary of knowledge in the form of a natural dialogue with a knowledge base is a major advance over a set of search results from random sources. This will help us further banish ignorance.

Given my allergy to ignorance, it causes me enormous pain to read what random ignorant people are saying in online social spaces. The NFL prospect who doesn’t believe space is real — that’s some powerful ignorance right there. I see people suggesting that Jared and Ivanka Kushner pay the bond that Trump has to put up to appeal his case, as if investors like the Kushners would have half a billion dollars, a huge chunk of their net worth, lying around in loose cash in their couch cushions. I’m not talking about things where people have an honest difference of opinion, like when an embryo becomes human or what is the best strategy to reduce gun deaths. I’m talking about calculated facts, like what proportion of a product sale goes to a retailer or how the government calculates inflation or what the results of a clinical trial were. The denial of facts and the embrace of ignorance is a horrifying trend.

In a world where so much useful knowledge is within easy reach, the persistence of this ignorance makes me sad. Anyone can learn to find reliable sources of information. Anyone can use Google for free. But the enemy of all this knowledge is the easy spread of fakery on social media, where glib, false memes spread virally.

I urge you, no matter who you are and what you believe: learn to embrace that feeling of learning, because the acquisition of knowledge and the reduction in ignorance is among the most fulfilling things in life. Exult in learning about what you don’t know. Embrace the emotional release that comes from dumping old beliefs in favor of new knowledge. As frequently and fervently as you can, banish ignorance and embrace knowledge. Learning is life.

News for writers and others who think

Maggie Langrick asks, Is past trauma getting in the way of your ability to write? Writing can be therapeutic — but sometimes depression and anxiety are the enemies of writing flow.

According to the American Library Association, the number of books targeted for censorship nearly doubled in 2023, with requests to restrict access to 4,240 different titles.

Scrabble scribe Stefan Fatsis wonders about the superhuman mind of Scrabble’s top wizard, Nigel Richards, who played “pernocated” through the “P” and the “TED.” Although he is a native English speaker, he became a French Scrabble champion just by reading the French word list. He really makes you think about what our brains might be capable of.

In the billionaire vs. billionaire arena, Elon Musk, who thinks he should be able to do whatever he wants with his money, is very upset that Jeff Bezos’ ex-wife is giving away her money to charity.

Three people to follow

Barbara Cave Henricks, a master book publicist who’s seen just about everything that could possibly happen in publishing.

Rebecca Otis Leder, networking guru for eager millennials.

Ann Handley, chief content officer for MarketProfs and author of Everybody Writes.

Three books to read

The Art of Insight: How Great Visualization Designers Think by Alberto Cairo (Wiley, 2023). A diverse and beautiful exploration of the practice of designing information.

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds by Michael Lewis (W.W. Norton, 2017). The story of two great thinkers thinking about thinking.

How to Write Short: Word Craft for Fast Times by Roy Peter Clark (Little Brown, 2014). Learn to write better with fewer words.

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  1. I cannot say this is true, but I did read somewhere that there are more people today who believe the Earth is flat, then back when people thought the Earth was flat. In part because there are more people, today. But still. Makes my head hurt. Fighting ignorance is hard, but so worthy.

  2. You and I are on the same page regarding ignorance. I have more patience with stupid people – they can’t help it – but I have very little patience for those who aren’t stupid but who deliberately celebrate ignorance, who reject lifelong learning of new and wonderful things, who refuse to open the slightest crack in their skulls to allow the slightest comprehension, understanding, or wisdom to enter.

    Isaac Asimov warned us about this fifty-plus years ago: “There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'”

    What’s worse are those who are intelligent and educated, yet turn off their brains in order to pander to current cultural fads, which serves only to enable the ignorant running rampant through our society, destroying everything in their paths.

    We are like salmon leaping the falls: It’s the hardest thing we must do, but we must do it in order to survive. Leading by example will win out in the long run. (It is a very long run, but anything worth having is worth working for.)

    By the way, I just purchased your BBBB book a couple weeks ago, and although I’m only in Chapter 5, I have recommended it to three clients working on non-fiction books. I see your book proposal chapter as a great way for them to clarify the vital elements of their books, whether or not they seek traditional publishing. Thanks!