Learned Ignoramus

It’s normal for political debates to quickly take an *interdisciplinary* turn; topics spanning from climate science, net-neutrality to macro-economics will be seamlessly engaged. And it’s also normal to express very specific and forceful policy positions on all these massive problems. We conveniently forget these are actual areas of specialization. Just imagine a set of cafe intellectuals expressing specific solutions to problems in microbiology, nanotechnology etc! But, when it comes to public policy, any such diffidence is rare, instead curiously strong opinions on complex topics is the norm.

Political opinions are also a lot about voicing our ideology. We enthusiastically state our position to signal who we are, not to debate or reconcile. In that sense, opinions are like badges. Quite like how a savage might use face paint to signal his tribe, we use policy prescriptions to signal our political leanings. Actually, many pick their tribe, and then adopt all the interdisciplinary policy positions wholesale. The surprising aspect is, college educated individuals are equally, or sometimes relatively more tribal in their opinions.

José Ortega y Gasset thought this was a relatively novel phenomenon, and closely related to the age of specialization.

“For, previously, men could be divided simply into the learned and the ignorant, those more or less the one, and those more or less the other. But your specialist cannot be brought in under either of these two categories. He is not learned, for he is formally ignorant of all that does not enter into his speciality; but neither is he ignorant, because he is “a scientist,” and “knows” very well his own tiny portion of the universe. We shall have to say that he is a learned ignoramus, which is a very serious matter, as it implies that he is a person who is ignorant, not in the fashion of the ignorant man, but with all the petulance of one who is learned in his own special line.

And such in fact is the behavior of the specialist. In politics, in art, in social usages, in the other sciences, he will adopt the attitude of primitive, ignorant man; but he will adopt them forcefully and with self-sufficiency, and will not admit of — this is the paradox — specialists in those matters. By specializing him, civilization has made him hermetic and self-satisfied within his limitations; but this very inner feeling of dominance and worth will induce him to wish to predominate outside his speciality.” — José Ortega y Gasset

Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses (excerpt)

Sort of ironic that civilization might have made us more tribal, at least in certain ways.