The Dumb People

In this class we have been told to listen to the public and take their knowledge seriously.  I completely understand the value of this, but the problem I have is how do you know who to listen to when so many people are clueless to important issues.  I know this sounds harsh but we all know it’s true. <– A person is smart, people are dumb

I know this clip from Men in Black is from a slightly fictional movie, but I think it still holds true.  There are examples of people being stupid or ignorant all around us.  Here is another funny video from Jimmy Kimmel showing how little people know about a hot topic in US politics.


So lets say, that for some reason I’m an engineer reaching out to learn what the public thinks about the health care act.  After talking to people like the ones above why should I trust public opinion at all?  Or worse yet, what if I don’t understand the issue and turn to one of these people for advise on the topic? If I trust their “knowledge” I will be greatly mislead in this issue.

I guess that if we take the lessons learned from this class, the answer may be that you have to listen to everyone and try to extract any useful information from everyone.  But it’s hard to extract knowledge when you don’t know yourself.  As was said at a conference I recently attended, it’s not the known unknowns that are most dangerous, it’s the unknown unknowns.  Meaning if I realize that I didn’t get the whole picture from someone then I am in a better position than if I think I have gotten an accurate picture from someone who is mistaken on the topic.

What do you guys think?  How do we weed through public misperceptions and ignorance to extract useful knowledge from them?


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5 Responses to The Dumb People

  1. What I gathered from our lessons on listening to the public is not to take everything they say seriously, but to at least consider the possibility of them being correct. And if their knowledge is clearly wrong or incorrect, by letting them know we at least considered the possibility they might be right, they might be more willing to listen to us when we explain to them why they are wrong. But you’re right, people are often uninformed. People love having opinions especially on topics they know next to nothing about. Working as a scientist or engineer probably won’t present us with many opportunities where we ask for the public’s opinion, but we will need to listen to their experiences. I think it is more important to listen to their experiences and take those seriously instead of their opinions.

    ankitpathak04 says:

    Jake, I feel you’ve brought to light a great issue. I feel that the public knowledge might not be accepted all the time. As the previous comment so rightly says, people loving having an opinion about things they know next to nothing about. However, the demands and the rights of the public are things that I feel engineers and scientists should never let out of sight. Advancing the interest of the public is what really matters.

  2. I also had some doubt on seeking public opinions as a way of crowd sourcing. We are taught to read journal papers with a critical mind and it is always best to verify the published scientific work. However, when it comes to listen to the public, there seems to be less emphasis on distinguishing the useful and accurate information from the rest. Personally I think , it is essential to solicit information from non-scientific community to hear a different voice. However, the community should at least have some basic knowledge and/or experience in the area. In that way, it could be a much more efficient way to get projects going.

  3. I think this is a great point. And in all honesty I think the best method is just to fact check. If you hear one “opinion” from one person you need to find a way to confirm that that is correct before repeating the “opinion” or believing the “opinion” yourself. It definitely is hard right now. At the same conference, in a talk I was in, they stated that only 15% of published research is reproducible. So right now, it is hard to trust others whether they are the general public or a professional. I think you have to just rely on your gut feeling and hope you are correct.

    John Q. Public says:

    First of all, while everyone deserves our polite respect, there are limits to how much time you can devote to each individual. No one is asking you to sacrifice your career or life. While virtually no one today reaches the true limit, listening “too much” to someone is not going to do anyone any good.

    Second, from a selfish perspective, perhaps you are only going to get something good and useful to you in 1 of 10 interactions. But what is the value of that 1? It can make the difference between being right and wrong, saving people and harming people, and also stopping you from wasting years going down the wrong path. And even for the other 9 of 10, you’ve earned good will and trust you can’t buy.

    Third, in the grand scheme of time wasters in your life, how does it stack up. Be honest! Unless it gets to the 10% range, maybe you are just being lazy.

    Finally, listening keeps us engaged and part of the world around us. It forces you to live in this life, and not a wasteful self-delusion you’d probably be creating otherwise.

    So your logic is flawless, but if you’d look at it rationally, I think you are going to personally find that you are at a point on the cost:benefit curve, where more listening is better.

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