Ultracrepidarianism

Hello again! This is only my second blog post, and as the first was more of an introduction I thought I should post something a bit more substantial to give you an idea of what the blog will be like, so without further ado here goes!

As mentioned in my first blog post ‘the beginning’, a theme I feel quite strongly about is Ultracrepidarianism. It is a word that was first used in 1819 by essayist William Hazlitt and it comes from the Latin phrase “Sutor ne ultra crepidam” which can be taken to mean “a shoemaker ought not to judge beyond his own soles”. The general concept of the word is that it refers to the act of giving advice and opinions on something which is beyond your understanding.

Ultracrepidarianism seems to be on the rise in today’s society. For a long time politicians have been a big culprit of this. As Steven Levitt (economist) and Stephen Dubner (journalist) say in their (excellent) book ‘Think Like A Freak’ there is a culture in modern society which stigmatizes the phrase “I don’t know”, despite the fact that it’s impossible to learn and grow without first admitting that you don’t understand. People are afraid to acknowledge they don’t fully understand a problem and as such, if they are asked a question about something they have no knowledge of, they will often attempt to ‘wing it’ and give a convincing answer, pulling on their very limited knowledge to make an educated guess. If instead, we all said ‘I don’t actually know the answer to that’, it could more often be followed by ‘lets find out!’. Although ultracrepidarianism can often hold someone back considerably from reaching their potential, it is not necessarily a significant danger to society in day to day life, but when a politician’s ego gets in the way of their ability to admit they need help, the country they are hired to protect, suffers. Such politicians are often well educated and will cogently argue their point of view, insisting they know for certain what’s going to happen and what the best course of action will be, when in truth they are at best regurgitating information and at worst, guessing. This is a pattern we see every single day in modern politics.

This isn’t to say that politicians are to blame, however. I don’t think anybody can honestly say that if a politician was asked a question to which they admitted they didn’t know the answer, their reputation would not be damaged. The tabloid media in particular, who thrive off misfortune of others, would have a field day. This is apparent even in the manner in which they conduct interviews, constantly probing politicians to try and get them to contradict themselves or stumble over their words. Nobody benefits if a politician makes a mistake, it just shows something we all already knew: they are human beings. If the British public could put emotions and biases aside and treat political debates with a bit more rigour and truthfulness, there is no limit to the progress we could make as a society. Education, information and honesty, particularly honesty about what we don’t know, can all go an extremely long way to improving everyone’s lives.

Of course other issues related to ultracrepidarianism include unwillingness or apathy towards thorough research and a willingness to believe or ignore what they’re told purely based on the beliefs of the information source. There is also a debate to be had about people who do buy into the idea of research but only study their side of the argument (a topic closely to related to cognitive dissonance), but these are subjects for consequent posts!

Almost everybody has been guilty of ultracrepidarianism at times (myself included) but if we can start to recognise that we don’t need to always have the answers, and that “I don’t know” is the most useful educational phrase in the world, maybe we can all become better critical thinkers and better human beings!

Thank you for reading this post/rant and feel free to comment, give me feedback or start a discussion! Stay tuned with cbeconomics for more discussions over the coming weeks into 2018!

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