My next post was going to be a continuation of my introduction to complexity, and I promise that I’ll get around to that eventually, but a few days ago I was made aware of an exchange on Facebook that got me thinking, and I’d like to take a moment to lay out my thoughts on the matter.
I personally did not witness this exchange, but a friend of mine took a screenshot of the first part of the conversation (before the original commenter apparently deleted the thread). First, some context: this occurred after a firearms industry page (Keepers Concealment, a maker of high quality holsters) shared a video of Ernest Langdon demonstrating the “Super Test,” a training drill that requires a shooter to fire rapidly and accurately at various ranges. Ernest Langdon is indisputably one of the best handgun shooters in the world. That’s an objective fact, and he has the competition results and measurable skills to prove it. He is ranked as a Grand Master in the US Practical Shooting Association, a Distinguished Master in the International Defensive Pistol Association, and has won 10 National Championship Shooting titles and 2 World Speed Shooting titles. All of which explains why when some nobody on Facebook (who we shall refer to as “Mr. Blue” as per my color-coded redacting) made this comment, quite a few people who know who Ernest Langdon is raised their collective eyebrows:
Mr. Blue, who as mentioned is a nobody in the shooting world with exactly zero grounds to critique Ernest Langdon, still for some reason felt the appropriate response to this video of the one the best shooters to have ever walked the face of the earth was to provide unsolicited advice on how he could improve. Then, when incredulous individuals who actually know what they’re talking about point out exactly how arrogantly stupid that response is to this particular video, another person, Mr. Red, chimes in to claim that if we accept no one is above reproach, then “it’s fair for people (even those who can’t do better), to critique what they see in the video.” To which I want to respond: no, it is not.
I agree entirely with Ray Dalio, the founder of Bridgewater Associates—the world’s largest hedge fund—when he says, “While everyone has the right to have questions and theories, only believable people have the right to have opinions. If you can’t successfully ski down a difficult slope, you shouldn’t tell others how to do it, though you can ask questions about it and even express your views about possible ways if you make clear that you are unsure.” What that means is not that you can’t form an opinion. It means that just because you have the right to HAVE an opinion doesn’t mean you have the right to express it and expect for anyone to take it seriously. Just because you happen to be a breathing human being doesn’t make you credible, and the opinions of those who don’t know what they’re talking about are nothing more than a waste of time that serves only to prove that you’re an idiot. Like the old saying says, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”
But Mr. Red’s comment goes to an attitude that lies at the heart of stupidity: the idea that everyone’s opinion is equally valid and worth expressing, and all have a right to be heard and taken seriously. This certainly isn’t a new phenomenon: Isaac Asimov wrote about a cult of ignorance in an article back in 1980: “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.’” But new or not, it very much drives the willingness of ignorant nobodies to “correct” and “critique” genuine experts. Mr. Blue has no idea of the thousands of hours of training Ernest Langdon has put into perfecting his grip and recoil management and trigger control, the hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition he’s put down range to hone his technique and become one of the best in the world at what he does. Mr. Blue has put nowhere near that amount of time and effort into his own training—I know this, because if he had he’d also be one of the best shooters in the world, instead of some random nobody on Facebook. But despite that vast gulf of experience and expertise, Mr. Blue still thinks he can and should provide unsolicited advice on how Ernest Langdon can be better. And then doesn’t understand why others are laughing at him, and another commenter rides to the rescue, offended at the very notion people are dismissive of the critique of a nobody.
This is the same mindset that leads to people who barely graduated high school presuming to lecture the rest of us on why the experts are wrong on politics, on science, on economics, on medicine. This is the mindset that leads to anti-vaccination movements bringing back measles outbreaks in the United States. This is the mindset Sylvia Nasar described when she wrote “Frustrated as he was by his lack of a university education, particularly his ignorance of the works of Adam Smith, Thomas Mathus, David Ricardo, and other British political economics, [he] was nonetheless perfectly confident that British economics was deeply flawed. In one of the last essays he wrote before leaving England, he hastily roughed out the essential elements of a rival doctrine. Modestly, he called this fledgling effort ‘Outlines of a Critique of Political Economy.’” The subject she was writing about? Friedrich Engels, friend and collaborator of Karl Marx, and co-author of Das Kapital. Is there any wonder that the system they came up with has never worked in practice?
While the conversation that inspired this line of thought was in the shooting world, I see it all the time in many, many different fields. Novice weightlifters “critiquing” world record holders. Undergraduate students “critiquing” tenured professors in their area of expertise. Fans who’ve never stepped into a cage in their lives expounding upon what a professional fighter in the UFC “did wrong” as if they have the slightest idea what it’s like to step into the Octogon and put it all on the line in a professional MMA fight. People with zero credibility believing they have the standing to offer unsolicited advice to genuine, established experts. This isn’t to say that experts are infallible, or that criticism is always unfounded. But to have your opinion respected, it must be believable, and if you lack that standing you’d damn well better be absolutely certain your criticism is well-founded and supported by strong evidence, because that’s all you have to go on at that point. Appeal to authority is a logical fallacy, but unless you’ve got the evidence to back up your argument, the benefit of the doubt is going to go to the expert who has spent a lifetime in the field, versus the nobody who chooses to provide unsolicited commentary.
When you have an opinion on a technical subject, and you find yourself moved to express it in a public forum, please, just take a second and reflect. “Do I have any standing to express this opinion and have it be believable, or is it well-supported by documented and cited evidence in such a way that it overcomes my lack of relative expertise? Do I have a right for anyone to pay attention to my thoughts on this subject? Or am I just another ignorant asshole spewing word diarrhea for the sake of screaming into the void and pretending I matter, that I’m not a lost soul drifting my way through existential meaninglessness, that my life has purpose and I’m special?” Don’t be that guy.
Opinions and assholes, man. Everyone’s got ‘em, and most of them stink.