Ignorance and Stupidity Seminar

Here's the syllabus for the course on Ignorance. For course auditors, email me and I'll send you the readings. Here's the course description:

When explaining behavior, we are often caught between two uncomfortable poles: interpreting the actors as either stupid or evil. Although ascribing actions to evil may come easier (and is more satisfying), the safe bet is on stupidity. What might first look like a vast conspiracy turns outs to be due to bungling bureaucrats and diffusion of responsibility. What appear to be the worst-laid plans turn out to be no plans at all. One cannot underestimate the vast idiocy of the human psyche.

And yet the notion of ubiquitous idiocy is in deep tension with the core of cognitive science: Chomsky has forever been pointing out how deeply creative people are, instantly and effortlessly generating and parsing novel sentences; Bayesians are constantly stressing how accurate our judgments of probabilities are and how excellent we are at using scant information; perceptual psychologists’ main job is uncovering unconscious mechanisms that allow perception to automatically solve terribly difficult problems. How can we, as Rationalists like Chomsky suggest, be (innately and unconsciously) sensitive to formal and logical aspects of reasoning and yet also display such striking irrationality?

Reconciling base stupidity with our impressive problem-solving faculties will be a goal of the course. Along the way we’ll try to understand exactly what ignorance and stupidity are, as well as why we think we are smarter and less biased than others, why we think groups we belong to are better than groups we don’t, why we are so bad at telling when we are being daft, why we fall for propaganda so easily, why flowery nonsense often sounds profound, why people believe in the supernatural and paranormal, why people believe they have more free will than others do, why we double check to see if we locked the door even when we know it’s locked, and why we ignore probabilities and base rates. In sum, we will look at our reasoning capacities as well as our metacognitive capacities, touching on the traditional philosophical topics of belief and rationality.

There are more educated people now than ever before, and yet we live in the dumbest of times. This especially stupid time demands reflection; hence, this course on the cognitive science of ignorance and stupidity.

In essence, we’ll start out work on ‘agnoiology’ —the study of ignorance. Agnoiology (also rebranded as ‘agnotology’) was coined as the dual to epistemology. It has, to put it lightly, not caught on like epistemology. But it is at least as important. What we’re doing here is trying to set the foundation for a serious study of ignorance. As it is there is just no real trail for us to follow, so we’ll make it up as we go along.