In a 2005 episode of This American Life, titled “A Little Bit of Knowledge”, we hear the story of an electrician, who, despite being fairly smart, nonetheless deludes himself into thinking he has disproved Einstein’s theory of relativity. The fact that he’s reasonably intelligent makes it all the harder for him to see his own error, even when confronted by actual experts.
Bob Berenz: All right, in this point I have to be completely honest. I did write a paper early on, and I submitted it to a physics site. And it was summarily rejected out of hand. But I did learn an important lesson, that physicists and what’s being done by them is very complicated, very mathematically intensive. What I’ve got is none of that, so it completely, almost in reverse, goes over their heads.”
Whenever his theory is challenged, Bob’s response is to reject the messenger as being narrow-minded or unintelligent. In fact, of course, Bob is the one whose mind is not quite up to the task he has set for himself. But he can’t allow himself even to suspect this. In this episode’s narrative, Bob goes from brushing off simple, obvious clues to his own crackpottedness (the rejection of his paper) to dismissing direct personal demonstrations of his ideas’ incorrectnesses. Even after a PhD in nuclear physics takes time to meet with him and explain what’s wrong with his theories, Bob comes away totally unfazed.
Bob Berenz: Well, this is not really fair, but I’m going to say it anyway. It’s like he [Dr. Brant Watson] was talking the party line. He didn’t strike me as being all that bright. I know he has a couple of patents, and he’s this big professor, and it’s probably not fair for me to say that, but I’m not claiming to be this incredible genius in this one area. It’s very simple what I ran into. And I need some help to get it put into a forum where people can understand it. But it really isn’t that difficult.
I listened to all this with great interest, because I fear that I myself might be just like Bob. In fact, I waver between thinking I am in danger of becoming like Bob, and thinking I have been like Bob for years and am just now realizing it. I have big, long-nursed theories of my own about subjects I have no formal training in, and I even write & tweet on those subjects, with few to no disclaimers.1
When an idea captivates your imagination, you can’t really do anything but ponder it, discuss it, write about it, and live it out — at least, not until another idea captivates it even more strongly. And there, I hope, is where Bob and I part company: because while he will not even admit the possibility of a new idea displacing his old ones, that possibility is deeply appealing to me. In fact I genuinely enjoy being proven wrong much more than the feeling of being proven apparently correct. In that moment there is a kind of clarity that is real and rare. I may put up a fight and kick a lot of tires before I get there, but really this is because I want that clarity: to know I’m wrong, and not to have to go on just suspecting I’m wrong.
I regret that I don’t have (or don’t know that I have) the direct knowledge or tools to construct with certainty my ideas on theology, metaphysics or economics; I fear I will never have them. But being, thankfully, aware of this shortcoming, I can do no other than to explore these ideas with humility and the hope of further discovery; and I invite my readers to humour me, and join with me in the same spirit.
Consider this article my life-long disclaimer. ↩