He who knows nothing knows everything

By Lee Feder

“True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing.” -Socrates

Experts. Gurus. Pundits. They go by various names, the most appropriate of which is “egomaniac.” Whenever someone says that he knows everything about something, just chuckle and walk away. The self-anointed geniuses (and even worse, the ones anointed as such by others) relish their labels. The simple fact of life is that, collectively, humans know very little about the world and, on average, a single person knows even less.

Experts always seem to “know” what the next big thing is, like who will win the election, who will be the victor, or what technology will take over. Truth be told, nobody knows much of anything, and the more people claim to know, the less they often do know. This is particularly true in two not-so-different arenas: sports and politics.

Sports experts are some of the most revered. They seem to know who will win the Super Bowl, World Series and NCAA Tournament every year. Excuse me if I missed something obvious, but if they are so sure of their picks, why do they not move to Las Vegas and “put their money where their mouth is”? For the last year, I have systematically set out to debunk experts in general, and sports pundits in particular. I selected football gurus as the first victims. The parameters of the experiment were simple: I know very, very little about the sport other than that I enjoy watching it, yet every week I chose the teams I expected to win. After the season, my correct prediction percentage was nearly identical (.633) to the average winning percentage of former players and analysts on espn.com (.636). This says less about my (lack of) knowledge about football than the fact that experts, like lay men, do not know what will happen. Point, non-experts.

Similarly, in the 2004 presidential race, media and political analysts declared Howard Dean the Democratic nominee – in the fall before the first primary or caucus. He subsequently screamed, lost and is now the chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Similarly, pollsters, whose jobs revolve around numerical analysis and actually taking measurements, predicted a John Kerry (the eventual 2004 Democratic nominee) victory in Ohio and thus, the election. Oops. Need we even mention the 2000 election and Al Gore? Game, anti-pundits.

The guiding principle here is not that everyone is ignorant, but rather that nobody, not even the most experienced, seasoned veterans, knows what WILL happen in life before it DOES happen. In the current electoral climate, “common sense” has Sen. Barack Obama beating Sen. Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination and either one of them winning the general election. Experts do caution that Hillary could face a stiff challenge from Sen. John McCain because of his war experience and the festering dislike for the Clinton family among some segments of the voting population. The prognosticators observe that polls show Obama leading McCain by slightly more than the margin of error. Of course, these are the same people who predicted nominee Dean and President Kerry (along with a New England Patriots Super Bowl victory). When it comes to elections or anything else contingent on human action, experts tend to discount the free will factor, its unpredictability and pure dumb luck.

The obvious exception to the rule of experts applies to those who humbly and empirically study topics and admit their incomplete knowledge. Professors and responsible students acknowledge that their grasp on the world is incomplete. Even in fundamental physics classes, discussion of Newton’s laws qualifies the word “law” with the caveat of them being experimentally validated over a long period time and not necessarily inviolable.

One of my professors exemplified the concept of intellectual humility when he happily discussed how all humankind knows applies to only about 5 percent of the universe. Considering we have yet to master nuclear fusion, sustainable development and health care, the vast body of undiscovered knowledge is rather daunting. Evidence and experience seem to suggest that continuing to prognosticate is merely repeating the same mistake and expecting different results. One famous quote says this is the definition of insanity, but I am not an expert.

Lee is a senior in mechanical engineering and wants Sunday’s weather to return for Wally’s 22nd birthday. Now.