The Illusion of Wisdom
Seat belts. Shoulder straps. Air bags. Radial tires. Automatic headlights. Warning chimes. Back up cameras.
It’s only a matter of time before car manufacturers introduce the next big safety innovation… and the next, and the next… inexorably making us safer and safer as we take to the roadways.
Or so it would seem.
But are we really safer, or are we indulging an illusion of safety that may actually place us in greater danger?
Safe at any speed?
Take the relatively new pedestrian countdown clocks that populate metropolitan intersections. It seems self-evident that knowing how much time is left before the light turns red should increase pedestrian safety. And so it has, but not without the inevitable unintended consequences.
After studying accident statistics at about 1800 intersections in the city of Toronto, University of Calgary researchers Arvind Magesan and Sacha Kapoor discovered that timers did indeed reduce accidents involving pedestrians, but simultaneously increased accidents between automobiles. The most common type of accident involved two cars approaching a signal, one right behind the other. The driver in front sees that he has only two seconds left and hits the brakes, while the driver in back sees the two seconds remaining and hits the gas so he can make the light.
Moreover, the greatest uptick in traffic accidents has been at intersections that had previously recorded the highest degree of safety. In busy intersections where congestion makes it hard to speed and demands greater driver caution, the timers make less difference. But once-safe intersections with less traffic have experienced the most dramatic increase in accidents.
Even worse, the more drivers become acclimated to the timers, the more likely they are to take greater risks. Having learned that they can successfully transit an intersection with two seconds left, they try to make it with only one.
We have seen the enemy...
Remarkably, the researchers suggest that a possible solution might be found in counterterrorism protocols. In response to a bomb threat, the last thing security officers want to do is to broadcast the threat to everyone in the area -- a sure way of inducing widespread panic and increasing collateral damage.
Instead, safety officials employ a code that alerts security guards of a danger but which is meaningless to everyone else. This allows the guards to respond in a way that reduces the chances of injury while they respond to the threat.
... and it is us
Applied to crosswalks, the trick is to alert pedestrians in a way that conceals the information from drivers. One proposal is to introduce audio timers that pedestrians can hear but which drivers can neither hear nor see. Ironically, what we don’t know may actually keep us safer.
As Alexander Pope famously observed, “a little learning is a dangerous thing.”
So much we can't see
- Microorganisms are hidden from the human eye.
- Atomic particles reside beyond the range of even the most powerful electron microscope.
- Radiation is undetectable without the proper equipment.
But for most of us, our inability to perceive any of these phenomena leaves us not only blissfully unaware, but much better able to function. There’s enough irrelevant information coming at us from all directions without further overloading our mental filters.
More is less
True wisdom requires a complete picture, since data without context, no matter how accurate, can lead to disastrous conclusions. Reason and logic only lead to understanding when supported by a solid foundation of information. The position of one puzzle piece out of a thousand is indiscernible; the position of the final piece is self-evident.
“Information overload” has become a cliché. But cliches are generally true, and our access to seemingly unlimited information has created an illusion of knowledge and wisdom that leaves us vulnerable to the consequences of our own ignorance. On the one hand, we have to be able to filter out the myriad bits of useless information that can only serve to distract us. On the other hand, we have to be able to acquire and process information to determine whether or not it is useless. In other words, we have to know what we don’t know.
The power of i
“For with much wisdom comes much grief,” says King Solomon, “and he who increases knowledge increases pain” (Ecclesiastes 1:18). Wisdom is truly a double-edged sword. Recognizing the value of knowledge, the wise man seeks more knowledge; recognizing that too much information is as debilitating as not enough information, he seeks to separate the wheat from the chaff. But just as the amount of wheat can become too much to process, the sheer volume of knowledge can beget a crisis of wisdom: how to filter out enough input so that what remains still has value, and how to know what has value so that it won’t be filtered out and lost.
Even more dangerous is when we start to mistake access to knowledge for knowledge itself.
The kindest cut
So what should we filter out first? Let’s start with cat videos, pictures of food, and critiques of television shows. Our lives were no less fulfilled a decade ago before our 682 “friends” started sharing every detail of their lives with us… and we with them. What if we all posted only things that matter -- significant news, meaningful life events, substantive ideas? Maybe by cutting out the obviously inane, we can start training ourselves to disregard the merely insipid.
With a world of pseudo-information at our fingertips and flowing ceaselessly across our screens, we dare not forget that the easiest place to lose a needle is not in a haystack, but in a needle-stack. Amidst a flood of meaningless data, the most important facts of life and love can be lost without ever being noticed.
Let's start paying attention. Who knows what we might be missing?