The confidence trick

So much of what we see today appears strange to the universal eye of the generalist beholder. We cannot for the life of us fathom why a lot of lay folk do not want to believe in expert prognostication, choosing instead to rely on their own strong beliefs, which belie all evidence.

Scientists and journalists have lost their cachet to the amateur online peddler of all matters requiring detailed attention. The more we insist on the evidence-based truthfulness of a concept, the more the lay side resorts to Colbert’s ‘truthiness’. At this point in these kinds of arguments after we have hit a wall, all communication ceases.

An expert needs to be confident about what he’s peddling. But there is ‘con’ in confidence. Or perhaps it’s the other way around. Like the chicken and the egg, the question is which came first, confidence or the con? Without confidence and the degree of trust it engenders, there can be no confidence tricks. A strange dichotomy occurs to the online persona of an otherwise regular individual. It is perhaps a design flaw or the very nature of social media that it tends towards over-confidence and hyperbole. Overstate everything as you have only 140 characters in which to say something. Nuances oftentimes have to be dropped.

Take a selfie or an online profile, it is always a bit larger than life, slightly unreal and always self-congratulatory. Quiet competence loses value online, because social media like the peacock’s tail is about display. When we go looking for information in a digitalised social context designed to be exhibitionist, we will first have to wade through a lot of show-offiness, involving sideshows of puritanical castigation followed by reactionary defensiveness before we can get to the relevant information.

Our whole lives the lesson of confidence was drummed into us. But in this insistence on constant confidence humility is collateral damage. Minds can close in on themselves when they are too confident, our minds puffing up like our online bios so confident of our own abilities, but seeing little merit in the talents of others. Experts can lose the ability to learn if they cannot also be humble.

Without humility there can be no uncertainty or doubt. Though humans hate both, we desperately need them at this juncture in history. It gifts us the power to seek more information, perchance be led to vital knowledge.

Humility becomes a casualty in the advancement towards self-worth and ultimately hubris. To achieve an oxymoronic state of humble confidence is a tight-rope walk requiring nerve and practice. It can only happen when a social system even an online one allows breathing room for nuance. Humility, which is in today’s hyperbolic world the baggage of losers, is perhaps the one quality that can break down the walls between groups.

The arrogance of confidence emerges again and again both online and on television. We feel fine when experts of one kind or another use this weapon against people we do not agree with, but this is dangerous. As the day will come when it is used against us or people who agree with us. The intellectual arrogance of the people we agree with is as off-putting as those who are wrong, do not know any better and keep arguing to cover up the chinks in their armour.

Many years ago in journalism school, we were taught the importance of balance and neutrality to offset the arrogance of confidence and ego. But lately we have confused balanced perspective with false equivalence, which is springing up around the world in media houses struggling to cope with populist pressures. And ironically, populism as a cult of the amateur has been growing in confidence, while the real experts fall from grace, or to be more exact are pushed off their pedestals. This is treacherous, as we are being made to put our trust in non-professionals lacking expertise in subject matters upon which they opine or seeming professionals so prejudiced one way or another we cannot afford to trust their judgements.

An excessively outraged reaction to the arrogance of the confident expert has resulted in the birth of the proud and confident non-expert, one that spreads fake news, resorts to non-sequiturs, then mass opiates like ideology or religious sentiment to cover up the absence of logic, to prove their point. At the end of the day anyone can be confident, the expert, the trickster and even the Machiavellian. Look for the honesty of confidence tinged with humility that can gaze within, foretell the abyss to come, and hopefully stop us before we fall in.


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