Jul 19, 2014

modern jackass

This week's "This American Life" had a potentially interesting piece on what they called "Modern Jackass". Just that name alone piqued my interest. Ira's intro was very interesting. The basic definition of a modern jackass is someone who doesn't know nothing about something, yet they only know a little bit about it. They're not experts by any means. But potentially act like they are.

Most of the conversations I have with people fall directly into this sweet (sour?) spot. "Did you see that [X] causes your kid's grades to go down?" The proliferation of web articles and popular research books has turned people into faux experts. The great example that they use is someone who is vehemently against trans fats yet has no real grasp on why. Trans fats are hydrogenated. They have lots of hydrogens on them. They're manufactured. They're bad for you. But no one who thinks this way (other than some researchers) really knows why. Why is hydrogenated oil bad for you? I'll be honest. I have no idea. And yet I say this crap all the time.

Unfortunately the piece then goes on to describe people who have funny but basic misunderstandings. Usually revolving around words they don't quite understand. This seemed a little off-base from what a modern jackass was.

 As a researcher, half of my work revolves around discovering things that I then know. But I would say that the other half is literally focused on understanding what I don't know. This seems like common sense coming from a science/engineering background. But people aren't particularly questioning.

I had an argument a few months back with a client who hated a company and wanted to short the company based purely on the fact that the senior management went to 'shitty' schools. So I asked him how he knew that shitty schools produced shitty senior management. Because I certainly had no data to support that. But he 'knew' it. What seemed to go right over his head at the end of the conversation is that if his 'short thesis' on the stock was that management was bad because they went to less than top schools, that this thesis could have been applied when they raised seed capital back when the company was worth 1/100th of what it was now worth. He didn't quite see the logic there which made me chuckle.

But I've been in his spot before. I used to eat a macrobiotic diet when I was in college. I had gained some weight (dorm butt) and was really out of shape. So I adopted the macrobiotic diet. It seemed right. Vegetables, grains, minimal oil, no animal products, etc. Surely this was right. Why even figure out if it make sense. Wasn't there some book written about a guy who had cured cancer with this diet? Sure. It had to work. I bought tons of books and special equipment to prepare the food properly and searched out obscure ingredients. I was hardcore. And so I did this diet for almost 2 years. And through it all I did not feel good. At all. And yet never did I attribute this to the diet. Or that perhaps the diet was wrong. And quite obviously I had cravings on this diet. And at the end of 2 years I broke down. I ordered some crappy Pizza Hut pizza. Extra cheese. I made sure to not let any oil, dispatched from the melted cheese, drip off. My body clearly craved fat. And it was glorious.

And that was that with the diet. I still felt it was correct but I couldn't do it any longer. A decade later I actually read some research reports on dietary needs and biochemistry and realized how wrong it was.

But for that period in college I was a modern jackass. Because I had no basic understanding of why anything regarding macrobiotics made sense and yet I was religious about the worthiness of the diet. It was a good lesson for me. You don't really know anything unless you put the work in.

And now when I read these articles that state sitting all day at your desk lowers your life expectancy and breakfast is the most important meal of the day and drinking 8 glasses of water is healthful, I just ignore it. Even if it supports my own beliefs. This is the problem of the web and most modern day journalism. Flippantly reported news items without any actual work done. And now we're all experts. We're all modern jackasses.

No comments: