The Age of the Ultracrepidarian

Opinions combined with Ignorance is a Dangerous Combination

Why do people feel compelled to offer advice when they’re clearly not qualified to do so? Daniel Patrick Moynihan said “You are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” And yet we’re surrounded by people who seem unable to differentiate between the two.

We have reality show stars that feel qualified to lecture us on the evils of vaccinations. We have used car salesmen who believe they’re experts on US-Iranian diplomacy. And you can’t look at your phone without seeing a bunch of career bureaucrats peddle health advice as though they’re infectious disease experts. And none of that even begins to cover my own in-laws.

There’s no shortage of people willing to provide their unsolicited (and unwanted) advice to anyone that’s unfortunate enough to be within listening range. And while branching into new areas is a worthwhile pursuit, presenting a position with no supporting evidence isn’t helpful — it’s irresponsible.

Einstein supposedly said that “The only thing more dangerous than ignorance is arrogance,” but I’d argue that with this group, the combination of the two is even more damaging. The problem comes from a lack of humility. As people begin to believe that their opinion takes precedence over reality, they feel justified to disregard evidence. Why bother with facts, their opinion is all the justification they need. As Stephen Colbert ranted on truthiness,

“Anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true. Or what did or didn’t happen. Who’s Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I wanna say it happened in 1941, that’s my right.”

While it would be convenient to blame this on our current alternative fact and post-truth nightmares, our willingness to confuse opinion and fact isn’t new. The Greek orator Demosthenes recognized this behavior over 2300 years ago when he said, “The easiest thing of all is to deceive oneself; for we believe whatever we want to believe.” In fact, the origin of the term for this behavior — ultracrepidarian — comes from this same time.

Apelles of Kos, one of the famous painters of Ancient Greece, often brought his paintings to the village square to gain some real-time feedback. On one of these occasions, a shoemaker noted the sandals on a character in the painting and criticized their shape.

Apelles took note of the feedback and changed the painting. When he brought it back to the public square, the shoemaker saw that Apelles had taken his feedback. Feeling vindicated, he then began to critique others aspects of the painting. To which Apelles replied, supra crepidam sutor iudicaret”, meaning “do not judge anything apart from sandals”.

The term ultracrepidarian is based on the Latin word ultra, meaning beyond, and crepida, denoting a shoe or sandal to the Greeks. An ultracrepidarian then becomes anyone who’s operating “beyond the sandal,” such as the shoemaker criticizing Apelles’s painting, or anyone pushing an opinion beyond their area of expertise.

“We all do no end of feeling, and we mistake it for thinking.” — Mark Twain

It’s easy to look at the blatant examples with disdain. Obviously, an eighteen year-old pop star isn’t one to offer us all relationship advice. And a quick look at online reviews can give you hundreds of examples of people who ought to keep their opinions to themselves. On a related note, if you ever need to feel better about your own outlook on life, search for negative reviews of the world’s wonders. My personal favorites are the people who felt the Paris Catacombs contained too many skulls and the surprisingly high quantity of people that are upset over not seeing Nessie on their trip to Loch Ness. Not to mention the multiple reviewers who feel the Grand Canyon “should be more grand.”

But while these examples occupy the far end of the spectrum, if you consider the more subtle aspects of ultracrepidarian behavior, we’re all guilty of it from time to time.

We all have many areas of competence, but no one knows everything. Should I push my political opinion simply because I feel strongly about it? If I haven’t done the research to back it up, that opinion doesn’t bring anything worthwhile to the conversation. The same logic applies to sports or economics or whether Episode III, and not Episode I, is the worst Star Wars movie.

It’s an easy trap to fall into. If you feel strongly about an opinion, it’s natural to want to share it with others. This isn’t to suggest that you shouldn’t share your opinions and perspectives. You should. It’s just that before spouting them off, we ought to do the work to back them up with evidence.

If all we can bring to a discussion is our opinion, it’s not adding a whole lot of value. Without supporting evidence to back up that advice, we’re less able to use those opinions to help others. Which, when all is said and done, should really be the threshold that we keep in mind — are we looking to help others or ourselves?

  • Are you trying to help someone do what’s best for them or promote your own agenda?
  • Are you trying to help others on their own journey or are you looking to inflate your own ego?
  • Are you working in absolutes, never or always, or do you recognize that life includes much more nuance?

It’s easy to stray into this area. And even with the best of intentions, it’s unlikely that we’ll avoid crossing this line again in the future. You have worthwhile thoughts on a lot of topics — it’s understandable that you want to share them.

Yet while many of us may unintentionally toe the ultracrepidarian line, and need a slight nudge from time to time to correct things, many others jump in with both feet. In these instances, we need a stronger response.

“The way to deal with superstition is not to be polite to it, but to tackle it with all arms, and so rout it, cripple it, and make it forever infamous and ridiculous.” — H. L. Mencken

Several years ago, the CDC encouraged employees to avoid certain words on budget requests in order to improve their chances for approval. Their management recognized that if recommendations included words like transgender and diversity, they were less likely to be seen favorably by the Trump administration and less likely to gain funding.

Whether you call it censorship or strategy, it’s disappointing at the very least.

Two of the discouraged words, words that top CDC management felt would cause our nation to withdraw funding in the event that they were included, were evidence-based and science-based. Actions that would further the scientific development of a science-based industry, would be seen as negative.

Again, profoundly disappointing to say the least. But it also offers some insight into the best counter we have to ultracrepidarians.

Ultracrepidarians hate science. They hate evidence. It exposes their opinions for what they are — mere opinions without the knowledge or experience to support them.

Science demands skepticism. It may start with an opinion, but no opinion is allowed to continue without test. Even the truth is merely seen as today’s understanding of reality, with a to-be-further-updated-as-we-all-become-smarter mentality.

As you encounter ultracrepidarians, counter them with a scientific mind. Ask for their basis. Ask for evidence. Stories tend to fall apart as you delve a few questions deep on people.

In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Yuval Noah Harari recounts the story of a man who claimed that the world was held in place by resting on the back of a huge elephant. When someone asked him what the elephant stood on, the man said that it stood on the shell of a giant turtle. And the turtle? On the back of an even bigger turtle. And that bigger turtle? Until the man finally snapped and said, “Don’t worry about it. From there it’s turtles all the way down.”

The best counter to the ultracrepidarian is to simply ask questions. Question their basis. Question the details. And refuse to take their pro-offered opinion as fact. As the old saying goes,

“In God we trust. Others must provide data”

We all have a responsibility for the information that we take in. Increasing our standards for information takes away the ultracrepidarian’s power. It discounts their opinion unless they’ve done the work to validate it. While everyone may be entitled to their own opinion, we don’t have to sit there and listen to them preach it as fact.

Written by

Enemy of the Status Quo.

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