Gregory Benford’s 1980 science fiction novel Timescape contained this line:
“Passion is inversely proportional to the amount of real information available.”
This is known as “Benford’s Law of Controversy” (not to be confused with Benford’s Law which comes from a different Benford and relates to numbers). It’s more of a truism or general rule of thumb than an actual law.
The concept is that things that are incontrovertible and known are rarely emotional topics about which people disagree; information and facts can keep emotions in check. Things like gravity, population statistics, and geometry proofs don’t incite passion, while wars are waged over religious beliefs and differences in political views.
Of course, ignorance plays a big role. Data and facts have to be known (and accepted) in order to quell disagreement. For example, that evolution happens is a fact (we can see it in action with the Covid virus as it evolves through mutation) yet huge swaths of the populace choose not to acknowledge it as a fact. As a result, heated and emotional arguments about evolution still occur.
There is a Dunning-Kruger aspect to Benford’s Law of Controversy. The Dunning-Kruger Effect says that we overestimate our knowledge about things that we know the least about. Or, a bit of knowledge is dangerous because we don’t know enough to understand how little we actually know. It takes a lot of work and research to have an informed opinion. I’ve seen this with people’s opinions about the Federal Reserve’s handling of inflation. They may not be aware of the differences between demand-pull, cost-push, and monetary-induced inflation, and may be ignorant of the concept of monetary velocity, yet have strong opinions about what the Federal Reserve should do and not do.
Covid is another example where opinions can be strongly held even in absence of knowledge. A recent study that tested people on their Covid knowledge found that those with high self-confidence about their knowledge generally performed poorly on the test. Interestingly, while doctors had a high degree of confidence and performed well on the test, other health care professionals did not perform well.
Thanks, John, this is a great post as always. But I don’t think Benford deserves credit for a law. Bertrand Russell noted that “The degree of one’s emotion varies inversely with one’s knowledge of the facts – the less you know the hotter you get,“ I’d guess about 60 years earlier.
WOnderful IFOD, as always! Interestingly — those who strongly support climate change initiatives were shown in a poll to have not more of an understanding of climate change than those who oppose climate change actions. On the other side, however, in my personal experience I have witnessed things getting pretty heated when two mathematicians or scientists argue over a fine point of fact.
There is no argument so air-tight that a loud, insolent reply of “Well oh YEAH!” can’t puncture.