Information Asymmetry

“Information asymmetry” is a term that I learned from Ndugu Omowale Afrika. It refers to a situation where between two more more people, one party possesses greater information and understanding of some topic than another. Consider, for instance, what a trained scholar of 19th Century African American history knows about such a topic, compared to an individual who has never bothered to investigate it, whose knowledge is limited to popular discourse pertaining to the subject or popular depictions of this subject in film and television. We can imagine the same kind of asymmetry occurring between individuals who possess a depth of scientific knowledge, compared to others with a paucity of such knowlege.

Sadly, often those who possess limited knowledge of things assume that they know far more than they actually do, resulting in their coming to illogical and misinformed conclusions while being resistant to any modification of their premises. Thus, when they are presented with information that contradicts what they know or demonstrates the limitations of their understanding, they often disregard this new information largely because it does not confirm their beliefs, but possibly also because it is beyond their comprehension.

It should be stated that a certain knowledge base is needed to both meaningfully understand anything. Further, a fairly robust knowledge base is needed to possess a critically informed view of a thing. I can, for instance, understand how evolutionary biology works after having learned something of the subject. This would be a basic level of understanding. However, for me to competently critique a particularly theory of evolutionary biology requires a far higher degree of knowledge than what could be considered basic. This would require an advanced level of understanding. I have often seen individuals who demonstrate a nonexistent or a rudimentary level of understanding of various subjects attempting to offer criticisms of fairly well-established bodies of knowledge. The result is, for the informed viewer, rather nonsensical.

As a matter of course, I try to minimize my engagements with people on topics where information asymmetry is evident. I will share information, but will not debate these individuals. It is not a good use of time, and as we all know, our time on this planet is finite. Use yours to grow and better yourself, as well as to improve the world around you, rather than to drag those for whom their ignorance is a kind of refuge and armor towards some kind of enlightened understanding.

The lamp of ignorance misleads in the night

Too many African/Black people have a love affair with pseudo-consciousness. Perhaps false ideas and contrived identities have an emotional resonance that more valid and historically grounded notions lack. Perhaps the false ideas are more immediately intelligible, requiring no real work to understand and internalize. Or could it be that such ideas make little demand of their adherents, enabling them to continue in the world as they always have? Perhaps reality is too complex, too complicated, and nonsense becomes a filtration device, rejecting information that is incongruent with one’s preferred mythology. After all, one of the advantages of ideology is that it provides a system of thinking, a way of seeing the world. Whether such a system is grounded in logic and facts is inconsequential to its functioning.

Whatever it is, whatever its causes, I am reminded of three African proverbs. A Yorùbá proverb states, “Ọgbọ́n ní ńpẹ́ kó tó ran ẹni; wèrè kì í gbèé ran èèyàn; wèrè Ìbàdàn ló ran ará Ògbómọ̀ṣọ́,” which translates as, “Only wisdom takes a long time to rub off on others; imbecility does not take long to affect others; it is the imbecility plaguing Ibadan people that rubbed off on the people of Ògbómọ̀ṣọ́.” This means that folly is a contagion, easily transmitted. Enlightenment, by contrast, is much more difficult to establish among the people.

I am also reminded of a Swahili proverb which states, “Jinga likikwerevuka akili hakuna tena,” which translates as, “When a fool is believed to be intelligent then there is no more intelligence.” Consider the unfortunate lack of discernment among those taken in by false ideas. For them, the intelligence of someone who has a great deal of valuable expertise and knowledge and someone who is ignorant (or deceptive) are equal.

I close with an Ewe proverb which, like these others, reflects the times in which we live. It states, “Nu manyamanya fe akadi tra ame za,” which translates as, “The lamp of ignorance misleads in the night.” While some of us are making deep investments in falsehood, we will find that misinformation is insufficient to both transform our lives individually or our condition collectively. In fact, such ignorance, as misinformation induces, makes us more useful subjects of misdirection, division, and control by powerful interests. As Thomas Sankara said, “The enemies of a people are those who keep them in ignorance.”

Sailing on the high seas of irrationality

One cannot debunk conspiracy theories with logic or evidence. Logical arguments only demonstrate one’s conformity to the mode of thinking that the conspiracy theory seeks to unseat. All evidence contrary to the conspiracy theory is perceived as evidence of the conspiracy’s existence. The durability of conspiracy theories is predicated upon such circular reasoning.

Science and oppression

I have noticed a number of African thinkers who present themselves as African-centered, as advocates of re-Africanization, who emphasize the imperative of us reclaiming our culture and restoring our sovereignty, while also positing Western science as the path to our redemption. I am puzzled as to how an appreciation of the former does not generate a more critical view of the latter position. Dr. Jacob H. Carruthers’s essay, Science and Oppression offers a very concise, yet incisive critique of this. Given that state of the world–the loss of species, global warming, ecological degradation, and the like–clearly the “master’s tools”, the products of Western culture, are they themselves reflective of a broader cultural ethos of alienation. Hence, the need to move beyond the tepid ground of “decolonization” to the imperative of Africanization and the revitalization of African “sciences” as tools of knowledge construction, cultural reorientation, and ecological restoration.