Morris: The Era of the Ultracrepidarian
by Leo Morris
It pains me to confess this, but I am an ultracrepidarian. You might not want to hear it, but there’s a good chance you are one as well.
The word describes people who “express opinions on matters outside the scope of their knowledge or expertise.”
It comes from the Latin for “beyond the sandal or shoe,” adapted from the longer “‘the cobbler should not judge beyond his shoe.” That, according to Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, is what the painter Apelles of Kos replied to criticism from a shoemaker, who had been asked to critique the footwear detailed in a painting, then proceeded to also offer his evaluation of everything else about it.
Once you know to look for ultracrepidarians, you can find them everywhere in our public conversation.
There is the sports columnist who thinks we are also entitled to his political wisdom. The religious leader who presumes to lecture us about economics. The actress who feels qualified to warn us about the dangers of vaccinations. The barely pubescent pop star who dispenses relationship advice. The Twitter blowhard who sneers at everything with absolute certainty.
I’m adept at spotting them because, as I hinted, “It takes one to know one.”
I spent the vast majority of my working life as an editorial page editor, which allowed me to express authoritative pronouncements on any and all complicated issues that appeared in the news sections. And yet I was an expert in absolutely nothing, except the art of expressing authoritative announcements.
In other words, as I’ve said often over the years, I got paid good money for shooting my mouth off. And the best part was that I didn’t even have to be right.
So let me offer this one piece of advice in the one area I have some competence in: Don’t assume anything about an opinion you hear. It doesn’t have to be right. It doesn’t have to be wrong. Don’t treat it as anything other than what it is, an assertion that should stand or fall based on your best analysis of all the available evidence.
My friend and fellow rightwing wacko Craig recently sent me a link to a news article about an insane but currently acceptable opinion floating around out there. He thought it would interest me, since it provided further proof that the world is spinning out of control. That’s one of the things rightwing wackos do, remind ourselves of the growing madness, then try to talk each other off the ledge.
I responded that I could only relay two of my favorite quotes, which I had saved for their overall pithiness but then realized could apply specifically to the act of judging an opinion’s relative merits.
The first is from a well-known movie: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
People who say this are usually referring to the futility of trying to change things that can’t be changed. Sometimes you just have to move on, either cynically or with a sense of weary resignation.
But to me it can mean the futility of trying to argue with people who have crazy ideas. Even if you can convince them they are wrong, they will just fall in line with the next nutty meme that comes along. There is, of course, a certain amount of arrogance behind such a view: I know my own reasoning powers, so whatever opinion I arrive at must necessarily be superior to yours.
The other quote is a bit older, from the Greek philosopher Democritus: “Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is just opinion.”
This is the more egalitarian salute to impotence. All opinions, whether ultimately judged valid or invalid, belong equally in the realm of doubt until the accumulated evidence moves them into the realm of certainty. There is reality as it exists and reality as you think it is.
And you should never assume that there is a correlation between an opinion’s soundness and the aggressiveness with which it is asserted.
In fact, these days, it might be safer to assume there is an inverse relationship.
And I am the expert here, after all. Don’t ever forget it.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.