Phil Collins And Why You Can’t Know What You Don’t Know

Growing up, so many years ago, I loved the pounding beat and consuming rhythm of Phil Collins’ In The Air Tonight. The intense drumbeat was stirring; the story behind the song even more so. What follows is my own flawed memory of how the story went:

One day, while playing with a friend beside a river, Phil’s childhood friend got in trouble and began to drown. The young Phil Collins was too small to rescue his drowning companion and begged a passerby to help. The adult simply laughed and walked away. His friend died.

Years later, while on tour with Genesis, Collins anonymously sent this individual tickets to his upcoming concert. As “In The Air Tonight” began to play, Collins belted out those now famous words:

Well if you told me you were drowning, I would not lend a hand
I’ve seen your face before my friend, but I don’t know if you know who I am
Well I was there and I saw what you did, I saw it with my own two eyes
So you can wipe off that grin, I know where you’ve been
It’s all been a pack of lies

And I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord
Well I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh Lord
I can feel it coming in the air tonight, oh Lord
Well I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life, oh Lord, oh Lord

Well I remember, don’t worry. It was the first time, the last time, we ever met.
And I can feel it coming in the air tonight…”

Collins turned to the audience as the lights came up on one seat, one man, and yelled something like (accounts vary) “It was you, you S.O.B.! 

Powerful stuff. Revenge.

So what, then, is the moral of this story?

The moral is that this story is not true. I told that story for over 20 years in front of thousands of people and it was complete crap. Fabricated nonsense.

The moral is that we love a great story, that we are prone to believe untruths when they are packaged in such a way as to draw us in. Disinformation. The moral is that it is very tempting to blindly accept anything you read for the sole reason that it is sending a message with which you want to agree. These fairytales are powerful because we all want to believe in words like destiny and fairness and happyendings. The moral is that you are far more likely to believe something if you already agree with it; and the age of mass media is overwhelming our critical systems. The exploding cacophony of information eventually strips us of unbiased thought, and we were always friends with Eurasia. Big Brother is programming you. See, I just did it again.

Bringing the apocalyptic into my story creates a defining moment which just happens to be bullshit. Calling your opponent Hitler is a convenient way of labelling someone in such a way as to discredit further investigation. Easy labels diminish the truth. Things are rarely as absolute as in the land of stories, and the impact of such things as the rise of bionomics, media, and reductionism, is profoundly beyond what we can imagine. Let that sink in for a moment. Humanity gleefully embraces a future that it does not understand; has not reckoned with an impact we have yet to invent.

Reality cannot be contained in a YouTube video. Your primary belief systems warrant intense scrutiny. The world is filled with loud and profoundly ignorant voices, screaming for your attention.

Phil Collins confirmed it hadn’t happened. Like most of the polls and trends and arguments between the huddled masses, this was the creation of a storyteller whom no one took the time to investigate. One discredited study on autism and a child dies in the prairies because people believe stuff that seems right to them at the time. Some pseudo-scientist creates a Youtube video about the earth being flat and seemingly reasonable people start to think that the sun is 3000 miles above the earth, and the government is spreading mind-altering drugs using airplane contrails. The president of a neighbouring country was actually born in Kenya. Carrying a concealed weapon becomes a must if you want to avoid a terrorist attack. Those Syrian refugees, fleeing unimaginable persecution and a situation you literally know almost nothing about, are all terrorists. Jayden Smith knows the mysteries of the universe. Muslims cheered when the twin towers came down. Donald Trump is the messiah, or the Anti-Christ. The list of the ridiculous is seemingly endless.

This is by no means a confirmed fact, but it is apparent that many of us watch a single YouTube video or read an article and are willing to fundamentally change our belief systems or argue about a belief we know virtually nothing about. I cannot count the numbers of people who are convinced that something is true because they spent 20 minutes online or heard it from a “reliable” source. It is a sure bet that millions of people get their politics or religion or theories about life from a few solitary sources that agree with them anyway. That Zeitgeist movie seems to make sense. Those documentaries on the way they treat chickens, or that conspiracy about how the moon landing was faked, the FACT that the government is covering up contact with aliens, or the opinions of uneducated actors or musicians or some geek with iMovie, appear entirely believable. I have witnessed arguments at parties between individuals who clearly know very little about science or reality but are willing to virtually come to blows over a topic they watched on YouTube or read about in a forum of like-minded and biased idiots like themselves. Few of us take the requisite hours to actually perform real research. We are the media generation, subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous opinions and 5-minute ready to believe theories.

The objective truth is that it takes hundreds, even thousands of hours to understand concepts like philosophy, politics, or basic scientific principles. When Will Smith states publicly that he considers himself a physicist, he speaks in ignorance. The profound insights of actors and amateurs are usually neither profound nor insightful, in any real sense. Becoming an expert in any field requires years of directed study. You cannot become a martial arts practicioner by watching a series of videos and you certainly aren’t qualified to even speak about vaccines if you base your opinions on something you read in a chat room or online.

By now most of us have heard of the Dunning-Krueger Effect. To put it another way, we don’t know what we don’t know. We lack context. It is impossible to assess something you have never seen before. The first warriors on the receiving end of gun powder lacked the capacity to appreciate why they were about to die. American troops in World War Two were flummoxed by the Kamakazi. The thought of a volunteer willingly slamming their plane into an aircraft carrier seemed ludicrous in the extreme. We can only comprehend that which we already know, at least in passing. We cannot understand what we have never even imagined. As Heisenberg so eloquently mused, “Not only is the Universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think.” There is the world as we understand it, the philosopher said, then there is the world as it really is.

We must be careful of our own thinking. When I was younger I knew everything, or so I thought. The older I get the less I seem to know. The essence of wisdom is not intelligence alone. We must experience in order to comprehend. We must, as Covey quipped, seek first to understand, and then to be understood. There must be humility, wonder, and hard work, before we can really know anything of value. Abandon your absolutist opinions and spend a hundred or a thousand hours learning about that thing before you make a fool of yourself in that chat room.

You’ll be glad you did.

4 thoughts on “Phil Collins And Why You Can’t Know What You Don’t Know

  1. Nice to see you back, it’s been awhile and I always enjoy that your posts make me think.
    I have always had a thirst for knowledge, evendors prior to the internet. More than a thirst for knowledge I really hate making a fool out of myself by spouting off about something I know nothing about. If I have an opinion on something I am prepared to back it up with why I have that opinion. I am willing to listen to someone else’s opinion and if they can give me facts to back their opinion I might change mine.
    And you know what they say about opinions, everyone has one.
    I learned late in life that a belief I had always held; the truth will always prevail and as long as you are honest you will be believed, is not necessarily true.
    It turns out that a lie told often enough will eventually become a “truth” and that people on general love to hear and repeat dirt on other people. They repeat it as a truth, from a reliable source, with no regard for the impact on the person they are discussing.
    I have gotten very intolerant of people distorting the truth or spreading lies as fact and regularly challenge them. I annoy people and get asked why I can’t just ignore it, let it go. I tell myself to just let it pass but a lie is an injustice to someone somewhere. So I guess a lot of people consider me to be a pain in the ass. Haha too old to care what people think of me.
    Hope this is an indication we are going to be seeing more of you.

  2. I’ve always had what other people considered an odd need to “research” a subject to death. I never voiced an opinion on what I researched, I was always afraid of conflict and had few friends as it was. Plus some of the subjects were considered “taboo” like different cultures concept of Hell or the origin of Voodoo/Voudon. Twenty years later I feel differently. I’m a different person and if I can help even 1 person from experiencing what I’ve experienced in my life I’ll do what I can to make that happen. I become frustrated when I read/hear/see so many following and believing a person who has “Dr.” in front of their name BUT is giving advice and trying to diagnose people in a field he’s not licensed in. An Internist should not be on Social Media or TV giving Psychiatric advice or diagnosing someone they’ve never met during a radio show. If you do not have a degree in Psychiatry/Neurology I don’t understand how you could consider yourself an expert on Somatoform Disorders. I found this to be the most offensive. The other part was adamantly telling anyone who would listen how certain medications should “NEVER” be prescribed to specific patients with severe anxiety and addiction issues, ever. He isn’t a Neuropharmacologist either but because he’s had a TV show, Radio Show, and celebrity following, people listen. I’m Bipolar with Conversion Disorder/Social Anxiety/General Anxiety/Alcoholic (In remission 9 years) I showed symptoms around 9 years of age but wasn’t diagnosed until I was about 35. The stigma and misinformation out there is staggering. Not only in the public but also the medical community. You’re absolutely right, it takes thousands of hours to learn about complicated subjects. It takes more work when your cognitive skills aren’t what they used to be, you have to write everything down, keep separate notebooks by subject, highlight important words, and still have trouble remembering where you left off. But it’s important because only I can advocate for me.

  3. Nice to see your blog again. I thought maybe you’d given it up, but was hoping otherwise. I was thinking of your comments regarding Karl Pilkington and now Phil Collins’ story and I’m recalling several conversations I’ve had with a good friend who absolutely believes Donald Trump is the Messiah in a silk suit. Sometimes the unexpectedly honest and truthful comes from the strangest of places, but I believe that you are right that life is most often not as simple as stories. I agree that wisdom isn’t just about intelligence. Living, and dying teach us too. Here I’m somehow appropriately or not going to quote The Rolling Stones for saying, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need”.

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