Burkinabè soothsayers crossed my mind the other day as I was listening to a podcast
about the illusion of knowledge. The host, David McCraney, and his guest, Christopher Chabris, discuss our tendency as humans to accept information regardless of our own level of
understanding, the legitimacy of the source, or the severity of the consequences when we use it to make a decision.
"They continue to claim insight into chaotic, impossibly complex nebulae of shifting data, and they continue to profess powers of divination even though research shows they are slightly less reliable than a coin toss."
This quote from the podcast summary refers to the experts on Wall Street that led us blindly into the current recession. While we obviously need to find new sources for financial insight, we continue to allow them on television because they speak with a confidence that invokes a convenient emotional substitute for our own lack of financial knowledge.
The same may be true of Burkinabè soothsayers. No one else in a remote village speaks confidently with spirits about the future. And their words are a nice substitute for fears of the unknown, such as the yield of a crop or the health of a newborn. And although they are surely incorrect from time to time, at least they're predictions are based on rituals such as
which side of a chicken lands facing the sky. That method is more likely to be correct about anything, no matter how complex, than the experts on Wall Street will be about tomorrow's stock market.
I wonder what a soothsayer would predict about the benefits of a few dozen e-readers versus a village library (not that we actually need to ask).