Perspective | Willful Ignorance in Insurance Can Be Just as Widespread as Any Other Industry

By: | September 14, 2021

Roger Crombie is a United Kingdom-based columnist for Risk & Insurance®. He can be reached at [email protected]

Not knowing who became Prime Minister of Tunisia in 1957 is basic ignorance. No shame there: We can’t know everything. ‘

(It was Bahi Ladgham.)

A recent act of basic ignorance saw an 11-year-old English boy refer to the government’s anti-radicalization program. Asked what he would do if he suddenly had a lot of money, the child said: “Give alms to the oppressed.” The teacher interpreted this as “Give arms to the oppressed,” and the lad was promptly taken into custody.

Similarly, an angry, ignorant mob not long ago beat up a pediatrician, because they thought the word meant “child molester.” Not funny for the doctor, granted.

Refusing to look up the score of your baseball team’s latest game, in case they lost, is willful ignorance, a different thing entirely. Little shame there, providing no one is hurt. (Claiming the team won without reading the result is a branch of confirmation bias.)

Willful ignorance is also known as contrived or Nelsonian ignorance.

The Admiral famously put his telescope to his blind eye at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 and said, “I see no signal.” Shame there, but only if he lost the battle. (He didn’t. England won on penalties after extra time.)

Willful ignorance requires the deliberate avoidance of evidence that doesn’t fit your existing beliefs. We tend to accept information that makes us feel good about ourselves and filter out anything that has the reverse effect.

Willful ignorance as a basis for government is now a thing in certain quarters. It’s known as Tyflocracy.

“Never attempt to win by force what can be won by deception,” wrote Machiavelli in The Prince. Shame there, and continuing relevance.

Pop quiz: Opening an insurance conference, the then-premier of Bermuda said there was no way to adequately “gortch” the industry’s importance. She meant “gauge.” She hadn’t read her speech before delivering it and guessed at the pronunciation.

Willful or just regular ignorance? Bit of both.

A sure sign of Nelsonian ignorance in operation is the efforts to which people sometimes go to avoid revealing it.

“Thorough-going” means “in great detail.” In a draft of a ghosted article, I wrote of an insurance company’s “thorough-going approach” to claims.

“There’s no such word as thoroughgoing,” said my client, with absolute certainty. “Use it in a sentence.”

I replied: “If you don’t stop criticizing my work, I shall give you a thorough going-over.” He didn’t get the joke.

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Another insurance client objected to my use of “pride goes before a fall.” She asked what that was supposed to mean. I referred her to the Bible.

“I’ve read the Bible,” she said. “It’s not in there.”

Woeful willful ignorance. (To be fair, the exact Biblical quote is “Pride goeth before destruction.”)

Willful ignorance comes down to ego, I suppose. The hardest phrase in the English language for some individuals to say is “I don’t know.”

For fear of looking dumb, people pretend to have knowledge they lack, plow on and usually end up looking dumb. Here’s some helpful advice: Always own up to your ignorance before everyone else finds out about it.

The only other word “willful” regularly accompanies is “stupidity.” &

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The R&I Editorial Team can be reached at [email protected]