Friday 4 August 2017

We're ignorant

Last week I asked whether we’re stupid. This week I’ve been wondering if we’re ignorant. The answers are very different.

No, I don’t think we’re stupid, at least not all of us. Yes, we’ve all heard stories of consumers doing things that can only be described as stupid, like lending large amounts of money to total strangers without a written agreement but most of us are smarter than that, aren’t we? Most of us know to sign agreements that we’ve read and fully understood and that don’t screw us, don’t we? Please tell me that’s true?

Let’s assume that only a few of us are stupid. So that’s ok. I think that there’s a threat just as dangerous as stupidity and that’s ignorance. Don’t get confused, they’re not the same thing. Stupidity is the lack of ability to think properly, ignorance is just a lack of information. I’m fairly ignorant about the electrical systems in motor vehicles but that doesn’t mean I’m stupid. I also know almost nothing about gardening, dress-making or the traditional religious belief systems in Mongolia. But that doesn’t make me an idiot.

The problem is that ignorance threatens consumers just as much as stupidity. It puts us at the mercy of suppliers who don’t have our interests at heart or those who are actively trying to deceive us. The simplest example is with modern technology. Most of us know very little, perhaps nothing at all, about the technology that surrounds us. We don’t know how our cellphone or laptop works, how messages travel through the internet or how that video connection to our cousin in a faraway country happens. So long as it works we’re happy.

You might ask if it even matters? So long as it works, my emails arrive, I can chat to cuzzy and I can make that call, who cares how it works? That’s true in those cases but what happens when the laptop goes wrong and the company repairing is say you must pay them P2,500 for a new motherboard? Do you have any idea whether they’re telling the truth or not? What happens when you’re buying a replacement and the salesperson just starts talking about kilo-this, mega-that and giga-the-other. Do you understand a word they’re saying?

It’s no different with financial products. Very few of us are sufficiently well-educated to know the difference between different types of investments and we rely on the salesperson to give us the information we need. The same salesperson who is probably paid a commission on the size of your investment, not how well it suits your needs.

In all of these areas we need suppliers of complicated products, whether they’re computers, cellphones or investment policies to educate us openly and fairly, taking our interests into account. But you know they’re not going to do that, don’t you? So we need to force them.

Here’s a simple tip for you. Whenever someone claiming to be an expert in their area tries to explain something complicated to you and you don’t understand, use this phrase:

“Explain that do me again but this time imagine I’m only 12 years old.”

If that doesn’t work, try this one, my personal favourite:

“Explain that to me again, but using different words.”

Anyone who’s a real expert in their field will be able to do either of those things easily. Anyone who can’t clearly isn’t an expert.

There are also areas where we’re ignorant simply because we’ve never experienced something before. Bitcoin is the best example right now. As you might now by now, Bitcoin is a currency, but not like any currency we've known before. There are no coins or notes with Bitcoin, no bits of metal or paper. There’s nothing you can put in your wallet or purse. It exists purely in cyberspace. It’s a “cryptocurrency” and it’s all a bit confusing until you’ve done some serous research. Until then we’re ignorant? The danger is that this ignorance is being exploited by people who have only their own bank balance in mind. The crooks selling “Billcoin” and “Pipcoin” are doing their best to persuade us that their schemes are either similar, or connected to Bitcoin when in fact they’re nothing more than scams. Our ignorance in this area is likely to leave a lot of people very poor.

There are also situations when our ignorance of procedure presents a risk. Until last week, I didn’t know what you were meant to do when someone died in their home. The background isn’t relevant but we recently found ourselves alone in a friend’s house just hours after he’d died, having been discharged from hospital so he could die with dignity at home and surrounded by the people who loved him. Ok, we thought. What next? The first funeral parlour we called, one you all know, was unhelpful. No, we can’t do anything without a death certificate, they told us. But he died at home on a Sunday, we told them and no doctor was present. You need to take him back to the hospital so they can certify him dead, they told us. Can’t you do that, we asked, you’re the experts on transporting deceased people. Not without the death certificate, they said. You’ll need to take him back to the hospital so they can certify him dead, they continued. “Have you got a truck?”, they asked us.

That’s when we hung up and called a more sympathetic competitor. An hour later, a friendly doctor and the competitors’ team arrived and everything was sorted out. Between them, they’d been able to explain and provide some assistance.

I’m not asking for miracles but I think both the hospital and the funeral parlour have a duty to tell those of us ignorant about the technicalities of death how it’s meant to be. Why don’t hospitals produce a guide on what to do for those of us who are amateurs? Why don’t funeral parlours have a link on their web site that explains how the process should work? Why don’t they help us overcome our ignorance?

In this case our ignorance not only caused us some distress but it led to a big company losing business and receiving a formal complaint about their arrogance, lack of sympathy and stupidity.

Yes, I DO mean stupidity, not ignorance.

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