Noam Chomsky and the Invincible Sound of Listening

There is a scientific corollary between what we know and what we think we know.
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An interview with Noam Chomsky

Interview and video project by Danielle Agnello; article written by Thomas Hurt

A video of people listening to an interview with political activist and intellectual, Noam Chomsky, somehow manages to transform the abstract into the actual. It is unclear who the people in the video are, but what does becomes clear is that these people are able to convey what all the hyperbole in the world cannot

The issues matter.

That beyond the thrill of the American political system teetering on the brink of all-out violence, one is able to get a sense of something which may be so obvious that it has been lost.

This election matters.

It matters not just to politicians and pundits, whose primary focus seems to be filling up both a 24-hour news cycle and their own twitter feeds, but also to real people. It matters because, despite the chasm of the extreme shouting sides, the issues are real and our mutual fate is joined. Perhaps it feels apocalyptic because it has the potential to be.

That seems to be what Professor Chomsky is saying here, after all, and he isn't running around like a chicken with its head cut off because somehow he remains hopeful. He is hopeful that people have not lost the ability to listen with a desire to reason and take action.

During his Rutgers University commencement speech, President Obama laid bare the anti-intellectual sentiment that is the apparent driving force of the Trump presidential bid, “Facts, evidence, reason, logic, an understanding of science. These are good things. These are the qualities you want in people making policy… that might seem obvious,” Obama said through a forced grin, well aware that the necessity of such clarification is at once comical and tragic. Unfortunately for President Obama, or anyone else with dreams of addressing the current acme of anti-intellectual gusto, a bit of reframing is necessary. Why?


In 1995, MacArthur Wheeler committed a bank robbery that would inspire a Cornell University study, which would give evidence to what is now known as the “Dunning-Kruger effect.” During his robbery, Mr. Wheeler had put himself on the cutting edge of his chosen trade by pioneering a technique of avoiding capture on surveillance video by taking juice from a lemon and smearing it on his face. Lemon juice, Mr. Wheeler reasoned, could be used to make invisible ink and if invisible ink was invisible, then smearing it on his face would logically make his face invisible also. Now, before you pass judgement, Mr. Wheeler was not about to put his freedom and obvious jail time on the line by sound reasoning alone. Wheeler decided to test his technique by rubbing the juice on his face and snapping a selfie with a Polaroid camera. To the amazement of both you and I, the juice worked, and, to Mr. Wheeler, this test offered empirical evidence of what he already knew (detectives still are unsure exactly what lead to the result, but, given the story as a whole, anything is possible).

What the Cornell study revealed is that there is a scientific corollary between what we know and what we think we know. The more expertise we gain in any field, the more we become able to recognize that there are things that we don’t know. Conversely, the less expertise we have in any field, the harder it is to be cognizant of our own ineptitude.

The battle we wage, and the one that holds the future of our country in the balance, is not a battle against “anti-intellectualism,” but one against “pseudo-intellectualism.” When a U.S. Senator produces a snowball on the senate floor and decries climate change a hoax, or when a bank robber smears lemon juice on his face and proclaims himself invisible, it is because they are both bolstered in confidence by what they do not know. This is compounded by the small sample of information they do know, which, relative to itself, is a lot. If a person has no clue what America's nuclear triad is, they will be unable to understand how astonishing it is that the top Republican presidential candidate also has no clue what it is.

As depressing as all of this may be, the upside is that an eighty-seven-year old Professor Chomsky may still be able to make a huge impact. For, if the current political climate is perhaps the Dunning-Krugger in mass effect, then all that is needed to self-correct is just enough information to cause what philosophers and writers have known as the distinguishing sign of wisdom long before science had proven it: self-doubt. As William Shakespeare penned, "The fool doth think he wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool."

It is unclear if all of the people in the video are in agreement with Chomsky's views or perspective, but what is clear is the something invincible happens when people are able and willing to listen to ideas based on facts, evidence, reason, logic and an understanding of science. A simple 10-minute video may lead to the casting of a vote that saves the world from nuclear annihilation, or a short article may save a would-be bank robber from using the juice (lemon juice will not make you invisible). It is our job, not to get people to agree, but merely to get them to consider.


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