On Listening and Learning

The occasion was a recent picnic and my discussion with a pharmacist began well. I mentioned that I have often consulted pharmacists about prescription medicines’ side effects and interactions and that experience had led me to study such matters myself. Along the way, I said, I’ve learned that some doctors pay little attention to patients’ reactions to medications.

For some reason she seemed upset by that statement and dismissed it, saying “The great majority of side effects are minor, and the serious ones tend to occur only in a small percentage of cases.” What an odd response from a pharmacist, I thought; it sounds more like something from a pharmaceutical pamphlet implying that suffering is less real or problematic if it occurs infrequently.

Other pharmacists I know readily acknowledge that many doctors are not as attentive as they should be to side effects and interactions, so I wondered why the pharmacist I was speaking to would argue otherwise.

Her final comment was, “I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree.” I smiled politely, yet I couldn’t stop thinking about the implications of the entire exchange. Because she is in early middle age, she is undoubtedly more influenced by the present culture than I am, specifically by Political Correctness.

Perhaps that influence, which is all about feelings rather than reason, made her feel offended by my comments—“How dare he speak to me about pharmacy or medicine—I’m sure he’s neither a pharmacist nor a doctor.” Expressed as a principle, this view would be, “It is inappropriate to form opinions about fields in which one has no formal credentials, and anyone who does so should not be taken seriously.”

That view, of course, is not mere nonsense but dangerous nonsense because it stifles both conversation and enlightenment. The test of whether someone deserves to be listened to is whether he or she grasps the relevant facts of the subject and evaluates them responsibly. How the person acquires the requisite ability is beside the point. History is filled with examples of people who contributed great ideas in fields where they lacked formal credentials—William Shakespeare, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Horace Greeley, Mark Twain, Henry Ford, and Steve Jobs, to name but a few.

College and graduate degrees guarantee that a person has a certain level of knowledge and skill at the time of graduation, but that guarantee, if not renewed continually by updating the knowledge and practicing the skills, expires rather quickly. Ironically, the person with no formal credentials who acquires the necessary skills and continues to use his or her mind diligently is often more knowledgeable than one with impressive but dusty credentials.

The appropriate question in any discussion is therefore not whether the participants have the expected credentials but whether they know what they are talking about, and that can only be answered by listening carefully to what they say and then deciding. The pharmacist in this case was unaware of my background and evidently had no interest in learning about it or, more importantly, asking what evidence I had to support my position.

The surest way to stifle our own learning is to assume we already know everything worth knowing and have nothing to learn from others. That assumption has been fostered for a couple of generations by the self-esteem movement, and it continues to burden large numbers of people, even highly educated ones like my pharmacist acquaintance.

The smug closed-mindedness of such people not only denies them the benefits of fresh perspectives and analogical insights. It also impoverishes discourse in the broader culture.

Copyright © 2017 by Vincent Ryan Ruggiero. All rights reserved