"It is better to be thought a fool, than to open your mouth and remove all doubt"

I have seen this quote on the web attributed to Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and unknown.

It is an effective but flawed quote. I see it everywhere so I know many people must think it keen, but hear me out on this.

To those convinced that they know everything, and therefore unable to benefit from (and of no benefit to anyone else in) conversation, the quote applies absolutely. 

However, hopefully one can move beyond this stage in one's intellectual development and learn to evaluate and account for criticism from others, as well as learn when it is polite to speak. This is the point at which the flaws in the quote begin to show. According to the quote, one seems to be doomed to be a fool whether speaking out or not; the only change one can effect is the perception of oneself to others. But is this really the case? Allow me to give an example:

As a child I always read well above my grade level. I starting reading adult-level books at a young age(*). As such, I often encountered words which I didn't hear or use in my day to day conversation. I only needed to look the words up so many times in dictionary before I remembered their meanings. However, I often forgot the correct pronunciations of such words, since I rarely had need of them and even more rarely had them said to me. As such, there were many words for which I had made up my own pronunciations. In high school, when my literature/ writing classes began to catch up to my reading level this became a problem, as I would pronounce a word wrong in class only to be confronted by giggles from those of my classmates in the know (and those who pretended to be), and even half-concealed smiles from my teachers. As embarrassing as these incidents were, I'd rather be thought an idiot, but learn which words I'm pronouncing wrong (even if by public humiliation), than go on being wrong forever.

I suppose among those more socially than academically inclined, the perception of intelligence may be more valuable than the actual attainment of it. In that case by all means keep quiet: nod silently and wisely and stew in your ignorance and perhaps you'll maintain the illusion of intelligence.

For the rest of us, I'm just saying you should speak up sometimes: even if it means finding out you are wrong. The truth is: it's better to reveal your ignorance to others, than to remain ignorant forever. 

I'm not advocating rudeness. You shouldn't interrupt conversations completely over your head, and deprive all other participants of gaining any knowledge themselves. And (as with anything) one should practice this in moderation: everyone for instance has been in a class with some annoying bugger who interrupts the lecturer so often no one can learn anything. Don't babble; just don't be a bump on a log either. 


* Digression: I've noticed on the web whenever I try to give someone a sense of my intelligence by listing some achievement, I'm invariably confronted by a slew of responses all matter-a-factly declaring how the author of the response has one-upped my achievement. If I made the unlikely claim that I was reading and understanding Shakespeare in kindergarten, invariably people would respond saying "BTW I was reading Shakespeare in PRESCHOOL!" or even "in THE WOMB". For this reason I deliberately leave this vague: I was reading Shakespeare earlier than most kids. I may be smarter than you; I may not be, and truth be told I don't care. I certainly don't want to engage in a battle of boasts, which proves nothing about wits (nor does it offer any hope of expanding one's wits). 

Interestingly everyone one meets on the web is a genius, but they perceive 90-100% of other people as idiots: someone is obviously wrong (of course I don't mean you).

On a similar note, I once corrected a statement a person made about mathematics in a web discussion. The person wrote back (without referring to my corrections or attacking their merits at all) and said "I have a PHD in math, so there: You've been slammed!". I responded "Well I have PHD in every subject at any university or college you ever heard of, so there: does that mean you've now been slammed?", which I thought was appropriate to that person's level of conversation. The mathematical mistake the person had made was a high-school level error: they obviously didn't have a degree in anything, but somehow that person thought saying they did proved me wrong. 

Such conversations are on about the same level as a two guys comparing the sizes of their penises. At least with penises you can bite the bullet, break out a ruler, and measure them: when comparing intellects things aren't so straightforward.

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