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There are few fallacies as prevalent as equating age with wisdom. This false assumption is predicated on the belief that age tends to correlate with the accumulation of life experiences. Conventional wisdom would dictate that a prudent mind would be able to formulate deep insights based upon these plentiful experiences.  However, this presumes that the individual of advancing age is capable of shrewd judgment. Much like another demographic of people, some older people are not.  This error in thinking has been enshrined in the mythical image of a sagacious prophet or philosopher. A Socratic or an Aristotelian figure radiating the mystique of lost ancient knowledge. While imagery plays a powerful role in our perception, picturing every individual with a long white beard as being wise is an illusion. Simply confuses correlation with causation. The reality reduces the saying of being “another year older and another year wiser” to an empty statement.

Believing that every older individual has amassed a stockpile of knowledge ignores several prerequisites that make an individual inclined to become a wise person.  These characteristics include intellectual curiosity, the ability to learn from experiences, and the capacity for sound reasoning. Without these attributes it doesn’t matter if a person is twenty-five or ninety-five, they cannot be wise! To credulously accept conventional wisdom without any forethought makes an individual nothing more than a passive fool. To only continue to do so for decades on end is antithetical to wisdom. It is quintessentially spending an entire lifetime relying on lazy thinking, which will not lead to acquiring any knowledge. Claiming that such an individual is wise or knowledgeable irrespective of their chronological age is borderline criminal.

Intellectual Curiosity:

Encapsulated in the words of the wisest man among the ancient Athenians, “The unexamined life is not worth living”. Arguably one of the most cited quotes in Western Philosophy conveys a lot of the nature of knowledge and wisdom. If one is not inclined to pursue the knowledge they cannot become wise. This is regardless of how many years they have spent living on this planet. Most true knowledge generally needs to be pursued, not passively obtained. The thought process of an individual content with accepting the superficial appearance of the world is not one who is going to explore ideas or the nature of the universe. Rather have their beliefs bequeathed to them.  Versus actively discriminating between two choices based on acquired knowledge. To merely accept the status quo for decades on end without any deeper contemplation is the opposite of being wise. This person has only spent their life regurgitating the ideas that have been inculcated into them since childhood. Instead of thoughtfully engaging with ideas to acquire knowledge.

Spending a lifetime staring at the surface deludes people into thinking they understand how the world works. Creating the erroneous belief that they can easily formulate solutions to problems or have a firm grasp of the nature of reality. Unfortunately, they have only been gazing at shadow puppets on a cave wall for all these years. Attempting to derive a complete understanding from such an inadequate foundation is impossible. Further substantiating the importance of having a thirst for knowledge to achieve the coveted status of a wise person.  A wise person does not succumb to the illusion of having the complete picture when all that is available are thin silhouettes. They have a firm understanding of the limitations of knowledge and acknowledge that learning is a continual process, not a destination. They echo the sentiment of the Socratic profession of ignorance keeps themselves open to accepting new information. Through remaining humble and reminding ourselves that there are severe limitations on our breadth of knowledge we allow ourselves to broaden our horizons.  If we assume that due to our age we automatically have a thorough understanding of the nature of the world, we are only fooling ourselves.  Such self-deception does not amount to wisdom.

The Ability to Learn from Experiences:

It is easy to assume that because we lived through an experience we truly have a strong comprehension of how to handle it if it reoccurs in the future. Once again, this is an attribute that is tantamount to self-depiction. Making matters only worse, our elders feel so confident in their abilities to draw meaningful inferences from these anecdotes they firmly distribute this advice to younger generations. Creating personal allegories that become imperative that younger folks learn from. However, how are these sage individuals so sure they have pin-pointed the precise source of the issue? Narrowing it down to one salient detail is an oversimplification of a complex situation. There could be multiple issues resulting in the problem at hand.  The specific contextual details of the current issue may differ just enough from the situation experienced by the older individual that their remedy may not be applicable. Dismally, even after all of these years, they have never been able to accurately determine the source of the problem. But have spent the past number years under the false impression that they know the correct course of action. People have the unfortunate propensity to conflate and transpose details that lead them astray. Rendering the solution to being ineffective. Attributing the issue to a salient detail rather than the true cause of the issue. A confusion that can lead a litany of personal fables and longwinded tales resulting in faulty advice.

It should also be noted that if an individual lacks intellectual curiosity, the aptitude of them ever getting down to the heart of a problem is slim. The capacity to learn from experiences is an attribute that dovetails to tightly with intellectual curiosity.  Those of an inquisitive nature are much more likely to weigh all the variables and then cautiously attempt to conclude. Resulting in sound retrospective analysis. While those accepting a crude and rudimentary version of the truth are prone to devise a solution from incomplete information and half-baked premises and reasoning. When examining experience and only accounting for an incomplete depiction or inaccurate assumptions about the scenario, it is impossible to learn from that experience.

Capacity for Sound Reasoning:

You can possess the learning capacity, applying information, and drive to acquire knowledge. None of this will make you wise if your thinking is plighted with biases and fallacies. To have all of the information but no means of interpreting it essentially makes this knowledge useless. What good is information if my interpretation of it is clouded by my prejudices. Capacity for sound reasoning is so integrally related to learning from experiences, it could be argued that without sober reasoning skills we would not be able to draw meaningful lessons from our past experiences. Odds are we would again resort to spouting the convention wisdom specific to our generation. Following the crowd does not lead you to the truth. Conforming for the sake of conforming is nothing more than a flaw in reasoning. Cemented and immortalized in the appeal to popularity fallacy. Popular consensus can lead us down some dark and treacherous roads. One only needs to be reminded of Nazi Germany to witness the grisly ultimate consequences of this fallacy. A genuinely wise individual would be able to recognize the danger in mindless acquiescence. Versus firmly leaning on the thoughtless cliché of referring to “back in my day”. However, times have drastically changed since the youth of well-meaning elderly folks.  Espousing outdated platitudes for fifty years ago (that most likely were even incorrect back then) is not equal to disseminating wisdom.

Assuming that advanced age automatically is equal to wisdom presents another fallacy in reasoning in its own right. That is the appeal to authority fallacy.  Utilizing age as an indicator of wisdom is setting that up as a social signaling mechanism. We hold an authoritative reverence for the advice provided by an elderly person, even though that advice could be flawed. We are allowing the variable of age to obscure our better judgment.  If we truly thought about it, only a small minority of people under the age of sixty-five are truly wise.  Do these individuals all of a sudden alter their habits and adopt a proclivity for sound reasoning magically after reaching this arbitrary age of retirement? No. Odds are as we get older we tend to become more rigid in our thinking and set in our ways. This may not be true of all individuals, but it does tend to be true for most people.

4 thoughts on “The Long White Beard Fallacy

  1. I agree. When I was much younger, a very senior engineer I worked with was fond of saying, “good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment.” A low age is a barrier to wisdom, although I’ve worked with people whose wisdom exceeded their young age. I’ve also worked with older people, and enjoyed watching others on television, whose wisdom was far short of what one could reasonably expect based on their years.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I believe you have an excellent point here. Age is a correlated with wisdom. As you astutely point out, there are some younger people out there with truly sound perspectives on life.

      In my opinion, its more what kind of experiences you have had and if you actually learned anything from them. That is what will truly distinguish the wise from the unwise. Its really more about being open to information.

      I appreciate your insightful response.


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