The protective bloom of ignorance

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I have often stressed the point to my students: it is not your ignorance that interferes with your education in this subject; it's the very opposite. It's the fact that you are a highly intelligent human being and you know many things deeply and thoroughly that can prevent your learning. Of the things I teach, it is in phonetics that this comes out most vividly: the reason you can't learn to hear and produce the difference between Hindi dental [t] and retroflex [&#x0288], I tell them, is not that you are no good at this practical phonetics stuff, but that you have had twenty years of training in ignoring this contrast (so as to become an expert speaker of English or some other language), and you have done brilliantly at it. Well, there was an echo of the same line that popped up today in some news about the phishing industry. Dr Emily Finch, a University of Surrey criminologist, said:

The general public is more internet security-aware than it was five years ago. Malicious anti-virus scams are an indication that criminals are now tapping into this.

Rather than exploiting our ignorance – the basic premise of common scams such as phishing – they are actively using our knowledge and fear of online threats to their advantage.

Ah, ignorance! Lady Bracknell, in my favorite play, makes the wonderful remark: "I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone." She is a rather extreme opponent of education, but she is right that your knowledge can harm you.

Huge gangs in places like Eastern Europe, some with hundreds of employees, have been cold-calling people in the UK to offer them free virus checks. [It was a bit creepy that while I was writing this paragraph I got a cold call from a telephone marketer somewhere way to the east of here. But he hung up double quick when I asked him twice who he was.] Precisely because many people know that virus checking is important, they will often cautiously assent to such a check-up offered by a friendly and helpful stranger.

If they knew nothing at all, they wouldn't have the slightest interest: virus protection programs would have no function in the world of someone who didn't use computers and knew nothing about them or their software or the Internet. You can't interest hunter-gatherers in anti-virus software. But sophisticated users who display some interest are shown on their own screens some realistic "results" from a free scan that reveals virus infection or malware, and are then offered a free product that will get rid of it.

Unfortunately the free product also vacuums up their bank account numbers and passwords as soon as they next log in to transfer some money between accounts, and then money starts to disappear to Eastern Europe. One gang doing this made about $7,000,000 last year alone.

I have written many times in these pages about the linguistic clues that distinguish phishing spam from ordinary unwanted advertisements, and Nigerian scam letters from other strangers' approaches (see, oh, posts like this one and this one and this one and this one and this one); but Language Log can't save everyone. Many people have too much knowledge to be saved. The bloom is gone. You can't protect someone from doing something disastrous for themselves when they believe after rational consideration of the evidence that they are doing something sensible and prudent. After all, it is not even rational to doubt your own sense of what is sensible and prudent.

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