Sunday, June 6, 2010

Certainly enough ignorance to go around

Another week, and a week of reading through another flurry of aggravated blogs and blog comments on topics environmental, political, and other. One of the common strategies in these postings is to accuse someone of ignorance. "That ignorant so-and-so can't seem to understand ________." Calling someone ignorant is an increasingly easy, and unfortunately increasingly non-trivial attack these days. A Google search for "ignorant" culls up more than 30 million hits. Of course, a similar search for "expert" results in more than a hundred million hits.

Just as knowledge can and might well be considered to have a wide variety of types, so too does ignorance. The top of this list, up in the rarified climes of professional expertise, is the increasing ignorance of scientists in the face of an increasing deluge of scientific information (publications) and data resources. Even those in tiny specialties have seen the content load of new science double every few years. Some decades ago when I was a graduate student at Penn, I shared a house with three medical students. After their required specialty rotations each of them decided that pathology might be the only real occupation for their future. "We actually know so little about the human body," they lamented, "It might be safer to study them after they're dead." Let me call this type of ignorance "professional-ignorance." While scientists do their best to keep up and keep pace with the information load, they are all a little guilty of this. In their defense, they are the folks who face the actual precipice of the unknown--the edge of knowledge; and they are tasked to expand this knowledge envelope for us all. Their work defines the boundary between ignorance and knowability. However, "professional ignorance" is not the ignorance I'm usually reading about in the blogosphere,  even though science-bashing is back in vogue.

The next type of ignorance we find is what I would call "educated-ignorance." There are far too few hours in a day or even a year to stay on top of all of the many possible topics of interest to any one individual. If even the experts have a hard time in their own fields, what sort of chance does anybody else have? Educated-ignorance is pretty much my life. I've spent several years learning how to learn various subjects, but I'm more or less (sometimes, I hope much less) ignorant about any of these, as I swim the mighty currents of an omnipresent information overload. Educated-ignorance is reflexive enough to understand its shortcomings. It is the knowledge virus of the information age. Fortunately, its victims are also savvy enough in just-in-time learning to turn a temporary lack of understanding into a more robust purview on any one selected topic. The educated-ignorant individual is appropriately suspicious of the entire notion of certainty. For even as she can, with some effort, cure her ignorance of, say, the impact of volcanic dust on jet engines, or the mysteries of credit default swaps, she knows that, in the weeks ahead, her lack of attention to these topics will increase her ignorance of them.  Calling someone who understands educated-ignorance "ignorant" has no real effect. They are prone to agree with you.

The remaining realm of ignorance is where its invective is based. It is used mostly by people who have selected a few cherished sources of information (perhaps a radio talk-show host or a famous blog). The insult is directed at everyone who have either chosen other sources of information or who have disagreements with the writer's sources. The writer is usually certain that the messages his sources have revealed are so evident and so rational that anyone who listened to them would have to agree with them, and so would agree with him. This certainty is the launchpad for any number of claims of ignorance in others. It also reveals a more focused form of ignorance in the writer. As Eric Hoffer noted, "We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand." Let's call this "infallible-ignorance." The infallibly ignorant has gathered all of her knowledge eggs into a tiny basket, and defends this with an unbridled ferocity. Here we find the bellowing of the demagogue, and the bluster of the true believer. The infallibly ignorant may have an under-developed skill in researching beyond the sources they trust, and can never understand the depth of their own ignorance.  They can change, of course. Most of us were like this at some point in high-school or college; clinging to the right to bullshit our way through life. Most people do move on, but the infallibly ignorant just dig in. 

While there is certainly enough ignorance in the world for each of us to have our share, we can try our best to avoid the folly of infallible-ignorance, and to discover and overcome the limits of our knowledge at least for another day.

Image: calm, a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike (2.0) image from manuel_72's photostream

2 comments: said...

Thank you! I needed that!

Thaidiamond said...

I believe Mark Twain summed up the world of the infallibly ignorant quite well:

“It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.”