Ignorance and black cats

Science is not a linear or predictable path to truth.

Science is the constant pursuit of provisional answers based on incomplete, conflicting and sometimes ephemeral information. The scientific method is not a tool guaranteed to find answers, but a philosophy intended to keep us from believing too firmly in the answers we find.  An old proverb applies to science and our quest for truth: “It is very difficult to find a black cat in a dark room. Especially if there is no cat.” Good scientists understand this and revel in the realization that the more we know, the further we get from truth and the more there is to learn.

This is actually relevant to all human endeavors, not just to the experimental sciences. It applies whether we are planning a vacation, doing our family genealogy, building houses, managing organizations, or searching for spiritual guidance. The Answer is not an attainable goal. Life itself is provisional, never a finished product but always a work in progress.

In science (and in such applied fields such as engineering or technology), mastering ‘facts’ is important, even necessary. One cannot build sound bridges without a solid knowledge of the materials and forces involved, or without a mastery of the mathematical and physical principles at work. In quasi-scientific fields like economics or management, or in nonscientific fields like ethics, art and philosophy, a mastery of the material is also necessary.  One cannot manage an economy without an understanding of human behavior and economic principles. Even composing music or creating a play require a mastery of the established tools and vocabulary. It is exceedingly rare to succeed without a schooled or intuitive mastery of a field’s ‘truths.’ As a society, we quite rightly admire and empower those who demonstrate mastery of ‘truths’ in their field.  

But there is a downside to the value we place on knowledge: it ignores the role and value of ignorance.

I don’t mean willful ignorance, where people choose (or allow themselves) to ignore information that conflicts with their current beliefs or that would suggest the need to make difficult decisions or take painful actions. Stuart Firestein, a distinguished neuroscientist who teaches a course in Ignorance at Columbia University, labels this kind of ignorance as ‘willful stupidity’ and describes it thus: “…a callow indifference to facts or logic. It shows itself as a stubborn devotion to uninformed opinions, ignoring contrary ideas, opinions, or data.” (Sadly, this kind of ignorance is all too common in positions of academic, political, religious and management authority, where charisma or coercion play a large role and ambiguity or nuance are often seen as failure.) 

I am talking about the kind of ignorance that has driven progress throughout human history, an acute and motivating awareness that our information is always incomplete and subject to revision, that our understanding of this information may be wrong, that our conclusions may be flawed, that our application of information may have unanticipated consequences, and that there are many places where our information and conclusions are not just incomplete but contradictory, non-sensical, or not usable in any practical sense. This is the ignorance that should be compelling all of us to constantly re-evaluate what we know and believe, and how we apply these to questions and decisions, both large and small. 

The great physicist James Maxwell said it beautifully: “Thoroughly conscious ignorance is the prelude to every real advance in science.” 

Ignorance is not the enemy of scientific progress, knowledge is. Think about the history of scientific ‘truths’ that had to be disproven before science could advance: the geocentric universe, the ether, phlogiston, the caloric theory of heat, that atoms are the smallest pieces of matter. The more ‘established’ and therefore immune to challenge a ‘truth’ is, the greater the risk that it is ending a conversation rather than starting one, preventing progress rather than enabling it.  The same is true in areas as diverse as philosophy, the arts, sports and management. The more fixed an idea, the more accepted (and immune to challenge) an idea or process or  policy, the greater the chance that it stands in the way of creativity, innovation and progress.

This is not to criticize or deny the value of knowledge and experience, or the need to base our activities on the current best available knowledge. But we should be aware of our ignorance and the provisional nature of our current reality. Knowledge and tradition reassure us that we are likely to be successful. They bring us comfort. But it is a false comfort because it is also a dead end. It is the awareness of our ignorance - and the behaviors this awareness drives - that underlie our pursuit of knowledge and progress. Unless and until we acknowledge and endorse our ignorance, we cannot grow.

There are some who actively resist change and defend the status quo, however flawed, at great cost to themselves and those around them. Most, I suspect, do so not because they believe we have achieved the highest possible level of human development, but because they fear change and the unknown more than they are bothered by the flaws of the present reality. Over the course of human history, if these folks had held sway, we would not have immunizations, antibiotics, electric power, refrigeration, written language or printed books, sewage systems, or even democracy.

Not just in science, but equally in our personal and professional lives, in our personal beliefs and life styles, in our politics and management, we should honor and teach the value of challenging current information and theory and asking new and difficult questions. The person, the organization, the field or the culture that chooses to limit questioning and punish questioners has chosen to limit their ability to correct mistakes, to develop new skills and resources, to adapt, to grow and evolve, and perhaps even to survive.

The pursuit and application of truth and knowledge are fine, but must be constantly accompanied by the recognition that our truths and current best practices are provisional, lest we spend so much energy defending last week’s truth that we fail to find this week’s truth or start looking for next week’s questions.


 

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