The word ignorance is used as an insult but it shouldn’t be. It doesn’t mean stupid or rude, it just means “lacking knowledge”. I’m totally ignorant of the works of Skrillex for instance. I know it's a thing but I know practically nothing about it. Pointing out when someone is being ignorant therefore doesn’t attack them at all, it reminds them of an important fact:
No matter how much you know, there is always more which you don’t!
A student once asked me an interesting question which turned into a thought-provoking discussion:
Student: Are there parallel universes?
Me: Nobody knows. There are lots of Physicists looking for them but nobody has any idea.
Student: But what do you think?
Me: I think nobody knows.
Student: If you had to guess.
Me: I wouldn’t.
Student: But what do you believe?
Me: I believe I don’t know.
Student: What if I held a gun to your head and forced you to decide.
Me: Why are you holding a gun to my head, I thought we got on?
Student: Just say I was and you had to pick.
Me: My guess would be completely random and I'd only be doing it to stop you pointing a gun at me.
Student: So, go with your gut feeling.
Me: My gut feeling is nobody knows.
Student: You aren’t allowed to say that, now choose.
Me: OK, fine. Let’s say yes, there are parallel universes?
Student: Why did you pick yes?
Me: Because I like the idea of parallel universes and I think that would be cool.
Student: Thanks, also how come you’re just so awesome Mr James?
Me: Well, I’m naturally that kind of guy.
Student: And also, your blogs are really well written.
Me: I know.
It’s an interesting exchange and it highlights a key point. Giving the answer “I don’t know” to a question is never satisfying. If the student had asked which Scientist first suggested the idea of parallel universes that would be different, I would say Isaac Newton (in his book Opticks). But the question they asked was a speculative one: do parallel universes exist? We have no evidence one way or the other, so nobody knows. At all.
Other speculative questions are things like: Do aliens exist? How did life on Earth originate? How long will the human species last? The only answer anyone can give to such questions is “I don’t know”. However, you can talk about possibilities and probabilities until your face goes purple.
For instance, I think it’s very probable alien life does exist. But evidence always trumps conjecture. If you don’t have any evidence, you don’t know the answer to the question. And it’s ok to be like that.
The problem is, ignorance often looks like weakness, even though it’s actually a healthy state of mind to be in. I was once in a cinema and a woman behind me was mouthing off about something awful and stupid and offensive, so I got involved. She asked me a question at one point and I said “I have absolutely no idea”. Her response was: “And you’re proud of your ignorance are you?”
Well, not really, but I’m not ashamed of it either. I’m just honest with myself (or at least try to be). Obviously I didn’t say anything that cool or collected during the argument. I just snapped back with something caustic and cutting. I’m a grown-up you see.
Ignorance is a good thing to admit, especially if you're doing Science. There’s a wonderful scene in the Hollywood blockbuster Avatar which illustrates the point. The main character is asking the spiritual leader of the Na’avi clan why they haven’t been able to teach humans their ways. The response given sounds like mumbo-jumbo, but it’s actually brilliant: “It is hard to fill a cup which is already full.” In other words: you can’t teach someone who thinks they already know the answers.
The same is true when we’re carrying out a Scientific test. If we go in feeling like we know what the results are going to be we’re biasing ourselves. We should always start at zero belief (ignorance) and wait for the evidence to convince us one way or the other. We can have our hunches but the whole point of Science is to test them.
Rene Descartes carried this out to the extreme in the 17th Century. He decided to start at complete ignorance, refusing to believe anything, and see what he could convince himself of. He came to the conclusion that he existed, God existed, and mathematics existed. Whether we agree or disagree with Descartes’ conclusions, his intentions were noble: start with no belief and wait to be convinced.
Admitting and owning up to ignorance can be really hard, particularly when you’re a teacher. You spend a lot of time telling people what you know so it feels weird to talk about how much you don’t know. It’s not easy to get the balance right.
As a teacher I usually make it clear to my classes that I know a lot about the subjects I’m teaching. It’s not to boast mind you, it’s to help students feel at ease in my classroom. If students have confidence in their teacher’s knowledge they’re more likely to feel they can trust what happens. So I try to establish the fact that I know a lot about what I teach. And I do. I’m really proud of my subject knowledge.
But I know less than 0.00001% of the Scientific knowledge out there! This is one of the cool things about Science: even when you know loads about it, you’re still not even close to running out of stuff to learn.
Sometimes I’ll joke with my classes and say “I know everything” but it’s understood, I hope, that I really don’t know much about anything. My knowledge is dwarfed by others and dwarfed further still by the Universe itself. And that's OK. Even the most knowledgeable people in the world are mostly ignorant of it. And it’s wise to remember that, particularly when we’re engaging in debate.
Image credits: Angry teenager
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