The Case for Teaching Ignorance – The New York Times

Good advice to all of us, whether policy makers or not, on uncertainty and the need to understand the limits of available evidence:

Presenting ignorance as less extensive than it is, knowledge as more solid and more stable, and discovery as neater also leads students to misunderstand the interplay between answers and questions.

People tend to think of not knowing as something to be wiped out or overcome, as if ignorance were simply the absence of knowledge. But answers don’t merely resolve questions; they provoke new ones.

Michael Smithson, a social scientist at Australian National University who co-taught an online course on ignorance this summer, uses this analogy: The larger the island of knowledge grows, the longer the shoreline — where knowledge meets ignorance — extends. The more we know, the more we can ask. Questions don’t give way to answers so much as the two proliferate together. Answers breed questions. Curiosity isn’t merely a static disposition but rather a passion of the mind that is ceaselessly earned and nurtured.

Mapping the coast of the island of knowledge, to continue the metaphor, requires a grasp of the psychology of ambiguity. The ever-expanding shoreline, where questions are born of answers, is terrain characterized by vague and conflicting information. The resulting state of uncertainty, psychologists have shown, intensifies our emotions: not only exhilaration and surprise, but also confusion and frustration.

The borderland between known and unknown is also where we strive against our preconceptions to acknowledge and investigate anomalous data, a struggle Thomas S. Kuhn described in his 1962 classic, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” The center of the island, by contrast, is safe and comforting, which may explain why businesses struggle to stay innovative. When things go well, companies “drop out of learning mode,” Gary P. Pisano, a professor at Harvard Business School, told me. They flee uncertainty and head for the island’s interior.

The Case for Teaching Ignorance – The New York Times.

The Franco-American Flophouse: Tribes and Truth

Great addition by Victoria Ferauge to the four points of Rosling (see How Not to Be Ignorant of the World):

I would add one that I call for want of a better term Tribes Never Tell the Truth.

We are social creatures and every human group family, tribe, clan, class, country, nation, state we belong to has a story about itself and about the people and places beyond its boundaries and borders. Arjun Appadurai put it quite well when he pointed out that “No modern nation, however benign its political system and however eloquent its public voices may be about the virtues of tolerance, multiculturalism, and inclusion, is free of the idea that its national sovereignty is built on some sort of ethnic genius.”

These stories contain facts mixed with myths to form powerful narratives and we cannot help but evaluate the input we get from the world against the storyline of whatever group we identify with. Even the most independent of thinkers can find himself struggling mightily to incorporate information that challenges what he thinks he already knows about the world.   Those who are quick to recognize this about religion or nationalism should acknowledge that there are quasi-religious narratives lurking under the surface of their “rationality”.

As Mircea Eliade said:”Mythical behaviour can be recognized in the obsession with success that is so characteristic of modern society and that expresses an obscure wish to transcend the limits of the human condition;  in the exodus to Suburbia, in which we can detect the nostalgia for primordial perfection;  in the paraphenalia and emotional intensity that characterize what has been called the cult of the sacred automobile.”

These stories are another impediment to seeing the world clearly because challenging them and finding them wanting gets us kicked out of a club we desperately wish to belong to.  Most groups even ones comprised of “free thinkers” do not tolerate even small deviations from the common story.  Is it not true that perceived apostates are treated even more harshly then those who are clearly in the camp of the enemy?  Every group has its own Inquisition, ready to ferret out those who “belong without believing.”

So I would add this heuristic to the list – one that was beautifully expressed by the late Christopher Hitchens –  “How do I know that I know this, except that I’ve always been taught this and never heard anything else? How sure am I of my own views? Dont take refuge in the false security of consensus, and the feeling that whatever you think you’re bound to be OK, because you’re in the safely moral majority.”

The Franco-American Flophouse: Tribes and Truth.

Ignorance is cheap – but parliamentary knowledge costs – Globe Editorial

Globe editorial on ignorance and the Government’s (or at least of some of its MPs) wish to be less open and transparent:

Mr. Wallace posed his own written question asking for the estimated cost to the government of answering Order Paper questions. The answer he got, based on a formula that is dubious at best, was $1.2-million for 253 questions. “Are we sure we’re getting value for the dollar?” Mr. Wallace asked.

Well, let’s think about that. What value do Canadians place on knowing: the percentage of Employment Canada benefits applications that are rejected and how many people have to wait longer than 28 days for a response; which government department is responsible for monitoring the transporation of fissile radioactive material inside our borders; how much money Ottawa has spent developing software since 2011 and what the software actually does; and the amount the government spent on travel expenses while negotiating the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the European Union.

These are just some of the opposition questions currently on the Order Paper, and all of them deserve an answer. Mr. Wallace’s suggestion that MPs should ask fewer questions, because ignorance is cheap, is pretty much one of the dumbest things a parliamentarian has come up with in recent memory.

And as most of us know from personal and professional experience, ignorance is expensive given the implications of bad and faulty decisions.

Ignorance is cheap – but parliamentary knowledge costs – The Globe and Mail.