General Ignorance

Ignorance is always with us. There was a time when an educated person in Europe could pretty much know everything that was considered important (by Europeans). Part of this education was the “Grand Tour” - an extended journey around Europe and the Mediterranean to see ancient sites, visit libraries and galleries, and revisit the classic Greek and Roman texts.

Today, it requires profound hubris to the point of delusion, to contend that one knows everything that’s important. More and more of the education system is devoted to specialization, and most professions derive much of their perceived value from the special knowledge that they, uniquely, are considered to possess.

Listening to Freakonomics Radio recently, I heard an interesting discussion about ignorance. It turns out that from a very young age, we learn that it is unwise to admit to ignorance. Even in adulthood, most of us are loath to say “I don’t know”. Yet the essence of the intentional and fulfilled life is the continuous search for knowledge – not only to fill in the gaps in areas of practical importance, but simply for the joy of understanding more about our human condition.

Historically, most people had a single job, developing from a junior position in which ignorance was expected, to greater levels of knowledge, skill and experience. Today, there are two dynamics that are requiring faster and faster adaptation to change. On the one hand, the rate at which science, technology, and society change, is increasing. On the other, economic and technical changes mean that job types are being continuously created and destroyed as economies transition from agrarian to industrial to knowledge to service.

I studied computer science as an undergraduate, and much of the primary material associated with algorithms, compilers, languages and so on is still valuable. But the development process, the tools, the understanding of machine learning, and most significant of all, the fundamentally distributed nature of much of today’s computing, means that unless you are in a state of continual self-reinvention, you will fall behind.

What this means is that we must not shun ignorance, we must simply recognize it as the state before knowing. It’s hard to admit that you don’t know the answer to a question in your domain of work, but it will often be the case. It is a mistake to be embarrassed about this. We know that we are all specialists in some areas, have broad familiarity in others, and are blind in yet more. We rely on our colleagues, our mobile devices, and sometimes even primary research, to learn that which comes next.

My father, a lawyer, used to say that it was not his job to know the law, but it was his job to know where to find it. The law is constantly changing, both in statute and case law. It’s foolish to pretend you know it all.

There’s no doubt that ignorance can be stressful, especially if you’re put on the spot by a client. But if our real responsibility is to provide professional advice, far better to say “I’ll find out” than to make something up.

How do you cope with not knowing the answer?

I don’t know. Comment below.


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