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The Upside of Ignorance

When I forget my manners (alas, too often), I sometimes throw the word ignorant around. I apply it to groups of people I don’t much like. Evolution deniers. Trump and Cruz supporters. People who favor the designated hitter.

But last night, I read an argument that made me rethink the whole problem of ignorance. The sum of what humans don’t know is so vast that when I compare my personal ignorance to that of, say, your typical homophobic legislator with a potty fixation, the difference is statistically insignificant. We are both gnats in a maelstrom, clueless and not very long for this world.

So if ignorance is our common ground, can it make for common cause? Yes, I believe so. And the question is not, Who is ignorant? It’s, Are we willing to admit it and do something about it?

Admitting ignorance

I can’t remember reading a textbook more humbling than Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, by Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli historian. Last night, he walked me through the history of ignorance. For many thousands of years, people labored and languished under the belief that their elders and chiefs and high priests knew everything worth knowing. When insurgent little bands of sapiens finally debunked that belief and admitted ignorance, they launched the Scientific Revolution. For better and worse, our species was ready to conquer the world.

“The idea of progress,” Harari writes, “is built on the notion that if we admit our ignorance and invest our resources in research, things can improve.”

So the world-morphing power of modern humans arose not from our faith in gods, our respect for authority, or our ability to learn from the past. It came from our acute awareness that riches and power lay waiting out there, in what we didn’t know. For the first time in history, people put their faith in progress. Military forces and enterprising companies launched their expeditions with scientists along to chart new territory, size up the natives, and catalogue the loot.

A devotion to progress, as Harari points out, cuts both ways. It can motivate us to feed the hungry and heal the sick, or it can motivate us to destroy whole cultures and exterminate thousands of species. But once sapiens acquired a taste for progress, there was no turning back.

At first glance, the problem of sorting good progress from bad would require a moral code, a religion or something like it. But our doctrines and codes tend to lag our advances in science. So as we debate the morality of, say, genetic engineering, maybe the rule of thumb should be a humble assumption of ignorance. We almost never know enough to conquer, exploit, and destroy. And we run into problems as soon as we stop learning and declare victory. DDT will kill mosquitos; problem solved. Thalidomide relieves morning sickness; problem solved.

Nothing sacred

So as science writers and insurgents, how do we think about ignorance? Maybe we shouldn’t rely on that false dichotomy, ignorance versus science. We’ve done that too often, especially in debates about evolution and global warming. Maybe we should write more about what we don’t know and less about what we do. (Or think we do.) Real science begins with a humbling admission of ignorance and proceeds with the expectation that anything it discovers could eventually be proven wrong. “No concept, idea, or theory is sacred and beyond challenge,” Harari writes.

Or, as the poet A. R. Ammons puts it, in “Dunes,” “Firm ground is not available ground.”

So if we hunker down in our bastions of science, religion, or commerce, secure in our hard-and-fast beliefs, we stagnate. We regress. We doom ourselves to obsolescence. Our homophobic legislators in Raleigh refuse to admit their ignorance. They have bound themselves to archaic beliefs that leave no room for doubt. If I say to them, "You're ignorant and I'm not," I'm just arrogant and rude. Maybe it's better to say, "We're all ignorant. Let's decide to stop fearing what we don't understand."

As science-writing insurgents, we can’t afford to peddle our institutions as the arbiters of truth. No exalted temples, no priests, and no holy writs. Let’s build into our stories an admission of ignorance and a passion to learn.

Years ago, I interviewed Christian de Duve, a biochemist and Nobel laureate. Near the end of our conversation, I asked him what he would say to young people to interest them in science. He didn’t rattle off a list of beneficial technologies, or tout the virtues of research institutions, or brag on what science had learned. “Tell them the unknown is waiting,” he said. “Go out and meet the unknown.”

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