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A Celebration of Ignorance and Curiosity

Why Saying "I Don't Know" is the First Step Towards a Cure for Scientific Illiteracy

I don’t know. It might be one of the most undervalued expressions in the modern lexicon. Reasons for this are numerous. It is sometimes treated like an admission of weakness, as if not knowing something is an irrevocable flaw in personal character. To the extent that an expression of perplexity might expose some level of vulnerability, this is understandable. I also suspect that many people fail to appreciate its significance as the launching pad for any knowledge-gaining activity. Still others likely lack the basic capacity to recognize the gaps in their conceptual repertoire that the invocation of the phrase “I don’t know” is meant to fill. That is, they lack the wisdom to know that they do not know.

The impetus for my thinking in this regard showed up on the internet in late November of 2014, when a video surfaced in which a woman named Megan Fox purports to “audit” the Chicago Field Museum’s “Evolving Earth” exhibit. Rife with factual inaccuracies and conceptual misunderstandings, Fox’s video inspired a multitude of critiques and rebuttals. Some were measured: point by point corrections of the evangelist’s myriad factual errors and erroneous opinions. Less restrained responses lambasted the woman’s ignorance concerning the process of biological evolution—itself a justifiable condition—as idiocy. In these takes, Fox’s view was diagnosed as symptomatic of the wider plague of scientific illiteracy.

There is some truth in this perspective. Considering the availability and accessibility of information in a first-world, industrialized nation like the United States, the proportion of the adult population that lacks an understanding of basic scientific concepts and, more fundamentally, the process by which scientific concepts are produced, is lamentable. This is problematic for a number of reasons. In a (putatively) participatory democracy like the United States, widespread scientific illiteracy inhibits government performance: a troglodyte populous unsurprisingly tends to elect troglodyte leaders. These problems are particularly pronounced when said government is intrinsically intertwined with a market economy built on the fruits of scientific discovery. Moreover, in a society facing challenges that can only be understood and addressed through the development and application of scientific knowledge, widespread scientific illiteracy is absolutely pernicious.

But underlying scientific illiteracy is something more rudimentary. In many instances, the scientifically illiterate have an elementary inability to recognize and admit their vast ignorance in the face of the monumental complexity of the universe. What people miss in this regard is that ignorance itself is not something to be bemoaned. The vast majority of people are ignorant about the vast majority of topics. For instance, Vani Hari—who blogs under the self-appointed sobriquet of “the Food Babe”—has built a career on dispensing advice on topics about which she is either woefully inexpert or abjectly clueless. Credulous folk subsequently assimilate her ill-informed opinions and dispense them as fact to their friends and online acquaintances. As a result, there are people who worry over the presence of “chemicals” in their food, apparently unaware of the fact that everything they have ever eaten—indeed, their own bodies—are made entirely of chemicals. This flood of misinformation could be easily checked if people had the ability to recognize and admit their lack of knowledge. Instead, a woman who is worried over the possibility that the passenger cabins of airplanes might be pressurized with a 50% nitrogen atmosphere (the atmosphere of the earth is about 78% nitrogen) has a meaningful impact on the opinions of others.

It would seem appropriate at this point for me to wax nostalgic and point backwards, beckoning the reader’s sentimental eye to some bygone era, a time in which people had the wisdom and integrity to fess up to their ignorance. That’s the way essays of this kind often go. Problematic, in this, is that I’m not sure that such a time has ever existed.

Still, the basic concept I am driving at is quite old. In fact, it was a significant part of what Socrates was on about in many of the Platonic dialogues. The specific topics varied, but in many cases the thrust of the argument could be boiled down to a plea for the Ken Hams and Megan Foxes and Vani Haris and Jenny McCarthys  of 5th century B.C. Athens to pipe down for long enough to admit that they didn’t know what they were talking about. “I don’t know” is at the very heart of the Socratic Method, implicit in a process of inquiry that revolves around the asking of non-rhetorical questions.

Critically, “I don’t know” is also at the core of the scientific method. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection was born of a simultaneous recognition of the ignorance of both himself and his contemporaries and a passionate desire to remedy it. Darwin saw the astounding diversity of life on earth and recognized that neither he nor anyone else of his time understood its origins. Contrast this with the position of Darwin’s most vocal skeptics, religious fundamentalists who said they did know the answers to the questions Darwin asked, and they were found in a bit of mythology that came to their attention via a three thousand year-long game of telephone. Thankfully, the curiosity of Charles Darwin was contagious, persisting despite the most vociferous objections of people satisfied with the unjustifiable certainty of religious dogma. As a result, we now have access to an incredibly deep and continuously growing understanding of the origins and diversity of life on earth.

Of course, the problem extends beyond the ranks of religious zealots who cleave to ancient myths as an anchor for their purported “knowledge” of the world. A minority of parents across the political spectrum refuse to vaccinate their children because a handful of celebrities and bloggers have convinced them that the very inoculations that have eradicated smallpox and reduced the number of cases of polio from the hundreds of thousands to the hundreds in a matter of decades are somehow dangerous. Climate change deniers take a similar stance, their a priori certainty that human behavior cannot change the planet so profound that they arrogantly refuse to accept the scientifically derived consensus on the matter. Additional examples abound: chemtrail and fluoride conspiracy theorists, anti-GMO activists, free-market zealots, men (and women) who refuse to get directions when they are very clearly lost in an unfamiliar place. False certitude is a trap everyone falls into occasionally. The solution is to have the humility to admit one’s ignorance and the curiosity to remedy it.

The take-home point is that “I don’t know” is not an expression of frailty. That is absolutely the wrong way to look at it. Properly viewed, it is a doorway to infinity. It is the first step on any journey driven by imagination or curiosity, the most fundamental expression of that which beckons us beyond the horizon. To say “I don’t know” is to embrace one’s cosmic insignificance and challenge it at the same time. Cormac McCarthy put it powerfully in Blood Meridian:

The man who believes that the secrets of this world are forever hidden lives in mystery and fear. Superstition will drag him down. The rain will erode the deeds of his life. But that man who sets himself the task of singling out the thread of order from the tapestry will by the decision alone have taken charge of the world and it is only by such taking charge that he will effect a way to dictate the terms of his own fate.”

I don’t know is the beginning. Absent a desire to fill the gap to which it refers, it is a laudable, but ultimately impotent expression. It might accurately reflect a person’s information concerning any given topic, but it is not itself an endpoint. The ability to recognize the informational and conceptual gaps implicit in I don’t know is the most rudimentary ingredient lacked by anti-vaxxers, GMO skeptics, climate change deniers, Vani Hari, and Megan Fox. Either too arrogant or insecure to admit their ignorance, they issue radical opinions on topics about which they know very little. Rather than humbly defer to experts or, more valuably, set themselves the task of critical inquiry by which they may find out for themselves, they persevere in their adherence to inept explanations and the endless, dissembling retreat to apologetics. Though simply saying “I don’t know” would amount to little more than an acknowledgement of a rather bland fact it would, from their current stance, amount to an unambiguous signal of personal progress.

One of the better expressions of what I’m getting at came from no less auspicious a source than Lt. Commander Data. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Where Silence Has Lease”, Data put it this way: “The most elementary and valuable statement in science, the beginning of wisdom is ‘I do not know’.” My argument is not that the groups that have been on the receiving end of my more critical barbs should abandon their explanations and put their trust blindly in science or expert opinion. Rather, they should endeavor to learn about the process of scientific discovery and to uncover the reasons why it is reasonable to put stock in certain claims but not in others. Before I would encourage people to put their trust in science, I would encourage them to recognize the gaps in their knowledge. That is—for example—accepting that they don’t have the tools to say one way or the other whether evolution is the proper account of the origins and diversity of life.

That might come off as more than a little preachy or patronizing. Fair enough. I’ve brought controversies over biological evolution and climate change and GMOs to the forefront here because they are all things about which I once knew very little. In fact, at one point, I knew so little about them that I was blind to the relevant deficits. Now I know a little more. Indeed, there are even a few things about which I would venture to say I know a lot. I cherish my knowledge. It was hard won. But the things I know are vastly outnumbered by the things I do not know. The universe is populated primarily with mysteries, which makes it a veritable wonderland for the curious.

The trick—and it’s a very difficult trick—is to not get lost in the parochial expanse of the things you know. Or more precisely, the things you think you know. Imre Lakatos speculated that, following the Enlightenment, people sought certainty in science as a means of replacing the false certainty that had been derived from the cultural and intellectual hegemony Christianity had enjoyed in Europe over the preceding centuries. Unfortunately, this certainty has proven elusive. There are various accounts of what it means to know something. For some, the term knowledge is used to express a certain level of personal confidence in a claim. On a colloquial level, this is probably a reasonable definition. But in terms of logical or axiomatic certainty, it’s worth remembering that the only things about which we can ever be entirely certain are things that have been repeatedly and empirically demonstrated to be false. The recognition that humanity’s most resilient claims about the way the world works are ultimately provisional might strike some as unsettling.

Personally, I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. But my personal feelings in this regard are immaterial. Regardless of how distasteful one might find the idea that there are very few things about which it is justifiable to express resolute certainty (mainly falsified concepts and mathematics), the fact remains that knowledge of the kind people like Vani Hari profess concerning what is safe to eat or Ken Ham expresses about the divine origins of humanity is a mirage. Life is a dance with uncertainty. A willingness to say “I don’t know” and set about chasing the perpetually receding star of resilient and universal knowledge is the best way to handle it. Certain knowledge may be illusory, but it is still possible—and reasonable—to instill more confidence in some claims supported by some kinds of evidence than it is in others. And that, I think, is all we can ask. It is undoubtedly the best we can expect to get.

  • In high school, I had an AP US History teacher who had two favorite phrases: “know what you know” and “eschew obfuscation”. Clearly, both have stuck with me, and I think both are relevant here. While knowing what you don’t know is a daunting task, challenging yourself to determine what it is that you actually *do* know is somewhat easier (with the corollary being that everything else falls in the realm of things you don’t know).

    Obviously I use “know” in this instance not always in the strictest scientific sense, especially seeing as not *everything* in the world needs to be rigorously proven every time. Still, allowing for the possibility that your assumptions about the world could come crashing down on you is critical for keeping in touch with reality.

    Returning to the point, my teacher’s objective was to force us to recognize that boundary between what we do know and what we don’t. Only when it is clear where the limits of our understanding end (and the need for that clarity gets to the idea of his second favorite phrase) can we push those boundaries further with insightful questioning and reasoning.

    Great essay, Zane, and to anyone reading down into the comments section, be sure to check out his site at http://highplainsskeptic.com.

    • Zane Beal

      Thanks Neel. I think you bring up an important point of the difference between what it means to know something in the colloquial sense of day-to-day life and what it means to know something in the sense of it being part of ever-changing corpus of proven human knowledge. There are a lot of things we behave as if we are certain about because doing otherwise wouldn’t get us anywhere beyond an endless regression of doubt. So a distinction needs to be drawn between the things we take for granted, like the kinds of knowledge that allow us to build interpersonal relationships and social networks or plan for events that won’t happen for a while (exams, weddings, vacations, job interviews etc.), and the things that require more rigorous evaluation, like claims about the what medical treatments are most effective or the potential social and economic consequences of certain government policies (generally speaking, claims about how the world works).

  • Sorry to be late to the game. This is a very nice piece, but one thing struck me. It would be nice if you applied “I don’t know” to AGW. Because really, we *don’t* know. Is the global temperature trend moving up? Likely yes. What’s the human contribution to it and how do you make it into a falsifiable hypothesis? The answer really is, “I don’t know.” The models have been, ummm, somewhat ad hoc and incomplete, and so far, their predictive ability has been poor-to-nonexistent, requiring continual adjustments to the data and the fiddle-factors. I wished more of my fellow scientists would be willing to adopt that attitude “I don’t know” attitude rather than chasing the grant money and publication paths that are all in accord with the so-called consensus. There are some very serious workers that are looking hard at the issue and trying to figure out what reality is (e.g., Curry, Christy, Spencer…), but they’ll be the first to say “We don’t know. That’s why we do research.”

    It’s too bad that politics has t-boned the science.

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