Uncommon Common Sense
By Bill Frayer

Ignorance: How Well Do You Know What You Don’t Know?

     Imagine walking up to someone and saying, “I think you are a very ignorant person.” Chances are they would be offended. But, in fact, ignorance is not, or should not be, a pejorative term. To be ignorant, of course, means not to know.  We are all ignorant about almost everything! 
     I remember attending a critical thinking conference in California about twenty years ago. One of the workshops I attended was offered by faculty at one of the University of California medical schools. It was entitled “Creative Ignorance.” The facilitators immediately asked us to make a list of twenty-five things we do not know. Try it sometime.  It’s not that easy to get started. Eventually, however, I could think of many things I did not know. I don’t know how far it is to Saturn, if Abraham Lincoln had a middle name, how the pelicans know their way back to Lake Chapala every year, when I will die, the essential elements of Irish mythology, and whether Barak Obama will be elected president, to name just a few.  We actually know very little, if we are honest about it. 
     So why is this important?  Well, as the medical professors who were running the workshop explained, the danger is not in being ignorant, but in not realizing the depths of our ignorance. They provided their medical students with an opportunity to realize that, even with their advanced medical training, they must realize how little they really know.  Imagine, for a moment, that you are undergoing surgery. The doctor has opened you up and is astonished to see something he or she has never seen before. 
     Consider two possible reactions from the surgeon. The first surgeon might exclaim: “Wow.  I’ve never seen this before, but don’t worry, I’m sure I can handle it!” The second might say, “Wow.  I’ve never seen this before. I’d better get some help.” I think we would all prefer to have the latter surgeon! 
     Mark Twain once said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” If we are aware of the level of our ignorance, we can do the work necessary to learn and understand before we have to speak or act. If we think we know more than we actually do, we are more likely to embarrass ourselves by displaying our ignorance for everyone to see, or worse, make decisions based on a lack of understanding and put ourselves or others in danger. 
     For some reason, it is difficult for us to admit that we don’t know something. And yet, that certainly does not stop some people from having opinions about topics they know little or nothing about!  In our culture, we are expected to have opinions about subjects we know little about. This, in fact, is a weakness of democracy, first pointed out by Plato. The only way we can really govern ourselves is if we are knowledgeable about the complicated issues which we must vote on. 
     Plato argued that most people do not have the time, or inclination, to inform themselves adequately. And today, this problem is even more pronounced because the technical problems we face are so immense. 
     We should all try to become more comfortable simply saying, “I don’t know.” It is by admitting that we don’t know or fully understand something that we become open to learning more about it.  I used to think I knew more about fixing my truck than I actually did. Several times, I discovered, the hard way, that I really didn’t know as much as I thought I did, and I had to have my mechanic repair the damage I did. 
     The smart physician knows the limits of his or her knowledge in diagnosing and treating an illness.  Most of us living here know the limits of our Spanish. By knowing what we don’t know, we can ask for help. 
     Deborah Tannen, the linguist, has written about how men are reluctant to stop and ask for directions. Why is this?  Is it harder for men to admit they don’t know something? Do men have a more difficult time admitting they don’t know? Well, I really don’t know, but I do know I have learned to ask for directions, and it’s saved me a lot of problems!
     Next month I will discuss another difficulty many of us have: the ability to change our minds.