Admitting Collective Ignorance

I generally agree that we are too confident in our opinions and judgments about the world. We live with a lot of complexity and very few of us are superforcasters, carefully considering information and updating our knowledge as new information comes along. We rely on personal experiences and allow ourselves to believe things that we want to be true. However, there are some modern institutions which help push back against this knowledge overconfidence.
 
 
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “Modern-day science is a unique tradition of knowledge, inasmuch as it openly admits collective ignorance regarding the most important questions “ (emphasis in original). As Harari notes, physicists openly admit that we cannot study what happened in the first moments of the Big Bang and scientists cannot explain what consciousness is or how it arises. On the largest problems science is great at admitting collective ignorance, something that is very unique among humans. Throughout our history many humans have attempted to answer the most important questions through narratives and stories, resulting in religions and dogmas. For modern science to eschew this trend is rather remarkable.
 
 
I would say that modern science actually goes a step beyond admitting collective ignorance in the largest questions we can ask. Something I often noted during my masters program, where we read a great deal of academic public policy and political science papers, was how often we could argue that authors were confident in their findings in the body of the paper (sometimes overstating the impact of their finding) only to admit in the conclusion that their study was limited in scope and could not be generalized to broader contexts. Within social sciences at least, papers encourage researchers to place their work within an appropriate context, and from my experience, the best papers do a good job of being honest and realistic about their conclusions. They admitted ignorance even when identifying effects that appeared to be real.
 
 
Humans cannot admit ignorance in business, politics, and religion. A CEO who admitted that the company didn’t really know what was happening and that they were operating from a place of ignorance probably won’t be CEO for long – especially not if they face a stretch of bad luck. Very few voters would elect a candidate who admitted to being ignorant on much of the world. Religions (in my view – which could be wrong) seem to provide more answers than admissions of ignorance (although Christians at least seems to admit that humans cannot understand their deity’s decision-making process).
 
 
Science is a unique place where we can admit that we don’t know much, even when announcing findings and things we have learned from careful study. This is one of the strengths of science and something we should do a better job communicating.  An admission of ignorance within science is a sign that scientific institutions are functioning well. That seems to have been forgotten at times during the pandemic, and often has been mocked by people who are unhappy with regulations and decisions by public policy officials.

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