Admitting Collective Ignorance

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.

Chaos and the Unknown vs the Mundane and Predictable

A constant tension in my life is summed up by Allison Vesterfelt in her book Packing Light, “As scared as  I was of chaos and the unknown, I was equally scared of the mundane and predictable.” Since about half way through college, I have had serious fears when looking  into my future. One of the principal fears is the fear of boredom. I do not want to live a life with a routine that does not excite me. I have always been afraid of being stuck in front of the television each night watching sitcoms or sports. I am afraid of doing the same thing every day. Afraid of not exploring the world, and missing the chance to truly live. At the same time that I find myself wrapped up in fears of not having a life that I enjoyed, I want nothing more than to be comfortable in a predictable world with a nice house, a nice job, a nice salary, and no stress.
In college I was not sure what I needed to do to find a way to live a life that fell in them middle of my two fears.  As a sophomore I was active with coaching cross country and some basketball, and I was getting great grades in school, but I was not a complete person, and I was not sure what direction I wanted my life to move in.  I began to question my desires, and worry about the importance of material things, especially if I did not have real relationships and fun people to share my imagined success with.  I eventually began to take more chances and I got involved with clubs and organizations. I started as a member of the Spanish Club and eventually grew to start my own podcast where I interviewed student leaders to highlight the cool things that students at the University of Nevada did beyond the classroom. This taught me about how important it was to take chances and put yourself in situations that are new and scary. All of the guests of my podcast found a way to go beyond the comfortable success they wanted in college to do things that were difficult, not always clear, and so often rich with relationships and new connections.
As I have moved forwards in life, graduating from college and entering the world of the 40 hour work week, I am still working on understanding how to live a life that balances the chaos of the unknown with the mundane and familiar.  I have turned to podcasts to help me explore new areas, and have put myself in positions that will provide me with opportunities to explore. The real lesson that I have learned is that it is ok to allow myself to build a safe place and a home that can be predictable, so that when I do begin to branch out and explore,  there is a safe place I can return to, allowing the world to slow down around me.