September 9, 2015: On ignorance.

A NYT article that many are reading now picks up on and advocates for an old course from the 1980’s, “Ignorance 101 ” in scientific practice, and on a 2012 book, “Ignorance: How It Drives Science,” in order to argue for the breakdown of the cognitive binary of ignorance & knowledge.

People, the article argues, “tend to think of not knowing as something to be wiped out or overcome, as if ignorance were simply the absence of knowledge. But answers don’t merely resolve questions; they provoke new ones.” In reality and in practice, “The larger the island of knowledge grows, the longer the shoreline — where knowledge meets ignorance — extends. The more we know, the more we can ask. Questions don’t give way to answers so much as the two proliferate together. Answers breed questions. Curiosity isn’t merely a static disposition but rather a passion of the mind that is ceaselessly earned and nurtured.”

Why is this important? Because humans and their inventions have gathered a constantly increasing body of knowledge that is now impossible for any single human being to master. If the command of knowledge 3000 years ago was about knowing what the rest of your class and city-state knew, now it is about being able to ask relevant questions. Our work, across the world, is now ‘knowledge work,’ constantly changing in scope and definition. Part of our job is to know what we need to know for the task at hand, and how to ask about what we do not know.

In medical practice in the United States, most practicing doctors do not declare at the outset to their patients that ‘medical science may have spent billions of dollars and hundreds of years but it still does not know much about the human body or its biological environment. At best, we have best practice models.’ Why not? Partly because the power to discover and treat illness and thereby hold off death is still a potent thing, and most people want their doctors to know how to deal with the specters of illness and death. They also want quick solutions, not ongoing and incremental life-style changes. Doctors have become specialists in an industry called healthcare, they are experts, and they are paid to know. And the patients want the doctors to be able to assure them that their own ignorance will not mean the high cost of life. In between the insurance companies want better rules for practice; the smaller the margin of practical error the easier to find its correlation to money gained or lost. Also, it is not the American way to be still and watchful in the face of ambiguity. Americans like to ‘do’ things, get things ‘done,’ measure and match and mark the gains. They are not comfortable with public acceptance of the idea that the more we know the more we do not know.

Why am I not surprised by this? Because this is milk and water for people with my kind of training in literature and culture. I have argued endlessly with my scientific and technological family members on the idea that ambiguity, uncertainty, interpretative openness and lack of closure can be useful and productive things when we deal with clusters of interacting human beings (society), human relationships (family, business, politics) and human motivations. Most of the time, I could not ‘prove’ my points with facts and data to those who do not trust the reasoning of words and perceptions, so I ‘lost’ the debates.

However, performing artists everywhere, and the art and literature of the last thousand years in every culture will testify to the productive space of not knowing. This learning of ignorance and its uses in a public and open way is something new for the generations of scientific practitioners and for their acolytes, not necessarily for those who work with art.

All artists start the day with a blank canvas, a blank page, a blank score, an empty stage. And every day they create something out of their attention to and interaction with that ignorance of what will come. They brush away the old cues and they allow you to make a space for not knowing. They allow a rhythm of knowing and not knowing, until something else emerges, and each actor and participant and listener and witness can find a settling point for the time being. Fold their wings. Watch and listen, and begin anew. One example is Peter Sellars’ work  on Handel’s Hercules (here ).

This call for the use of ‘ignorance’ is therefore better understood as a use of ‘not knowing.’

A redefinition of expertise as something to be constantly mapped, an understanding of knowledge as exploration, and a sort of re-framing of the attitude of the scientific practitioner to the field and subject of knowledge. The new and desirable attitude is presented as one of humility where the previous attitudes had been those of mastery and overcoming. This sort of public discourse about disciplinary changes and modifications in how practitioners of science approach the everyday anomalous human they encounter is in line with our temporal (still nascent) shift from the stance of the ‘anthropomorphic master of his age’ to the ‘human as intelligent inter-actor’ with his still-unpredictable environment. And so we may, at the end of the century, see science take note of anecdote and anomaly before they can be processed into data-systems.

Allow me to be the heretic heathen humanist, though: I still think the change in attitude indicated above (desirable for practitioners of science especially in their interaction with the humans they practice their science upon) will face stiff competition from the human desire to pin down what we know and can prove. The love of certainty goes deep in human beings. That’s why we love religion, with its laws and punishments and certain promises of this or that heaven. And those who need something more concrete for their sceptical minds, they turn to science and fact, to the promise of human capacity to discover more and more about this wondrous cosmos we exist in through tools and methods invisible to the naked eye and improbable to the everyday mind. Has the surge of scientific advancement in the last century and this not been met with an increasing religiosity and political piety? I wonder if, now that science in practice and theory has entered realms of knowledge that it cannot prove or show to the obstinate person on the street (microbiology or the Large Hadron collider, anyone?), the same audience obstinately makes an equivalence of both types of ‘magic’ — science now and religion as it always wanted to be. Their reasoning is magically simple (and I mean the pun): if we are seeing things that were impossible before, why not the miracles in religion? The trouble is, this sort of thinking makes a binary out of what we know (science) and what we cannot prove (religion) and considers the space between them a body of water that has to be conquered by the expanding islands of each. And that’s a fallacy.