Sunday, April 30, 2006

Ramblings on ignorance, or ignorant ramblings?

Sitting in an airport, waiting for a flight allows me to ponder many things. Quite often they're work related, or have something to do with my personal life, but occasionally my thoughts will wonder to slightly more philosophical material.

Last week I started considering the implied meanings of many commonly said things. The phrase "I don't know" began to dominate my thoughts as I realized that I almost never said it without having some other message attached to it. I suspect that the same can be said for almost anyone else.

If you examine the situations in which "I don't know" is used you'll find that there is usually some kind of implied statement which immediately follows it. I've tried to break these down into categories and I think I've come up with something to cover almost any situation. Here they are along with my observations.

I don't know, but I know how to find out.

This is, if you will, the best informed state of ignorance possible. It means that the speaker is only one degree of separation away from the knowledge in question. The speakers almost compensates for not having an answer by knowing how to obtain the answer. In most cases where this phrase comes up, the person being questioned is actually quite knowledgeable about the subject, but simply doesn't know the answer to a specific question.

Consider a simple math question. If someone asked you, "What is 13+2+84-22?" it's unlikely that you would have memorized the answer to this question, but your knowledge of simple mathematics would enable you to easily determine that the correct answer is 77. If a person could reach this 'level of ignorance' on all subjects it would actually make him incredibly smart because even though he would not know the answer to a particular question, he would be capable of obtaining that answer.

I don't know, and I don't know how to find out.
This, of course, is the opposite of the previous statement. There is always a chance that the speaker will eventually gain the knowledge he lacks, but it depends greatly on whether or not he cares about the question and continues to consider it.

I don't know but here's what I think:
This statement appears whenever someone is rather opinionated on a subject. Naturally there is a certain level of ignorance acknowledged, but it is tempered by the fact that the person knows enough about the subject at hand to form some (hopefully rational and informed) opinion.

In some ways this is dangerous, because one can make an assertion about a subject that he or she admits to not knowing much about. In many cases this statement appears with a tacit "I don't know" making it seem almost as though the opinion is a known fact. Such a situation should be approached with considerable caution. It can either lead to misinformation or lead to a correct answer by means of intuition, intelligent assumptions, and possibly even dumb luck.

I don't know and I have never considered it before.
This is a state of simple ignorance. The speaker has most likely never been exposed to the subject material at hand. There's nothing wrong with that. But it's speaker's reaction to this statement that is truly important.

If the speaker follows "...I never considered it before" by a careful analysis of the question or the general subject at hand then his reaction is admirable. He has recognized his ignorance and then takes action to remedy the situation. He is not far behind the person who says "but I know how to find out."

If the speaker does not consider the question and his lack of an answer, then he has, for all intents and purposes, said "I don't know, and I don't care."

I don't know, and I don't consider it important to know.
This can actually be a respectable answer to a question. It isn't necessary for everybody to know everything, so considering a question and then, after due diligence, labeling the information as irrelevant is perfectly acceptable. Often, someone who means this will instead say "I don't know and don't care." This usually works in conversation, but there is a subtle difference.

Consider the question, "What is the distance from the Earth to the Moon?" If you plan missions for NASA, then the answer to this is pretty important. If you are a truck driver the distance from Chicago to Dayton will be much more useful. That's not to say that NASA employees shouldn't know the distance between two cities or that truck drivers shouldn't know the distance between two heavenly bodies, but chances are that knowledge isn't very useful in their lives. Therefore, the knowledge isn't really important to them.

I don't know and I don't care.
If there is one type of detestable ignorance, this is it. The main distinction between this and "I don't consider it important to know," is that someone who says this has skipped the process of determining whether or not the knowledge is important. Not only has the speaker acknowledged his ignorance, but he has shunned even the possibility that it may be important to him. Someone who repeatedly does this will tend to remain in a state of ignorance with little hope of educating himself.

You don't know that you don't know.
This is pure ignorance, but I don't necessarily mean that in a negative way. Everybody falls victim to this at some point, though it is seldom recognized. In fact I broke with the standard "I don't know" format because this is something which is most visible from an observer's viewpoint. The strange truth is, the very acknowledgement of ones own ignorance shows a certain lack of ignorance. In other words, by saying "I don't know" you are demonstrating that you are aware of your own ignorance. Yet we are all ignorant of many things without even realizing it.

For instance, suppose you ask someone, "What is pi?" A kindergartener typically won't know that the answer is 3.1415926535 (and so on.) More than that, he won't know that you are talking about a number rather than a pastry. So if you ask the question to this child, he will, rather than saying "I don't know," proceed with some description of pie. He didn't know that he didn't know the answer. Anyone with a 6th grade education (or thereabouts) should at least recognize that a pi is a number and pie is a food. Even if they don't know the value of pi, they are still exhibiting a higher grade of ignorance than someone who has no knowledge of math or geometry.

After plenty of consideration, I haven't been able to find any other ways to classify ignorance that don't fall into one of the groups above. So, now that the subject has been explored, what does it all mean? You may take away from this, what you want, but I've found that examining the level or type of ignorance I display is actually helpful for improving my thought process. If I take the time to determine the type of ignorance I display in any particular situation, there's hope that I'll be more likely to reduce my lack of knowledge.

If everyone who encountered a question they couldn't answer took a few minutes to look ask themselves which type of ignorance they displayed, it might lead to a more responsible environment where people actually learned from not being able to answer questions. But if someone follows every unanswered question by ignoring his own lack of knowledge, he will be saying "I don't care" and perhaps being irresponsible by not correcting his ignorance in situations where he could or should learn the answer to the question.

(Here ends the lecture.)


At 10:41 AM, Anonymous Bo said...

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