Friday, 22 June 2012
Ignorance; a science at last!

 “A multitude of books is making us ignorant.” - Voltaire

What we believe, or think we know, often gets in the way of what we do not, or should, know. These tensions; facts versus ignorance, truth versus error, and good intentions versus unintended consequences are now a unique field of cautious inquiry; in short, the study of what we don’t know.

The first attempt to formalize the study of ignorance came recently with historian Robert Proctor of Stanford University who coined the neologism “Agnotology” to describe what he believed to be culturally produced ignorance. His purpose was to expose junk science used by tobacco companies. Proctor’s best contribution may be rhetorical, however. Science has lots of junk in the trunk, as do many other disciplines. Where method masks error, historic examples are legion.

Phrenology, graphology, and astrology were all, at one time, considered sciences. And reason or precedent is often used to promote falsehoods. Even Galileo capitulated when confronted with the received wisdom of the church. Luther and Calvin promoted predestination, the devil’s influence, and anti-Semitism at the expense of reason, choice, and free will. Edison clung to direct current long after the truth of Tessler’s alternating current was known. William Randolph Hearst promoted the errors of National Socialism until Kristallnacht. And like a politician, Einstein was for nuclear weapons much longer than he was against them. Alas, Bob Proctor seems to be more concerned with the willful misuse use of science or method, rather than the study of the vice and virtue of ignorance.

That vacuum was filled, in part, recently by Stuart Firestein at Columbia University who now attempts to explain the large scientific role of ignorance in a small book. If brevity is the soul of wit, Firestein hits the mark. He criticizes the traditional brick building, or hypothesis based, approach to science and recommends more metaphors, more questions - and more humility. Socratic nostalgia is not novel, but any use of metaphors or modesty is sure to annoy empiricists. With artistic aplomb, Firestein invokes the metaphorical black cat in a dark room.


When or if we turn on the lights, we often find that there are no cats. For Firestein; what we don’t know should drive analysis, not hypotheses or assumptions about what we think we know.

Firestein is on to something. Any inquiry might be the search for a better metaphor. Indeed, what we often think of as “fictional” usually does a better job with facts. There may be more truth in a single poem, play, or novel than might be found in a thousand tedious scientific papers; which probably explains why good art has so many repeat customers. And entertainment is never the enemy of erudition. A kernel of fact is often wrapped in a husk of wit.

Insight also appears in unlikely places, like on the E Ring at the Pentagon. It was at a Department of Defense press conference that Donald Rumsfeld delivered his now infamous soliloquy about “not knowing what we don’t know.” The Defense Secretary was trying to explain how decisions are often made in half-light, with imperfect information. Unfortunately, he was talking to journalists, a profession unencumbered by facts or humility. What Rumsfeld implied, but was too polite to say, was that Intelligence or national security science doesn’t always give a policymaker what he needs. With this, “Rummy” was definitely on to something too.

Of all professions; national security, economics, and the social disciplines may be the modern safe havens for ignorance. And every error in fact or false argument need not be refuted in detail to recognize abuse of method. Scientific Agnotology usually comes in one of two flavors: the truth that we ignore; or the nonsense that we accept as fact. Fortunately, error has distinctive tags. Junk science has created a host of euphemisms, a politically correct Esperanto that gives the game away.

Indeed, if a national security study uses terms like kinetics instead of war, stability instead of victory, extremists instead of national or religious sponsors, local progress instead of global success, or speculative intentions at the expense of factual capabilities; the analysis is probably ignoring the obvious. Well-intentioned attempts at appeasement, maybe, but not science.

Economic claptrap is too easy. If spending is described as stimulus, taxes are described as investments, debt and deficits described as norms; then just drop your wallet and run. And beware when economists no longer refer to nations on the cusp of bankruptcy as PIGS. The pig metaphor is too painful. The pigs of social democracies don’t just eat anything; eventually they eat everything. The Euro buffet is about to collapse; but, the truth of economic peril is hard to digest and the bromides are impossible to swallow. Celebrating spending at the expense of thrift is the perennial red flag.

And the social sciences may be the worst; indeed, destination resorts for junk - and black cats, real or imagined. Foremost are those studies which conclude, or assume, that terror is a crime not a military tactic. Such science would have you believe that the purveyors of beheadings, amputations, decimations, honor killings, and suicide bombs who chant “allahu, alkahu akbar” are driven by the same motives that inspire pickpockets and hubcap nippers. Labeling terrorists as criminals is a logical, albeit perverse, extension of the shibboleth that criminals are victims.

Religion is the big black cat lurking in the dark corners of modern terror, insurgency, and regime change; always present, yet seldom seen. Indeed, attempting to study internal or external conflicts of the Muslim world without considering Islam, if we can mix a few more metaphors, is a little like trying to understand vanilla without the beans. Feigned ignorance of the menace of a politicized religion is underwritten by sweeping assumptions about moral equivalence and moderation – another pair of truant cats.

Ironically, the history of poverty is similar to the history of ignorance. The relationship is not causal, just analogous. Poverty was long thought to be the engine for achievement. Literature is festooned with Horatio Alger tales. And in another day, ignorance was also the engine of inquiry, the desire for knowledge. Socrates and Barzun didn’t ask questions because they didn’t have answers.

Alas, the natural incentives of want and need have been anesthetized by well-intentioned government programs that inhibit the very initiative that might eliminate penury. And ignorance is nurtured by a school system where social stasis, or a jockstrap, trumps knowledge or performance. The low expectations generation, the paternalists, are now in charge; grappling impotently with strategic and social dilemmas.

So we continue to flail in the dark at those black cats, real or imagined; speaking a political Esperanto, the correct language of cultural pretense. We know where the lights are, yet we dare not turn them on. Nevertheless, putting ignorance in the cross hairs may help.

New science is like working in a vacant lot. Move enough rocks and the ugly things crawl away. We have lived with error for so long; maybe a study of ignorance is the Braille we need to find the lights. Ignorance, after all, is indeed a much bigger subject than any science.


G. Murphy Donovan went to primary and secondary schools in the east and south Bronx. He was home schooled for ignorance and poverty.  


Posted on 06/22/2012 7:44 AM by G. Murphy Donovan
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