I don’t know; therefore, I am? How to make your ignorance serve you well.

By Guy P. Harrison

  • Ignorance is inevitable. Denying or ignoring it is a common cognitive error that can be costly.
  • Everyone should be aware of the Dunning–Kruger effect.
  • The bias blind spot trips up the best of us. Humility is in order.

Half empty or half full? The human brain is magnificent and powerful, but it can’t know everything.

by Guy P. Harrison

Don’t let ignorance about ignorance be a problem for you. Too often, we view ignorance as a slur, something synonymous with “stupid” or “irrational.” Given this negative connotation, it is not surprising that so many people reflexively ignore or deny gaps in their knowledge. But failing to face up to our ignorance and pretending to know things we don’t know is a bad habit.

We all navigate our lives within a vast universe-sized ocean of things we know nothing about. No matter how many books we read and how much formal education we accumulate, the best we can hope for is the quickest of glimpses in the general direction of what is knowable. Ignorance is inevitable; therefore humility is vital.

How to make your ignorance serve you well.

To make things more challenging, our minds are susceptible to biases that can cause us to misperceive our own ignorance. It is crucial to understand the Dunning-Kruger effect and keep it in mind. It describes the common tendency we have to overestimate our knowledge or competence. The bias blind spot is another cognitive plague everyone should be aware of and consciously push back against. We tend to recognize how biases impact the thinking of others more easily than we see it in ourselves (Pronin, et al 2002). These are not aberrations. They seem to be normal human settings. So don’t be normal. Rise above them as best you can.

How to make your ignorance serve you well.

Let’s consider popular UFO excitement as a representative example of how ignoring, denying, or simply failing to imagine potential ignorance can derail our thinking. How many times have we heard a UFO witness say: “It had to be an alien spaceship because of the way it moved. It defied the laws of physics.” Even if it were a vehicle of some kind and not an illusion or astronomical feature, that unjustified statement could be preempted by simply pausing to consider all that one does not know about aviation and physics.

This would include even highly trained pilots and physicists. No single pilot, regardless of credentials, has current knowledge of every new and secret experimental aircraft that is being test-flown by all nations and corporations on Earth. How many people knew about the F-35B Lightning II before it was made public by the US Air Force? The plane has a remarkable F135 engine and swivel nozzle system. The F-35B can fly in ways that could look otherworldly to anyone.

Related: The Optimism Bias

Laypersons who ignore their ignorance about high-performance secret military drones cannot justify declaring that some particular UFO could not possibly be an aircraft of terrestrial origin. Do they know, for example, that some drones can maneuver in ways that are very different from what we expect from traditional aircraft? A drone can push the limits of its power-to-weight ratio more than crewed aircraft because it doesn’t have to account for the needs of an onboard pilot’s blood-dependent brain. Even a top-notch physics professor could struggle to make sense of an object’s movements when its size and distance are unknown.

Here is another common claim made about UFO sightings. “I know it’s real because I saw it with my own eyes, and I’ll never forget it.” Such a statement is not evidence of alien visitation. It is a confession of having no understanding of how human vision and memory work (Harrison 2013, 67-78). Eyewitness accounts are extremely unreliable. This is because we don’t see the world in the way commonly believed. Our eyes take in information which our brain then translates into scenes that our brain assumes will be useful in the moment. Everything we see in our everyday lives is an internally constructed representation of the reality around us. Moreover, during this process, real things get omitted and nonexistent things may be added for efficiency or due to the influence of prior beliefs and expectations (Harrison 2015, 127-128).

How to make your ignorance serve you well.

Memory is the other problem with that original UFO statement. Our recollections are not faithful recordings of events we experienced. A memory is a story about the past told by the brain. Like vision, the act of remembering is highly edited, subject to bias, and may include many fictional embellishments. It is human to see something that isn’t there and remember it incorrectly with great confidence. Only those who haven’t learned this—and neglect to be vigilant about their potential ignorance when wading into unfamiliar waters—would place their trust in a UFO eyewitness account.

Failing to acknowledge or privately speculate about one’s ignorance on any given topic can bring about a reckless arrogance that is best avoided. Confidence means little when key knowledge is lacking. Charles Darwin wrote about this problem in The Descent of Man: “…ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge…” Ignorance is not a free pass to answer questions and fill in blanks with anything we want, only to defend it with bluster and swagger. And ignorance is our cue to slow down, think, and learn.

Ignorance is cause for shame only when we are dishonest or unnecessarily delusional about it. Don’t deny. Don’t surrender. Use ignorance to your advantage. Face it and let it fuel you with motivation to learn as much as you can about as much as you can.

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