Making science (part VI): Ignorance

There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.
— D. Rumsfeld, 2002

The scientific literature increases exponentially with thousands of papers added daily. As the day has only 24 hours, what this means is that every time we sit down to read a paper, we have —consciously or unconsciously— decided to neglect thousands of others which we will most likely never read, ever. Agonizing as this may sound to some, it is equally inevitable. The assurance that we feel when moving a paper to our “to-read” list can be self deceptive, however, and so it is crucial that we choose which papers to read with great care. Or rather, that we carefully decide which papers not to read. In fact, better to do this consciously than as a default consequence of the limited number of hours in the day. The art of selectively ignoring sets of facts has been called “controlled neglect” and it is a crucial tactic to cope with the vast mountain of facts that keeps growing by the day.

Would you rather earn an A or an F in a class on Ignorance?
—S. Firestein, 2012

What is it more important, what we know or what we don’t? It has been argued that ignorance fuels innovation, and this is probably true to some degree, but ignorance is a double-edged sword. One risk is that we turn current knowledge into unknow knowns, a category that even Rumsfeld’s uncanny insight failed to foresee, opening the door to AIDS deniers, creatonists and the like. The bottom line would seem to be that scientists should forget the answers (i.e. controlled neglect, with empahsis on “controlled”) and focus instead on the questions. The problem lies in that, unlike knowledge, ignorance is unbounded. When a sphere becomes bigger, the surface area grows. Thus, as the sphere of scientific knowledge increases, so does the surface area of the unknown.

The more we know, the less we know, and so our ignorance paradoxically expands as our knowledge increases. We’ve got what we don’t have. We’ve got our ignorance, preciously infinite.

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