07 Jun 2010 ‘IGNORANCE’
Creating and upkeeping my Facebook page, and producing eleven new YouTube clips and the documentary for Greenscreen, has pushed writing articles for The Brisbane Institute to one side. My first article this year for The Brisbane Line is titled Ignorance. I want to write a piece called My First Two Hours in Portugal before I travel overseas. You can read Ignorance here.
Where to begin? On the face of it, my profound ignorance should amply qualify me to write this article. Boy, do I know about being ignorant, although ironically, it requires a person far less ignorant than me to get to grips with the subject. Confronting one’s ignorance is rather dispiriting; much better not to dwell on it. My Concise Webster’s does not define ignorance. It merely lists the word as the noun for ignorant, which is defined as – without knowledge; uninformed; resulting from want of knowledge.
I consider myself reasonably well educated. But I was forced to face my own ignorance while reading Jenny Uglow’s superb book, ‘The Lunar Men’ about an inspiring group of friends who lived in and around Birmingham during the second half of the 18th century and who visited each other’s houses to argue about any topic other than politics or religion and exchange information about their multifarious activities. They met on the Monday nearest the full moon to better light their way home. The core group included Erasmus Darwin (doctor, poet and grandfather of Charles), Josiah Wedgewood, Matthew Boulton, James Watt and Joseph Priestley; luminaries all. Samuel Dalton became a member of the extended group.
These men reflected the age in which they lived by their consuming pursuit of scientific knowledge. Regrettably, by the time of my secondary education in the 1950s, science had for some while been one of two separate streams of learning and a mystery to many if not most of those who opted for the arts. This is as true even of the science of 250 years ago, whether concerning metallurgy, ceramics, the nature of gases, the propagation of plants or the mechanics of steam power. It was understood and in part significantly developed by the ‘Lunar Men’, whereas it is a closed book to me.
The ‘Lunar Men’ were probably among the last generations who could aspire to a general understanding of what western hubris regards as human knowledge, a supremely impressive accomplishment nonetheless and one that has long been impossible. I have no clear memory of doing lab work at school and I only passed my O level maths by 1/3rd of a per cent after extra coaching. My academic interests lay outside science. Since my school days I could have rectified the gap in my education had I been so inclined. Instead, I acquired an interest in industrial archaeology to add to my admiration of the achievements of the great 18th, 19th and early 20th century engineers. More recently I have enjoyed books about the Royal Society and about scientists whose lives were intertwined with the lives of the romantic poets. My reading confirmed my view that the men and women featured in these books were just as creative as the artists I have long revered.
Further contemplating my ignorance, I saw that throughout my life, I was happy to contribute to everyday conversation by talking about subjects of which I knew little or nothing as if that might not the case. Conversation is vital to society’s well being. Even ignorant conversation is preferred to silence. One can generally thus indulge oneself with little apparent damage to the social fabric.
Thankfully, the fact that I am ignorant of so much has not prevented me from leading a full and functioning life. One does not need to know how an internal combustion engine works in order to drive a car. There is no requirement to know the science of powered flight in order to fly in a plane. But it is still amazing how one can prevail knowing so little about all but a relatively few subjects.
Donald Rumsfeld was much mocked for his famous reply to a journalist at a NATO press conference in Brussels on 6 June 2002, when he spoke about known unknowns and unknown unknowns. But his answer makes eminent sense. A known unknown is something you know you don’t know, such as my ignorance of computer programming or brain surgery. An unknown unknown is something far more sinister. There is no greater ignorance than that of a person who does not know he or she does not know. I have too often been guilty of this. I think I know what I am talking about and make my point to someone who knows better than me with total conviction only to find out, to my intense embarrassment, that I really did not know what I was convinced I knew and that I could not have been more wrong.
Nobody has an infinite capacity to know. There are physiological limits to one’s capacity quite apart from one’s personal, that is psychological and temperamental limitations. For instance, some individuals are wilfully ignorant, perversely refusing, say, to accept the long-established proof about evolution. Also, people’s memory declines with age even if their depth of insight does not. I would argue that memory loss contributes to one’s ignorance. Alas, I am now less able to retain the information that I read in books or papers or derive from conversation, television programmes and films.
Is ignorance bliss? Yes, if there are things you would rather not know, or if you undertake a task, not knowing its potential danger and emerge unscathed. No, if you are waiting for news about a friend or wanting an answer to a question. One can be burdened or unburdened by knowledge or feel free by a lack of it.
Ignorance can be used to excuse a multitude of sins from individuals not knowing rules and regulations or the law, to abusive and prejudicial behaviour towards minorities or social misfits, which can be cynically and dangerously exacerbated by scaremongering populists and their attendant media. A person’s ignorance of the law does not prevent him or her from being punished. A person’s ignorance of the ways of others can result in anything from mild embarrassment to death.
I believe that prejudice, whether in the form of xenophobia, religious intolerance and majority ignorance of the ways of a minority (which seems to be based on fear of the other) exists in all societies. I challenge the view which Australian politicians of all stamps like to put about, that Australia is not a racist country, most recently regarding the attacks on Indian students in Melbourne. Even if the attacks were opportunistic, given their frequency in relation to the number of Indian students in Melbourne, they were assuredly racist. The most insidious aspect of racism is its latency. In Australia there is a great deal of individual prejudice towards aborigines and ethnic minorities. Exemplary political leadership and media responsibility are required to dispel collective ignorance. There is no sign that this is likely to happen.
Superstition is another of ignorance’s guises, also closely linked to fear. It seeks to justify irrational belief and behaviour. This can range from a sportsman or woman believing that a certain item of clothing brings them good luck to a person or a crowd wreaking death and destruction. Then there is ignorance which is due to stupidity, resulting for example, in poor parenting and poor life choices.
I greatly admire multi-skilling. I consider its absence to be a form of ignorance. I don’t consider myself to be multi-skilled and would be surprised if anyone did. What I have in mind is anyone who is versatile with their hands as well as with their intellect. I am no handyman. I prefer to earn enough money to pay someone to fix things around my home or on my car. It is just as well that there are people like me to provide employment for skilled workers. An apt definition of society is our need and willingness to depend on others and to share our knowledge. I really don’t need to know about the structure of gases as long as some people do. It is curious that, in societies such as ours, however people may have spent or misspent their youth, we seem to end up with enough people doing all the requisite jobs to get by.
There are circumstances when we retreat into ignorance in the presence of an expert, by refusing to know what we know. Twenty years ago, something was wrong with the windscreen wipers on my new car. I went to the dealer and one of the mechanics perfunctorily checked the wipers and claimed that the stiffness was because the car was new and that the wipers did not need adjusting (seemingly in the sense that new shoes become more pliable with wear). This time, instead of yielding to the expert, I stood my ground and insisted that the fault had nothing to do with the car being new in the manner implied. The mechanic adjusted the wipers and all was well.
I started this article because I was forced to confront my ignorance while reading ‘The Lunar Men’ and I conclude by admitting that it took me years after the introduction of hinged lids on tooth paste tubes, which I found annoyingly messy and unfit for purpose, before I discovered that one could still unscrew the tops. Bugger ignorance.