Saturday, 5 September 2015

Knowledge, ignorance, and the spaces in-between

When the 18th-century English poet Thomas Gray said “where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise,” he wasn’t, as urban myths often assume, suggesting that being ignorant bestows people with a sense of pleasure and contentment. He was merely reflecting back to his joyous time of learning at Eton College where he was once a student. Regardless of Gray’s much-quoted and misrepresented lines, ignorance tends to be characterised as an antonym of knowledge. 

The relationship between the two, however, is much more complex. Neither knowledge nor ignorance is absolute. After all, people with knowledge in certain areas may be ignorant in other areas. Knowledge is not synonymous with wisdom either as is evident in the many acts of folly committed by those with years of meticulous knowledge accumulation in centres of higher education. How else do we explain the endless spirals of mindless wars, environmental degradation, and corporate greed in the world? And what about the likes of religious fanatics, misogynists, and climate sceptics? Wouldn’t the label of ‘ignorant’ be much too benign for such politically regressive groups?

Indeed, it is politics that navigates the space between knowledge and ignorance. The politics of power drives scientific research on “defence” and the politics of business works on the commercialisation of ideas and knowledge generation. Both thrive on a discourse of ignorance to exploit a constructed climate of uncertainty about issues around security, health, and well-being. And then there is the ambiguous area of ideology as well. For example, are parents who refuse to vaccinate their children “ignorant” or just proponents of a particular ideology? For many, taking a ‘natural’ path to healthcare, which includes rejecting vaccinations, is an ideological position that assumes nature and the ‘natural’ stand in opposition to science.

The knowledge-ignorance dichotomy is particularly strong in the discourses of science and technology. The early 20th century philosopher of science Karl Popper believed that scientific knowledge was evolutionary. As he argued in All Life is Problem Solving, the advance of scientific knowledge stopped ignorance in its tracks. But he didn’t contend with the explicit politicization of science and technology which leads to people making judgements on science based on their own political affiliations. A recent special issue of Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science on “The Politics of Science: Political Values and the Production, Communication, and Reception of Scientific Knowledge” explores this interplay between science and politics in considerable depth. The special issue editors, Elizabeth Suhay and James Druckman, point out that debates over issues of science such as evolution, stem cell research, use of nuclear power, and fracking, are intensely political. As they point out in their introduction to the special issue, “A range of human values, including political and religious ones, influence the process of scientific discovery as well as the dissemination and public reception of scientific findings.”

In an article in this same special issue, Mathew Nisbet and Declan Fahy have called upon journalists in particular to draw on “expert knowledge” and “facilitate discussion” to not only bridge ideological divisions but also to get people to look more broadly at the interplay between technologies and policy options. Such a call is part of a growing campaign to foster stronger, structured, and succinct science communication to spread scientific knowledge to the masses.

Nisbet and Fahy’s piece is in fact the starting point for a thought-provoking commentary in Public Understanding of Science by Kristian H. Nielsen and Mads P. Sørensen (now available online ahead of print). These two scholars from Aarhus University of Denmark endorse Nisbet and Fahy’s call but go a step beyond to make a bold statement of their own. They say that alongside knowledge, science communicators need to pay a lot more attention to the idea of ignorance too.  Arguing that ignorance or “non-knowledge” is here to stay and is not something that will eventually go away, they “assert that different forms of ignorance not only are fundamental to processes of scientific knowledge production but also are virtuous to democratic deliberation”. They argue that focusing on how ignorance works in different settings can help “develop even more diverse and socially responsible practices within science communication.”

In discussing ignorance or non-knowledge in its many facets, Nielsen and Sorensen’s commentary makes critical distinctions among “known knowns, known unknowns, unknown knowns, and unknown unknowns.” Getting a closer understanding of the contexts in which these four domains of knowledge/non-knowledge function is a nuanced way of seeing how society interacts with science and technology. In some ways, this quest runs parallel to the voyage of self-discovery depicted in the four quadrants of Joseph Luft and Harry Ingram’s self-awareness formulation, the Johari Window – the open self, the blind self, the hidden self, and the unknown self. 


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  3. I love the flip of the meaning of "ignorance is bliss". It is true that sometimes a lack of knowledge can lead to a calmer experience, but I had never thought of the phrase to be about the joy of learning that can only be possibly when you know very little about a topic. I suppose it is similar to the rapid rate of improvement you enjoy as a beginner, which diminishes the more you improve. (the rate of improvement diminishes, not necessarily the joy) :)

  4. Very interested in the commentary from Neilsen and Sorensen (haven't read yet, but will now I have read this post). I agree that alongside knowledge, science communicators need to address the non-knowledge or the uncertainty in scientific output. The suppression of scientific uncertainty threatens to damage the general public's perception and value of science and it foster a misunderstanding of the scientific process. As scientists we are non-knowledge hunters. We spend out days searching for, investigating and attempting demystify uncertainty. When we report a scientific finding to be a fact, rather than our best estimate of an ever-evolving lump of knowledge, the general public can loose faith in science in general. Developing standards for communicating uncertainty (and the non-knowledge) is an important challenge for science communicators today.