Blaise Pascal has an analogy for ignorance, presented with a circle: what he knows is inside the circle, what he doesn’t know is outside the circle — and the more he learns then the more he realizes that he doesn’t know (because the perimeter of the circle gets bigger). As his circle grows, the more he discovers and recognizes that he doesn’t know.
For me, the circle is more like a living amoeba: some things I have to relearn a few times, some things I forget, I’m always hungry, and perhaps I cause some people a little indigestion sometimes. But the circle’s a good enough analogy for today, so let’s stick with that.
On the surface, the analogy is simple. But just under the hood are a few important points we should not miss:
- Sometimes people who know very little (tiny circles) have no idea how ignorant they really are. I think we’ve all met this person, the one that always talks like they know stuff and yet everyone else knows that this person is clueless. But, almost by definition, it’s hard for us to see to what extent we are that person.
- People who know a lot are people who are very aware of how much they do not know. The connection here is a lot stronger then first appears: Humility is a key element of learning. To learn, we must respect the truth and we must recognize and respect our lack of knowledge. People who think they know already, don’t learn.
and now I’ll talk about Fertility?
When I started my PhD, everything I read about this one relatively new and fertile research area was exciting, cool, and powerful. I decided to make this my area of research, become an expert in the area, contribute to the field and expand the body of knowledge in this area. I did: published a fair bit, contributed, got my PhD, etc. Yay!
But towards the end of the experience I learned something: to those in the know, “a fertile field” is code for “there may be lots of weeds.” When I first entered that field, everything I read was great. By the time I left, I recognized most of it as weak and at least somewhat erroneous. I had learned more, and as a consequence I realized that my original impressions were somewhat a function of being naive and ignorant.
I was reminded of this just this last week: I started reading and researching a new topic that I’ve been interested in and wanted to research for some time. As I did so, I was impressed that all the material I came across was so good and exciting etc. And yet this time a little red flag went off in my head: “that probably means you’re ignorant – I’ll bet most of what these folks are saying is rubbish and you’re just too ignorant to be able to sort it out.” Little flags like that make me smile.
Flagging my Ignorance
A really powerful and tremendous asset is the ability to distinguish between what we know and what we just think we know. But, only knowing what’s inside our circle, that can be a tough call to make. So, we should look for little red flags to help clue us in. So here are two of my personal flags:
- When you think you know it all, you definitely don’t (small circle syndrome).
- If you think everything that everyone’s saying on the topic is right, then you probably have no clue.
So here’s the question: what are flags for you? What are flags that help you identify and distinguish between things you really know and things you think you know but maybe don’t?