In praise of ignorance and being wrong

What comes before learning?

In 1995, I was out of work and interviewing for a job as an analyst at a research company. As they described the job to me, I became very excited.

My job was going to be to identify important questions for business clients where the answer was not yet known. Like (in 1995), what would be the business model for content online. Or would non-PC internet devices matter to anyone. To answer these questions, I would have to conduct primary research — talking to people who were actually trying to do whatever it was.

That sounded like a lot of fun to me. And for 20 years, it was.

Here’s the thing about learning: to do it, you have to start out in one of two states.

You are in a state of ignorance — that is, you don’t know something — or you are wrong — you think you know something, and it turns out that it wasn’t true after all.

If all you do is confirm what you know (or suspect), you are not really learning anything. Also, since many other people already know what you know (or suspect), you are not really breaking any new ground.

Every honest researcher who has ever figured anything else knows the feeling of that moment. So does anyone else who is still open to learning.

Imagine for a moment how Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson of Bell Labs felt when there was a persistent buzz in their radio antennas, one that despite all their diligent efforts they couldn’t track down. Then imagine how they felt when they discovered that the only remaining cause was that the universe was talking to them. They had discovered the background echo of the Big Bang, and they won the Nobel Prize for it.

The fact is, along the way to getting the Nobel Prize, they felt stupid. They felt like something was wrong and they couldn’t figure it out.

It is a very snowy day today in Massachusetts. I have two cars and I normally park them side by side in my driveway to make it easy to get in and out. One day, after I’d survived about a dozen winters in this house, I realized that if I parked them behind each other, I wouldn’t have to shovel off both sides of the driveway. I felt very stupid in that moment.

My father is 86 years old. He is a retired college professor. He is still teaching classes (mostly to other seniors, now). He is teaching them about things like CRISPR and artificial intelligence. After retirement he taught himself to use computers and how to give talks with presentation software. He is not afraid of ignorance or being wrong . . . he knows the exhilarating feeling of not knowing, then knowing, then teaching. His mind is still sharp. This is not a coincidence.

If you are going to learn, there are going to be a lot of moments in which you feel stupid. In fact, you are not stupid. You are either ignorant or wrong. Both are curable with evidence. After you get past that feeling of incompetence, you get the reward: insight. Now you know something you didn’t know before.

We live in a culture overflowing with know-it-alls. We know (or imagine we know) how to fix the opioid epidemic, how to fix the student debt crisis, how to preserve the spirit of free enterprise while protecting the most vulnerable among us. Especially among our politicians, there is an overwhelming desire to have all the answers. (Except when there’s a desire to do nothing; in those cases, passively, “more research is needed.”)

Ignorance feels uncomfortable. Finding out that you are wrong about anything is unpleasant. But unless you embrace the discomfort and the feeling of being wrong, you will never learn anything new.

This is why it is so important to seek evidence and recognize when you are at the peak of Mt. Stupid. There is no shame in ignorance, only in failing to act to cure it.

I wish some of our politicians would more often say, “I don’t know; I’m going to find out.” Ignorance is curable. Certainty and immunity to evidence are not.

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