In Defense of Being an Ignoramus

My friend Danny Jackson has kindly written my post for me this week as I wrap up my semester. It’s an interesting discussion of an under-used word—I hope you enjoy it.

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Of all the insulting things one could say of me, being called “ignorant” is high up on the list of things I would not want to be called. Words, besides having the meanings that we agree that they have, also have histories and lives of their own. Language is always changing. Most words in existence now have been around far longer than anyone’s memory goes and will outlive us by a long time. Thus, it’s important to consider how words have changed and what their past may tell us.

A cousin of “Ignorance” is “Ignoramus,” a Latin injunction for “we do not know.” According to Wiktionary  English borrowed it around 1615 from the titular character of the play “Ignoramus.” Today you most likely will only see the word Ignoramus as a weirdly dated insult or spelled as “egg-no-ra-moose” on that peg game they have at Cracker Barrel (which—full disclosure—I have conceded a loss to on more than one occasion). But it used to mean more. At the dawn of the Age of Discovery it was a mindset that led to the modern era.

Ignorance is not a virtue, but admittance of ignorance is. Admittance of ignorance is a form of humility. It’s an acknowledgement of human limitedness of understanding.

Admitting it is only the first step, though. It’s the removal of a roadblock. From it, many more virtues spring forth. Where you can admit freely that you don’t know everything, you can take the first steps to acquiring knowledge—through observation. Where observations can be made, new knowledge can be discovered. We have been beneficiaries of the scientific method and its formalization in the Industrial Revolution for a few hundred years now. Yet the idea is not new. Socrates is attributed as saying “I know that I know nothing.” What is relatively new is admittance of ignorance on a mass scale. Ignorance and discovery go hand in hand.

From Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens:

The first modern man was Amerigo Vespucci. [And not Columbus who, in contrast to this lesser-known Italian sailor, was always convinced he had arrived in India and not on a new continent.] Columbus stuck to this error for the rest of his life… There is poetic justice in the fact that a quarter of the world, and two of its seven continents, are named after a little-known Italian whose sole claim is that he had the courage to say, “We don’t know.” The discovery of America was the fundamental event of the Scientific Revolution.

Every so often I’ll take a deep dive down a Wikipedia fox hole and wind up in some unfamiliar territory. One thing I enjoy about living in the Information Age is having vast amounts of information available to me in no more than three clicks.  And there’s a lot of it. Information is akin to LEGOs. Information is the building blocks of knowledge. One human receives about 34 GB of information in a day. Most of it is noise that doesn’t mean anything to the receiver. Put enough information together and you have Knowledge. Knowledge is the building blocks of understanding. The collective human experience is based on tens of millions of understandings. They look a lot like World Views because they influence each other. These Understandings are based off of both collective human knowledge and individual knowledge—the general and specific, respectively. All those pieces of knowledge are created by millions of millions of pieces of information. Whatever number you’re thinking of, think bigger.

For a person who wants to experience everything, this is very bad news. By doing some quick, back-of-the-envelope math, I can see that there’s no way I can absorb all the information, despite its wide availability. What for centuries used to be a scarcity problem, now is an availability problem in the Information Age. The moderation we need is to accept that we are ignorant. And the solution to our information problem lies within the problem. Humans can’t get enough of the internet because we crave community. The easy proof for this is that you most likely got here by linking from Facebook or Twitter. We’re communal creatures by design. Community offers sharing of resources. The resources in this situation being not food or infrastructure, but information.

It’s okay for us to be Ignoramuses and admit that we don’t know because it allows for others to chime in and say “Hey, I actually know that.” It’s okay for us to be ignorant of how elliptical the orbit of the Earth around the Sun is. It’s okay for us to have to look up if there’s a spelling difference between the exercise machine Elliptical and the shape of an orbit Elliptical. It’s fine for us to be ignorant to the most up-to-date philosophical trends. That’s what curiosity is for—to inspire learning. It’s okay to not know everything even in this age of plenty. I would say it would be foolish to even try.

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