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20170909 – Ignorance



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The main idea here is that the ignorance or, more precisely, understanding of one’s own ignorance is a necessary and probably one of the most important parts of scientific development because it allows posing meaningful question that would then direct research. Lacking such understanding of ignorance leads to mistake of believing in something that just isn’t so and consequently failure to ask right questions.



Here author rejects idea of science as systematic discovery of the truth and exposes it for what it really is: an attempt to understand reality by building models and then experimentally testing whether they work or not. The process is messy, chaotic, and only occasionally leads to really valuable scientific results. This process is not driven by facts because there are way too many of them, but rather by human interest of scientist who understand his ignorance and is trying to find answers to questions that reflects in formal and systematic way this ignorance, consequently substitution it with knowledge. Consequently, this in turn typically leads to the understanding of the new level of ignorance. As professor author recognized this as the important, but missing part of his students’ education and therefore developed a course on ignorance.

ONE: A Short View of Ignorance

The key point here is that Ignorance is a bigger subject than knowledge. Author reviews general thrust of our culture at acquisition of knowledge and stresses that it creates an illusion that knowledge is some established whole and there are only a small patches of ignorance that need to be fixed. Author believes that we have too many answers and often not enough questions leaving us with poor understanding of our level of ignorance.

TWO: Finding out

Author starts this chapter with the discussion on meaning and value of data for processes of scientific discovery. A very important point here is that data are not produced spontaneously. There is complex process of decision making for what kind of data collect, how measure them, and eventually how to interpret them so they would become a fact. One of consequence of that is that only false science could claim that facts are permanent and not changeable. Any scientific fact could change with the new technology or new generation of scientists who would interpret data according the new paradigm. After that author discusses the dark knowledge, which he defines as apparent knowledge that stands in the way of ignorance and provides a few example of this. The logical inference from this is that “science always wrong and it creates 10 new problems after resolving the old one. In short science development is infinite because of this process of discovery generating new ignorance.

THREE: Limits, Uncertainty, Impossibility, and Other Minor Problems

This is discussion of human cognition, which starts with review of human sensors and their limitations illustrated by mental experiment of Flatland world inhabitants of which could not possibly see 3-d dimension, but they still can see projection of objects moving in 3 dimensions and therefore their science could develop some understanding of it despite absence of direct sensory input. After that author moves to specify limits: Quantum mechanics Uncertainty Principle, Kurt Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems, Logical paradoxes, and such. After this author discusses Leibnitz’s positivism and believe in mechanical certainty of the world and demonstrates that it even theoretically not applies to real world, consequently leaving space for inevitable and unresolvable ignorance.

FOUR: Unpredicting

This chapter discusses one specific type of unavoidable ignorance: impossibility to predict future state of complex system with any reliability. It does not mean however those complex systems are unpredictable. We predict their behavior every day in live and in science, it just these predictions’ reliability is always limited. Consequently one could claim that the meaning of science is to define method of producing prediction and establish level of their reliability or in other words framework of our ignorance.   Author puts it in an interesting way: “Ignorance is an engine of science”.

FIVE: The Quality of Ignorance

This is discussion of the quality of ignorance and author refers to Enrico Fermi who said that that experiment that proves hypothesis is measurement, but one that fails is discovery. Author adds that it is a discovery of new ignorance. This follows by discussion based on author experience as scientist of how to define low vs. high quality ignorance, which is done mainly by providing multiple examples from research and some commonly used metaphors like looking for keys lost in the dark place in different place because there is more light there. In the second part of the chapter author discusses breaking down ignorance into smaller parts such as brain research conducted on simple organisms, unpredictability of research direction, and silliness of grants and political discussions about their use.

SIX: You and Ignorance

This chapter is about practical approach for lay people to use ignorance as tool for understanding science. Author believes that key here is to answer questions that are really interesting, not the one that we believe there are answers and being not embarrassed by showing ignorance. Author even provides a nice list of questions to ask scientists that really make sense:

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SEVEN: Case Histories

The final chapter presents history of 4 cases of intertwining of ignorance and science:

  1. Research on cognition and consciousness
  2. Search for unified theory in physics
  3. Attempts to understand working of the brain
  4. Author’s own unusual history of moving from the world of theater and entertaining into the world of science.

EIGHT: Coda                                                                       

The final chapter starts with the quest for public money for science and consequently need to educate public about it. Author laments that science became too complex for laypeople to understand it to the levels similar to the Middle Ages when all intellectual work was conducted in Latin. Author calls for expansion of scientific education and development of something he calls “citizen science”. He even defines that the requirements for abilities of scientific teachers are:

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It is a very interesting approach to science and understanding of the world. It is not necessary the new idea of a small, but growing circle of the light of knowledge in the middle of infinite space of ignorance. I believe it is going back to Socrates, but author’s conversion of ignorance from a negative fact of reality into useful tool of scientific research could be potentially very productive in terms of showing to lay people the value of science. Whether it will help to generate more public money for science is questionable, mainly because governmental science or more precisely scientific bureaucracy already receives huge amounts of public money with very little to show for that. Actually I believe that government generally mainly capable produce only quasi science at best and pseudoscience at worst as it is well illustrated by the history from academic Lysenko’s Socialist anti-genetics “science” to contemporary global cooling/warming/change boondoggle. Much better for science and for people would be if government, that is violent hierarchy of bureaucrats to get out of science financing. This way the freed money would be left in hands of people who produced them. Maybe as result these people in become rich enough to be curious beyond their immediate concerns and educated enough about their ignorance to voluntary provide funds for science to expand this ignorance by expanding cycle of knowledge. In this case the probability of money being used for real science rather than providing expensive welfare for scientific bureaucrats would increase dramatically and so will increase amount of interesting scientific results.

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