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Word of the Day: AGNOTOLOGY

I am an agnotologist, no doubt.  That is to say, I am fascinated with all that we do not know, with the gray areas and uncertainties of life, death, and everything.  Agnostic = Doesn't Know.  Agnotology = Study of Ignorance.  Science depends on us being very clear about what we do not know yet, so that we can devise ways to try to find out.

The Case for Teaching Ignorance
By Jamie Holmes | New York Times | Aug. 24, 2015

In the mid-1980s, a University of Arizona surgery professor, Marlys H. Witte, proposed teaching a class entitled “Introduction to Medical and Other Ignorance.” Her idea was not well received; at one foundation, an official told her he would rather resign than support a class on ignorance.

Dr. Witte was urged to alter the name of the course, but she wouldn’t budge. Far too often, she believed, teachers fail to emphasize how much about a given topic is unknown. “Textbooks spend 8 to 10 pages on pancreatic cancer,” she said some years later, “without ever telling the student that we just don’t know very much about it.” She wanted her students to recognize the limits of knowledge and to appreciate that questions often deserve as much attention as answers. Eventually, the American Medical Association funded the class, which students would fondly remember as “Ignorance 101.”

Classes like hers remain rare, but in recent years scholars have made a convincing case that focusing on uncertainty can foster latent curiosity, while emphasizing clarity can convey a warped understanding of knowledge.

In 2006, a Columbia University neuroscientist, Stuart J. Firestein, began teaching a course on scientific ignorance after realizing, to his horror, that many of his students might have believed that we understand nearly everything about the brain. (He suspected that a 1,414-page textbook may have been culpable.)

As he argued in his 2012 book “Ignorance: How It Drives Science,” many scientific facts simply aren’t solid and immutable, but are instead destined to be vigorously challenged and revised by successive generations. Discovery is not the neat and linear process many students imagine, but usually involves, in Dr. Firestein’s phrasing, “feeling around in dark rooms, bumping into unidentifiable things, looking for barely perceptible phantoms.” By inviting scientists of various specialties to teach his students about what truly excited them — not cold hard facts but intriguing ambiguities — Dr. Firestein sought to rebalance the scales.

Presenting ignorance as less extensive than it is, knowledge as more solid and more stable, and discovery as neater also leads students to misunderstand the interplay between answers and questions.

People tend to think of not knowing as something to be wiped out or overcome, as if ignorance were simply the absence of knowledge. But answers don’t merely resolve questions; they provoke new ones.

Michael Smithson, a social scientist at Australian National University who co-taught an online course on ignorance this summer, uses this analogy: The larger the island of knowledge grows, the longer the shoreline — where knowledge meets ignorance — extends. The more we know, the more we can ask. Questions don’t give way to answers so much as the two proliferate together. Answers breed questions. Curiosity isn’t merely a static disposition but rather a passion of the mind that is ceaselessly earned and nurtured.

Mapping the coast of the island of knowledge, to continue the metaphor, requires a grasp of the psychology of ambiguity. The ever-expanding shoreline, where questions are born of answers, is terrain characterized by vague and conflicting information. The resulting state of uncertainty, psychologists have shown, intensifies our emotions: not only exhilaration and surprise, but also confusion and frustration.

The borderland between known and unknown is also where we strive against our preconceptions to acknowledge and investigate anomalous data, a struggle Thomas S. Kuhn described in his 1962 classic, “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” The center of the island, by contrast, is safe and comforting, which may explain why businesses struggle to stay innovative. When things go well, companies “drop out of learning mode,” Gary P. Pisano, a professor at Harvard Business School, told me. They flee uncertainty and head for the island’s interior.

The study of ignorance — or agnotology, a term popularized by Robert N. Proctor, a historian of science at Stanford — is in its infancy. This emerging field of inquiry is fragmented because of its relative novelty and cross-disciplinary nature (as illustrated by a new book, “Routledge International Handbook of Ignorance Studies”). But giving due emphasis to unknowns, highlighting case studies that illustrate the fertile interplay between questions and answers, and exploring the psychology of ambiguity are essential. Educators should also devote time to the relationship between ignorance and creativity and the strategic manufacturing of uncertainty.

The time has come to “view ignorance as ‘regular’ rather than deviant,” the sociologists Matthias Gross and Linsey McGoey have boldly argued. Our students will be more curious — and more intelligently so — if, in addition to facts, they were equipped with theories of ignorance as well as theories of knowledge.

Jamie Holmes is a fellow at New America and the author of the forthcoming book Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing.

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( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 30th, 2015 09:50 pm (UTC)
This is fascinating. And yes, it's something that we all need to hear. We don't know everything. The mysteries have not been solved, and we are going through lives as doctors, professors, yoga study students, etc only making best guesses and going with what information we have. It can be tough to grapple with the realization that answers might not exist.

This is quite relevant to me as a student. I've been doing a bit of un-learning and realizing that there's a lot that I don't know...and a lot that is unknown by anybody.
Oct. 31st, 2015 03:01 am (UTC)
Seems to me that the longer we live and the more we learn, the more acutely aware we become of how much more there is that we will probably never understand.
Oct. 30th, 2015 11:09 pm (UTC)
I guess i am an "agnosticist" in a way myself.
At least i am an agnostic who would rather not be one.
I can trust people but can't really believe that they are trustworthy. I pray to God, but have no idea whether she/he/it hears or cares or exists. I think we are better than our greed, ego, denial, or narrowness allow us to be, but i don't know how to really prove it.

I will take the course if it is cotaught by a scientist and a philosophy, neither of whom is cowed by the other.
Oct. 31st, 2015 03:03 am (UTC)
I am both a philosopher and a scientist. But I do not teach such a course. I think life teaches it for me.
Oct. 31st, 2015 04:27 am (UTC)
But it seems to me that few of us learn the lesson. The world is being ruined by people who think they know more than they do know, occupying positions of power that should not exist.
Nov. 1st, 2015 01:40 am (UTC)
What is the name for it----the phenomenon of stupid people being overconfident in their knowledge, while intelligent people are underconfident? It's a real thing.
Nov. 1st, 2015 04:38 am (UTC)
Dunning Kruger effect, dat's it!
Nov. 2nd, 2015 04:55 am (UTC)
Thanks. But i would want to see their methods, their tools, and their assumptions. The Wikkipedia article carries a strong scent of elitism.
Nov. 1st, 2015 06:05 am (UTC)
Hubris is the Greek idea of grasping beyond one's reach.
In popular psychology there is the Peter Principle.

I wish i could clearly distinguish low self confidence from humility. I can almost always recognize a humble person, but i can almost never tell what makes that difference.
Nov. 2nd, 2015 03:40 am (UTC)
Ah....it is such a BIG difference, too. Very interesting. Will mull on this.
Nov. 2nd, 2015 05:08 am (UTC)
Humility does not cower.
It surrenders only to "proper authority"
It does not change with change in status.
It is choice rather than external constraint or internal need.
It compromises in principle but does not compromise principles.
It gives way gracefully.
Nov. 2nd, 2015 10:17 pm (UTC)
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )



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