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Embracing Ignorance

In Yuval Harari’s new book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, he makes an interesting argument that the acknowledgement of ignorance was the driving component of the emergence of modern society.

He presents his thesis in the context of a larger question, one that’s been asked many times and evoked numerous answers, all unsatisfactory: Why Europe? Why did the European culture, from roughly 1600 on come to dominate the world?

Proffered answers have run from unsavory, racist ones touting Europeans as, somehow, having better genes or being smarter or more politically savvy to others that focus on climate, access to the seas or, of course, just dumb luck.

Harari tosses these all aside. Europeans, he argues, beginning with people like Galileo who, in 1610, discovered that Jupiter had several moons orbiting around it, and Leeuwenhoek who, in the 1670s, looked through his new invention, the microscope, and discovered to his, and everyone else’s, astonishment that ordinary water was alive with hundreds, nay thousands, of tiny, heretofore invisible creatures welcomed the obvious — there was a lot they didn’t know. From the very large to the very small new worlds were opening and the tug to investigate, to explore was irresistible. In 1662 the Royal Society was formally organized in Britain and in 1666 the French established the Academy of Sciences. The Scientific Revolution had begun and its home base was Europe.

The epistemic foundation for these organizations was the presumption that the world was a lot more complicated than we’d thought and needs to be examined systematically. Unlike earlier conceptualizations, based as they were on the certitude and unflinching convictions of theologians, scientists embraced not knowing. Ignorance, it was suddenly recognized, could become the motivator for progress. It was irresistible.

Well, to some. To others this sudden revelation of ignorance was not welcome for humankind had fallen all too comfortably into a very different mode: everything was known or, if not, could come to be known by the examination of sacred texts or consultation with whatever theologian or shaman had managed to convince the locals that he knew or could find the answer.

In 1592 Francis Bacon, one of the codifiers of the new Empiricist approach, wrote[1] this humorous tale tweaking theologians who, in his opinion, were inappropriately sure of themselves.

“In the year of our Lord 1432, there arose a grievous quarrel among the brethren over the number of teeth in the mouth of a horse. For thirteen days the disputation raged without ceasing. All the ancient books and chronicles were fetched out, and wonderful and ponderous erudition such as was never before heard of in this region was made manifest. At the beginning of the fourteenth day, a youthful friar of goodly bearing asked his learned superiors for permission to add a word, and straightway, to the wonderment of the disputants, whose deep wisdom he sore vexed, he beseeched them to unbend in a manner coarse and unheard-of and to look in the open mouth of a horse and find answer to their questionings. At this, their dignity being grievously hurt, they waxed exceeding wroth; and, joining in a mighty uproar, they flew upon him and smote him, hip and thigh, and cast him out forthwith. For, said they, surely Satan hath tempted this bold neophyte to declare unholy and unheard-of ways of finding truth, contrary to all the teachings of the fathers. After many days more of grievous strife, the dove of peace sat on the assembly, and they as one man declaring the problem to be an everlasting mystery because of a grievous dearth of historical and theological evidence thereof, so ordered the same writ down.”

And, indeed, the Empiricists won the day. Those willing to peer into a horse’s mouth triumphed and we’ve never looked back.

But it is disconcerting that today we find ourselves fighting Bacon’s battle anew. Biblical literalists deny evolution, refuse to look into the mouths of horses, mules, elephants and sharks to discern the commonalities and transitions that evolutionary pressures produced. Young earthers claim that humans walked with dinosaurs. Climate change deniers toss the data away saying it’s all a hoax cooked up by elitists in liberal universities. Social critics, celebrities and politicians believe that vaccinations cause autism.

Yes, ignorance is back but not as something to be embraced because it stimulates exploration and the growth of knowledge. It is back in a pre-17th century form, an unthinking acceptance of nonsense. Not-knowing has become something to fear, to quail from, to retreat back into rigidity where facts can be ignored and science suppressed.

Alas, the nonsense is coming from folks with real clout. From Paul Broun (R- GA) who, unbelievably, sits on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, we got this: “… evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell.”

Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) made this contribution, “I do not believe that CO2 is a cause of global warming, nor have I ever advocated the reduction of CO2.”

Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI), gave us a staggering display of ignorance with “What the science says is that temperatures peaked out globally in 1998. So we’ve gone for 10-plus years where the temperatures have gone down.” In fact the decade after 1998 was the hottest on record and each year since then has been hotter than the previous one.

Todd Akin (R-MI) revealed that he held some very weird ideas about women’s reproductive functions with the now (in)famous statement, “If it’s legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.” Nobody seems to know what “legitimate” rape is.

Marco Rubio (R-FL) when asked how old he thought the earth was, responded, “I’m not a scientist … but whether the Earth was created in 7 days, or 7 actual eras, I’m not sure we’ll ever be able to answer that. It’s one of the great mysteries.” That part about not being a scientist was right. FWIW, Rick Perry (R-TX) and Mike Huckabee (R-AR) when asked the same question gave the same answer.

James Inhofe (R-OK) who chairs the Senate Environmental Committee is a climate change denier who thinks that bringing a snowball into the chamber somehow negates the data from several thousand scientific studies.

These are just the most glaring examples because these folks are in positions of considerable power. The current Congress is astonishingly anti-science. In fact, well over half our elected officials have publically taken anti-science stands.

I’m hoping this is just temporary but what’s worrisome is the number of influential politicians willing to turn back the clock. Equally worrisome is that they all seem to be Republicans. I looked for Democrats who are publically outspoken, anti-science. Couldn’t find them. Perhaps they’re there, lying low.

I spent over a half-century doing science. I learned early on to embrace ignorance, to follow the guide of the men and women of the Enlightenment, to dispel the fear of the unknown, to revel in the joy of understanding, to nurture curiosity. Every interesting finding that came from my research opened new realms of the unknown, new avenues to explore, new problems to be solved. You only get to play this wonderful game when you admit you don’t know much.


[1] Or is reported to have written, there are questions about authorship — though not about the message.

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