In Pursuit of Ignorance

Charles Darwin, 1881

“Knowledge is a big subject. Ignorance is bigger…and it is more interesting,” says Columbia University neuroscientist Stuart Firestein. He claims exploring the unknown is the true engine of science. Ignorance, he says, helps scientists concentrate their research.

Firestein’s book, “Ignorance: How It Drives Science” argues that what we don’t know is more valuable than building on what we do know. He believes ignorance follows knowledge. Knowledge enables scientists to propose and pursue interesting questions. Rather than big tangles like the “How was the Universe formed?” Firestein favors the more specific. In the social and private sectors, this perspective has enormous merit for both routines and innovation.

Great Questions

Inquiry can catalyze learning and support change. In a recent proposal to an influential funder, we posed work with colleagues as applied research. The primary question: What early childhood learning investment works best with which kids? Why? This raises others:

  • When is the best time to provide intervention and enrichment?
  • How many opportunities are available in each intervention and enrichment opportunity?
  • What gains are made at what cost?
  • What proportion of 4-year olds are most at risk?
  • How are children distributed along a continuum of need? 

Thoughtful Ignorance

According to Firestein, “Thoughtful ignorance looks at gaps in a community’s understanding and seeks to resolve them.” A historic example underscores this opinion. Deeply religious Victorian society in the late 1800s was shocked by Darwin’s suggestion that humans and animals shared common ancestry. His “non-religious biology” asked some vital questions about the origin of the species and revealed  new, big ideas. Apparently, Charles Darwin was a prescient forecaster for Firestein. Long ago Darwin said: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

Identify what you don’t know. Be willing to ask great questions; vigorously pursue discovery. These attitudes and practices yield improvements and change.  

Lisa Wyatt, Ed. D. is chief strategy officer and partner in Phillip Wyatt Knowlton, Inc. PWK is a performance management resource for systems change with clients worldwide. Lisa has cross-sector and international experience. She is an author and W.K. Kellogg Leadership Fellow. See : www.pwkinc.com

New: The Logic  Model Guidebook (2013) just published by SAGE.

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One Response to “In Pursuit of Ignorance”

  1. Mary Reaume Says:

    Ignorance begetting confidence describes the “safe” comfort zone of a status quo that sees desiring change as a risk. Maybe this is why it is taking humans so long to evolve into a more creative and peaceful species.

    The mindset of holding on to cultural dogma rather than embracing the improvements and merits of change intrinsically needs to be challenged. This is especially important since we are hurtling towards a more global community awareness that is connecting us all way beyond the constricting small minded community routines that don’t allow for the needed change.

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