Friday, November 06, 2015

The Power of Ignorance

When my friend and colleague called herself clueless this afternoon, it triggered something in my mind.  We've been working on a paper together, and since I'd taken the first pass I'd put everything in LaTeX, hoping to avoid having to figure out how to manage citations and such in Microsoft Word.  I hate writing in Word, and as a computer scientist I usually get to avoid it, opting instead for the nitpicking and precision control that LaTeX offers me. When I am collaborating with biologists, however, LaTeX might as well be Martian or Haskell to many of them, and we often default back to Word.  Selfishly, I'd avoided that, and just assumed I'd end up taking feedback notes or snippets of text and incorporating them myself.

But I had aimed too low, and here my friend surprised me.  Rather than complain or take the easy route, she asked me to put the document into Overleaf, an online LaTeX interface that she'd just learned about, and she did her editing there, including using the LaTeX todo notes package that I've been using for tracking commentary in the document.

And then she called herself a "clueless biologist," as she asked me questions about this fearsomely complex new technology she's been voluntarily educating herself on.

Those two words say something that is very important and also sad about the way that science often operates, and I think about our larger society as well.  My friend is largely ignorant about LaTeX, in the sense that she lacks knowledge, but "clueless" is a rather negative view of ignorance.  Adding "biologist" lumps her into a category, othering her and tying that to this "clueless" expectation---a stereotype that I'm quite familiar with.  I don't like it, though, because that phrase sets up an expectation of an "us vs. them," Men are From Mars/Women are from Venus, Computer Scientists are from LISP / Biologists are from S. cerevisiae sort of oppositional dichotomy.  That makes us all smaller, I feel, because it divides us and suggests our minds are alien to one another, and therefore that we ought not to attempt to learn from each other so much.

Instead, I think that we should be celebrating and embracing the power of our ignorance.

By this, I do not mean that we should avoid knowledge.  Knowledge is wonderful and empowering, and recognizing one's ignorance is a first step to doing something interesting involving others who are not ignorant in that same area. The Renaissance Man is dead---quite dead---and Joy's law is how we spend our lives, in a world where there are so many interesting things to know about, some important and some just fun for somebody.  We are all more ignorant than we can know, and not just in a snotty Socrates one-upmanship way of looking at it.

One of the hardest things I had to learn while I was a graduate student was how to say, "I don't understand" and "I don't know."  I learned it from Hal Abelson, the professor who always asked me the hardest simple questions I have ever heard.  Hal taught me that saying "I don't understand" did not have to be an admission of weakness.  It could simply be the truth, and then what happens next depends on why you don't know.  When I was talking to Hal, it was usually the case that Hal saying "I don't understand" was an indicator of some fundamental flawed or overlooked assumption in the thing that I was trying to explain to him.  I learned a lot about my own research from Hal's admissions of ignorance, and I also learned to stop being afraid of lacking knowledge.

I'm still learning that. It's easy in our competitive world to fear that admitting ignorance is the first step to losing out to other people who are better at putting up a front, and I still struggle with that. But fearing ignorance is almost as bad as being proud of it, and I prefer to avoid it when I'm not too panicked to consider the bigger picture that I'm living in.

The fear of ignorance is competition, but the power of ignorance is partnership and teamwork.  I'd much rather live in the second world, and I hope that I can be sufficiently wise to help encourage it for both myself and my compatriots.
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