New Year’s resolution: be (a little) ignorant

I’m always struck when I hear a scientist talk about the virtues of not knowing things. This does not mean being stupid, dumb, or uneducated. Instead, scientists say again and again that the state of mind where you really don’t know the answer—and you know that you don’t—can be the most productive way to attack a problem.

The great physicist Richard Feynman said it best, probably: “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” But it bears repeating and it’s one of those ideas that resonates outside of the lab, too.

In a Q&A that appeared in the journal Nature earlier this year, the physicist William Phillips, a Nobel laureate who works at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland, said that scientists are fortunate to live in ignorant times.

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“We live in an incredibly exciting time for physics. We don’t know what 96% of the Universe is made of — what can be more exciting than that? We have 4%, which is matter that we know about; 23% is dark matter, which we cannot yet identify; and the remaining 73% we know even less about. When I was a graduate student we didn’t know what we didn’t know about the Universe. Now we know what we don’t know — and that is really a good place to be,” Phillips told Nature.

“And for a scientist, being somewhere where there is a great deal of ignorance is the best place to be,” he added.

In a paper published in Behavioural Processes a few years ago, Nate Kornell, a psychology professor at Williams College, studied the “virtues of ignorance,” finding that too much information can hold a person back from learning.

Kornell and his coauthor, Lisa K. Son, recounted one informal test of the pitfalls of being too knowledgeable, in which mathematicians, and historians were quizzed on a list of categories and names. They were asked to say whether 90 names were properly matched in one of three categories: math, history, or sports. They found that experts in each field were reluctant to respond “don’t know” when facing questions about the turf that they had spent their lives studying. And experts often said that made-up names belonged in their domain of expertise, but did so less often when it was another field. Mathematicians said 19 times that names were mathematicians, when it wasn’t the case, but made the mistake only 7 times with historians. Historians said that yes, fake historians were real historians 8 times, but only made the mistake 4 times with mathematicians.

In the paper, Kornell also describes a study that tested an aphorism written by Thomas Jefferson: “He who knows best knows how little he knows.”

In the study, college students received 16 words paired with synonyms, and were able to select half of the words to study later. But in only half the cases did the students receive the word pairs they had selected to study. The other half received the 8 they did not choose for further study. If knowing the limits of their knowledge was a useful skill for learning, those whose choices were respected should have done better when quizzed on the words. And they did.

Erin K. O’Shea, a Harvard University professor and the new chief scientific officer of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, said in an interview earlier this year that one of the problems with how science is funded is that in the race to get funding, people often propose experiments where they already know the outcome. Or, if they do not know the outcome, they feel assured there will be an outcome.

“They are judged in a way such that it needs to be clear you can do the work and it’s not too risky and no matter what happens we’re going to learn something,” O’Shea said. “And that leads to incremental work, the next obvious step. And it’s not bad, and sometimes it leads to very important discoveries. But it shouldn’t be the only way science is funded.”

Earlier this year, Nicholas Longrich, a paleontologist at Yale University told me of the value of not-knowing, after publishing a paper that suggested the anatomy of a prehistoric bird wing was different than previously thought. It turned out that for years, scientists had been gliding along on the same assumption, partly dictated by the expectation that what we see now in modern day birds would be the same structure that existed in prehistoric birds.

Longrich recounted his collaboration with a graduate student, Jakob Vinther, who was far from an expert in birds:

“He was down the hall at Yale, and he was a grad student at the time. He started studying fossil ink and fossil squids, and went from there to pigment preservation and dinosaurs. He has all this work on colors and dinosaur feathers and in the process, he was looking at this stuff. What’s kind of interesting about this is Jakob is not a bird expert by any means: he studies squid, octopus, and worms, so you’d think that’d make him terrible at studying things because he doesn’t know birds that well. But in fact, because he doesn’t have the same preconceptions, he’s not burdened by the expectations of ornithology; he kinds of sees what’s there, and aside from that he’s an astute observer of the fossil.”

“Interpreting these fossils is really complicated, and there’s this interplay between having an interpretation going into it that will help guide you to understand the specimen, and also ignorance or open-mindedness, like a child would have, where you’re just kind of seeing what’s there and interpreting what’s there. And that kind of naïve interpretation and the ability to look at the fossil that way even after you’ve seen a lot of them is really important. We looked at fossils without agendas and say what are we seeing, feather by feather, working back to the interpretation of how it’s all arranged.”

So, in 2013, let go of some of those preconceptions and blunder around a little. Who knows what you’ll find.