A lot of us are afraid of not knowing the answer. Did you, too, get nervous when a teacher called on you in the middle of class, and your mind went blank? Do you, too, get nervous when someone assumes you should know something but you actually don’t? How nervous do you get in work meetings? How nervous do you get when you’re being interviewed?
Because not knowing is embarrassing, humiliating, maybe even shameful. We equate not knowing with a lack of intelligence. With stupidity. Because one of the worst things we can be is ignorant. Being called “ignorant” is a criticism, an insult. Instead we prefer to be seen as knowledgable, seasoned, informed, insightful. We prefer to be seen as experts. It feels good to know things. Which has created the idea that answers are the end all, be all.
Today, we’re obsessed with answers. It’s easier than ever to get them. We have access to answers, an almost infinite landscape of answers, literally, at our fingertips. How many times a day do you use Google to find out some answer, to find out the answer?
Neuroscientist Stuart Firestein prefers ignorance over knowledge. In fact, he teaches a science course called “Ignorance,” which he’s been doing since 2006. While teaching a course on cellular and molecular neuroscience, Firestein started noticing that his students were getting the impression that almost everything in science is already known. After all, in school we’re taught about indisputable facts. We learn about the meticulous, step-by-step scientific method. We’re taught what is known. Rarely do we talk about what is not.
But as Firestein writes in his brilliant book Ignorance: How It Drives Science, science is more like looking for a black cat in a dark room (as the old proverb goes: “It is very difficult to find a black cat in a dark room, especially where there is no cat.”). There’s a lot of stumbling around. There are no guaranteed solutions.
When Firestein says ignorance, what he really means is “the absence of fact, understanding, insight or clarity about something” (which he notes in the book). In his course, scientists from all sorts of fields—astronomy, genetics, zoology, mathematics, chemistry—talk to students about what they don’t know.
As Firestein writes, “They come and tell us about what they would like to know, what they think is critical to know, how they might get to know it, what will happen if they do find this or that thing out, what might happen if they don’t. About what could be known, what might be impossible to know, what they didn’t know 10 or 20 years ago and know now, or still don’t know. Why they want to know this and not that, this more than that. In sum, they talk about the current state of their ignorance.”
I think one of the reasons we search for answers is that we yearn for certainty. We yearn for stability. We yearn to know where we stand. Understandably, we get nervous in dark rooms (and poor black cats get a bad name). But this is where creativity (and science and every single field) thrives. It thrives with questions, not answers.
According to Firestein, “Questions are more relevant than answers. Questions are bigger than answers. One good question can give rise to several layers of answers, can inspire decades-long searches for solutions, can generate whole new fields of inquiry, and can prompt changes in entrenched thinking. Answers, on the other hand, often end the process.”
In the book Firestein includes a list of examples that have been good questions in his class. I think we can use these questions in our own work—whether you’re a research psychologist, artist, writer, photographer, coach or clinician (in short, whatever your profession or passion). We can contemplate these questions, and we can bring them up with others.
- Do you think things are unknowable in your field? What?
- What are the current technological limits in your work?
- Can you see solutions?
- Where are you currently stuck?
- How do you talk about what you don’t know?
- Is there something you would like to work on knowing but can’t?
- What was the state of ignorance in your field 10, 15 or 25 years ago, and how has that changed?
- Are there data from other labs that don’t agree with yours?
- How often do you guess?
- Are you often surprised? When?
- What questions are you generating?
Instead of feeling frustrated (or embarrassed or ashamed) when we don’t know an answer, we can see it as an opportunity. We can see it as the portal to a whole new world. Because it is.
What can you be ignorant about today?
P.S., Check out Firestein’s powerful TED talk, “The Pursuit of Ignorance.”