“What we know is a drop, what we don’t know is an ocean.”
— Isaac Newton
Last week I overheard something at work that normally would have sent me into a ranting rage if it weren’t for my resolution to mind my own business and stop being such a know-it-all all the time.
I was sitting at a table in our lounge and around me there were nothing but older white men. They were discussing the crazy weather we had been having and the reports for that day then one man, a new employee, said something like:
“You know what I don’t understand? How come you can watch three different channels and get three different weather reports, but these scientists claim to know what will happen 50 years from now because of so-called ‘global warming?'”
He thought he was very clever with that one. He let his comment hang in the air as if he alone had settled the long debate over climate change right then and there. After an awkward pause, one man spoke up a little. He replied that, actually, the weather reports weren’t so different from one another—I mean, it isn’t like you see 70 degrees forecast on one channel and 20 degrees on another—and that the models for climate change were, in fact, pretty accurate. The first man didn’t reply though, and no one else spoke up, but I could tell his question had had the intended effect on a few of them.
I chose not to speak up myself because, for one, I didn’t know this man, and two I knew that I would expend a lot of energy and get nowhere anyway. I’ll admit I was angry too. I was angry because these kinds of fake debate points are tiring and because, in my mind, he had committed a sin by seeking confirmation and followers in his willful ignorance!
But more than that it made me sad. This man missed an opportunity he had presented to himself to learn something new. He must have known there is an answer to such a question. He could have taken it his phone, fired up Google, and learned something that day, but he was too arrogant to consider that he didn’t know something. He stated his question as the answer—the end of the inquiry and not the beginning—and learned nothing.
Humans like to know things. We like it when other people think we know things too. We enjoy the respect knowledge commands, and we feel useful when our knowledge is relied upon. So, we go about pretending we know everything. We form opinions and tell ourselves they are the same as facts. Our perspective, our mindset, our upbringing, and our way of life are real and right, and all the rest is wrong. Case closed, discussion over.
The reality is scary. The reality is we don’t know much of anything. We are floating on an open sea with no land and no sign telling us how to survive or which way to swim. We cling to anything that feels solid, anything that feels like a fact because it is better to float on a lie than to risk drowning in the search for truth.
It doesn’t help that social media, advertisements, and ratings are killing our ability to investigate, deliver, and believe in facts. Now we are divided between believing everything and believing nothing and while we fight we are dying and so is the planet.
We are coming to a time when our survival will depend on our bravery in the face of our ignorance. It will be hard, but it starts with just a small step. It starts with you. It starts with seeing that you don’t know much for sure but that you can find the knowledge you need every day if you try.
You have to get comfortable with your ignorance. Tell yourself it’s ok not to be 100% sure. It’s okay not to have all the answers. At work, as a parent, in your relationship and in the face of your future but what isn’t okay is to give up on curiosity and genuine knowledge.
Science and human advancement are collective endeavors. It takes all of us, working together to move them. It takes the scientists who have a passion for truth and develop everyday new ad better ways to find it. It takes politicians who care about the future of all people to create policies that prioritize advancement and discovery over profits. It takes a voting body of people who elect officials who are honest and who demand and consume media that is fact based.
It takes all of us to move further into a better understanding of our reality and what we ought to be doing or going.
But how do we know what is right and wrong? How do we know who to trust? These are questions that bigger and better minds than mine are tackling right now, but I am learning that it does take a leap of faith, a hard thing for a nonreligious person like myself to accept. The best I can tell you is to look for consensus in the scientific community, in the intelligence community, and in responsible news reporting agencies.
This is the best we have, but we are weakening it by ignoring it, dismissing it, and refusing to take it seriously and make it an important part of our culture and daily lives.
Don’t read just one story. Don’t read stories from unknown and unverified media sources. Don’t just read the headlines and don’t share stories without reading. Ask questions and then look for answers. Look for answers in more than one place. Look for videos and articles about how to think logically and check out a few Crash Course videos on the basics of science and philosophy. It’s just a start, but it’s the start of something very big, a way of life where curiosity, logic, and knowledge are a priority.
This week, be curious, and do it with intention. Choose to learn something new or dig a little deeper into a story you saw fly across your timeline. Don’t let your own mind grow stagnant. Don’t just accept your own way of thinking and your own knowledge. Do not let yourself think you already know anything or that you cannot keep learning every day. Do not forget how far human curiosity and refusal to give up or give in has gotten us. We are far from the end of what we can know.
Get out there, and get swimming through your own ignorance. Then teach something, and then help those around you do the same. We only get better, we only do better, when we learn better, and that starts with each of us.
Featured image via Unsplash