Knowing What You Don’t Know

ignoranceThere are three levels of ignorance.  Simple ignorance is just not knowing and knowing you don’t know.  Compound ignorance is thinking you know but knowing so little you can’t recognise your own ignorance.  Tertiary malignant ignorance is then not knowing, thinking you do know and that, for their own good, others should be forced to conform to what you believe.

The simple form is the most honest and least harmful. It can even be beneficial in avoiding stupid mistakes as well as prompting one to learn more.  Unfortunately, in our culture it seems to be noticeably less popular than the compound and malignant varieties. In the current version of democracy, the idea of one-person one-vote appears to have become equated with the notion that all opinions are of equal value and everyone is not just entitled to an opinion, but should have one on every issue regardless of how ill-informed they may be. Indeed, it appears that the only socially acceptable consideration for a belief is for the fervour and conviction with which it is held. Conviction thus trumps reason, and certainty prevails.

In public opinion polls it is unusual for anyone to say they do not know enough about something to have an opinion, or to be uncertain, to need to know more or even to be open to better knowledge.  It seems that opinions are not only necessary but must be expressed as beliefs with no hint of doubt or uncertainty, no need for better knowledge, no possibility of error and no place for any change of mind in the light of better information. When the idea of simply not knowing about something or of making a tentative assumption that may be subject to change become unthinkable, believing a half-dozen impossible things before breakfast becomes the norm.

With such a dynamic prevailing in the public sphere, the future of our current form of democracy looks dubious.  This problem is now manifest across a growing number of complex and uncertain issues of critical importance. These include mass immigration from failed societies, premature adoption of technically and economically unviable energy systems, an ongoing unchecked proliferation of government that is stifling essential productive activity, plus ever-increasing commitments for health, education, welfare and defence spending which are simply impossible to sustain.  Another major and pervasive problem would also have to be the whole obscene morass of taxation that is now beyond any possibility of effective reform and desperately requires a fundamental rethink.

The greatest difficulty in addressing such problems is not so much their inherent complexity or impossibility, but rather our inability to recognise the limitations of our beliefs, our unwillingness to seek better information and our resistance to exploring new approaches. The socio-economic ground of our society is in decay and we are going to have to become a lot less dogmatic, certain and rigid in our beliefs to avoid serious decline.

Over recent years prevailing societal ethoses have been changed on a variety of issues.  These include such things as attitudes on sexuality, gender, race, religion, smoking, and disabilities.  There is no apparent reason why change could not also be effected in our approach to belief.  Such a change could beneficially include a recognition of the primacy of reason and evidence, the limits to our personal knowledge, the uncertainty involved in what we think we know and the need to take a more experimental approach in addressing the problems we face. This last does not mean assuming great risks on a grand scale but rather being open to trying new approaches on a limited basis to seek better methods. Instead, we endlessly try to patch up failed systems and greet any fundamentally different approach with knee jerk rejection because it might be less than perfect rather than hopeful consideration that it might at least be better.

Essentially what is needed is a broader application of the most successful approach to problem solving we have yet discovered and that we know as the scientific method.   Effective use of this method does not require “proof” or high level understanding accessible only to “experts”.  As with justice, the criteria needs only to be beyond reasonable doub,t but with a recognition of uncertainty and willingness to admit and correct error.

Truth, honesty, transparency and full disclosure with no exceptions for any higher purpose is the essence of scientific ethics. There is a very real and unfilled need for university and even high school level courses in the philosophy and ethics of science as a fundamental educational requirement necessary to the future health of both science and democracy. Likewise, there is a need to point out and disparage irrational ill-founded nonsense wherever it appears. Stumbling along with the current farce of never-ending popularity contests, clinging to half-baked ideologies and mindlessly trying to reform the same fundamentally flawed policies is going to be an increasingly unviable basis for government in the accelerating world of change our advancing technology is creating.

Most importantly, and despite popular assumption, a system of ethical values does not have to be founded on religion or else be simply arbitrary.  It can also be based on a simple empirical aim to optimize the quality of life for the individual from a holistic perspective.  This entails recognition that the existence of society is of massive benefit to the individual and to have this requires governing our behaviour with one another. This in turn requires the same kind of fundamental demands and restrictions that religions attribute to commandments from deities. It also entails recognition of the necessity of not breaking these rules even when there is little chance of anyone else finding out, as that, if not proscribed, would inevitably become widespread practice and result in a weakening of the social system to the disadvantage of everyone.

No gods or supernatural forces are needed to derive this, just simple reasoning and observable facts. What is required though, is looking beyond immediate individual gain to the wider perspective of the value afforded by the goods, services and protections provided by a well-ordered society. No threats and rewards from supernatural beings are required; but, simply the self-discipline to set aside immediate gratification in in order to gain a greater and longer-term benefit.

The ability to take a more holistic view, recognize the greater long-term benefits and exercise the self-discipline to achieve them are also teachable practices which warrant much greater attention in our education system and in society more generally.

The overriding problem with religion is that in addition to the basic values it espouses, it also tends to accumulate a considerable baggage of nonsensical beliefs some of which can even be quite toxic.    Compounding this problem is a claim to absolute certainty and a fierce resistance to any consideration of possible error, making differences in such beliefs unresolvable and immune to all reason and evidence.   Combined with a reliance on evidence-free revealed truth, the vulnerability to mistakes and malpractices is wide open and littered with all too many examples.

None of this means there is no place or need for religion.  That is a separate issue; but, it does mean that religion is unnecessary as a basis for ethics and morality and, in view of the irreconcilable differences it generates, it presents a major obstacle to social agreement.

Without a common adherence to reason and evidence, our increasingly diverse society and increasingly diverse access to information is rendering a popular vote too volatile and too vulnerable to mass manipulation by demagogues, vested interests and hidden persuaders for effective governance.

More and more strict regulation by government is also appearing to be a hapless solution. The only effective answer must be for individuals to become more objective, rational, empirical and open.  This is a readily teachable, easily understood practice we have largely ignored.  It’s worth a try.

A marine biologist, Walter Starck has spent much of his career studying coral reef and marine fishery ecosystems. He wrote recently at Quadrant Online about Professor Peter Ridd’s ongoing legal battle with the warmists at James Cook University

12 thoughts on “Knowing What You Don’t Know

  • prsmith14@gmail.com says:

    Lots of good stuff Walter,but what are the “toxic” beliefs of Christianity? I find it anomalous that you implicitly lump Christianity, which is largely responsible for the development and growth of our Western moral and ethical standards, and which is under constant attack, in the catch-all of religion.

  • en passant says:

    I have thought along similar lines for years, but had not articulated it yet, as you now have.

    For years I revelled in a contract I had with a major global company as my title amused me: I was a ‘trusted advisor’. One of my roles as an outsider was to arbitrate without fear or favour the merits of competing proposals. It sounds like you would understand when I tell you that some of the proposals that I was asked to review were mind-bogglingly stupid, unrealistic and (as I ‘weasel-worded’ my rebuttal to save someone’s face by saying it was) of negative or marginal value.

    On your first point I frequently recycled the comment: “This proposal may have value, but the factual evidence justifying its implementation at this time is lacking. Until evidence of A, B and C are proven and available it is recommended that we do not procceed at this time.”

    So, when I see it proclaimed that the costs of ‘renewable’ energy are falling so rapidly as technology improves that they will soon make fossil fuels and nuclear power obsolete I roll out a variation of the above. “With the alleged and continual rapid fall in the cost of wind and solar energy sources I recommend the deferral of any further such projects until the reduction in costs is such that no government funded taxpayer subsidies are necessary as market forces will soon take over. Building more wind and solar facilities with technologies that will soon be outdated and currently require subsidies indicates that as things stand, they are of negative or marginal value at this time.”

    It appears that most sciences have fallen foul of the foul practice of grant-funding allocated by people who are neither objective, nor could claim the unbiased title of ‘Trusted Advisor’.

    Eight years ago I spent two years studying ‘climate science’, so I could develop an objective view. This is an extract from a 75-page paper I completed in 2012 – which was peer-reviewed by Dr. Bob Carter.
    “As I understand it the basic scientific process as prescribed by Karl Popper is as follows:
    1. Ask a question;
    2. Conduct background research on previous work;
    3. Construct a hypothesis;
    4. Conduct experiments to test your hypothesis;
    5. Analyse your data and results and draw appropriate conclusions (even {or especially} if they do not fit your hypothesis); &
    6. Communicate your results in a peer reviewed paper.

    It would appear that Climate Deceivers have taken a new religiously based approach of:
    1. Make an alarmist and catastrophic statement. (“We are reaching a tipping point after which we are doomed” – James Hansen, NOAA, 1989);
    2. Construct an unprovable hypothesis 20 – 100 years into the future. (“The seas will rise 20m in a century” – Gore, Flannery, Robyn Williams);
    3. Obtain funding to conduct “targeted research” to support the pre-determined outcome of your hypothesis. (“I have used Mike’s Nature trick to hide the decline” – Phil Jones, CRU, East Anglia University & “We cannot account for the recent cooling and it is a travesty that we cannot. Our measurement systems are inadequate.” Kevin Trenberth {a ‘pseudo-scientist’ who refuses to believe the empirical results because they do not fit the computer model’s predictions!}). Now that takes one’s breath away!;
    4. Attempt to denigrate or remove all opposition or attempts to test your hypothesis. (“I cannot see these papers getting into the next report even if Kevin and I have to redefine the definition of the term Peer Review” – Phil Jones, to Kevin Trenberth, Ben Santer, Michael Mann, Ken Briffa, et al {The Climategate scandal as quoted in the CRUtape Letters});
    5. Obtain consensus (a political process, not a scientific one) through fear and the withholding of data and information that could be used to validate or disprove the hypothesis. (This is the ultimate corruption of the scientific process: “Why should make the data available to you when your aim is to try to find something wrong with it …” Phil Jones to Warwick Hughes, a researcher in Perth who questioned the Oz figures they quoted {because Phil, although it is beyond your ken, that’s how the real scientific method works} & “Maybe I’ll cut a few points off the filtered curve. .. as that is trending down the results because of the recent coldish years…” Mick Kelly, CRU blatantly falsifying the results to fit the theory).

    And people still worship at the altar of this false god. Not confidence inspiring for someone claiming to be a scientist, is it? But then Eugenics was scientific was it not? After all, many people got their PhD’s by finding new meanings for the phrenology of bumps on the head, didn’t they? Try not to laugh as it is making a comeback …

    About the only certainty is that there is no consensus about Global Warming, Climate Change, Climate Disruption, AGW, or whatever today’s name is. Every real scientist understands that consensus is anathema to real science. Remember the essays “100 scientists against the Theory of Relativity”? Probably not as it was never a best-seller, but as Einstein pithily replied “It does not take 100 scientists, but just one fact to prove my theory wrong”. I like his answer as that of a true scientist.

    Forget the pseudo-science of AGW (climate change, greenfoolery & saving the planet, or whatever) it was only ever about using climate as a means to gain Political Power. And it has worked a treat – until now. The challenge is to dig ourselves out of the deep grave the totalitarians of every major Oz political party started to dig for us before it is too late to save Australia.

    • ianl says:

      Yes, accurate but has all been said of course. The real challenge is to have the MSM cease propaganda – none of the points made here appear or have appeared in any large-audience publications or broadcasts and I cannot see why they ever would. With the constant drip, drip, drip from the public megaphone, substantial change may only occur at the point of real collapse. This may be inevitable but is not something I wish for.

  • Jody says:

    I don’t read reader comments that are this long. Just saying.

  • Keith Kennelly says:


    An adult xcellent article but I thought it could have been expanded a little.

    Today an inherent truth taught to younger generations is that error equates to failure.

    This has two unhappy results.

    Opinion can never be wrong, otherwise the holder is a failure.
    To attempt new things can result only in error therefore must be avoided.

    These are the traits of the ‘make everything safe’ brigade.

    They all share other trait too.

    A limited ability to grasp complex notions and are adverse to reading.

    Cheers Keith

  • whitelaughter says:

    ” There is a very real and unfilled need for university and even high school level courses in the philosophy and ethics of science as a fundamental educational requirement necessary to the future health of both science and democracy.”

    One year while I was at ANU, the Physics dept and the Philosophy dept both ran philosophy of science units, which I did simultaneously to compare. Amusingly, both departments put so much effort into covering the other field’s expertise properly that they botched their own fields, so the Physics dept did the philosophy side best, and the philosophy side the science side best.
    But while I enjoyed both units, I don’t think they’d help much. There was nothing in either unit that would help a scientist dealing with the ethical considerations of the misuse of their work; with using information acquired unethically; of balancing the needs of objectivity with the requirements of sponsors.
    Neither unit was actually *useful* ethically.
    Which undermines your claim that ethics doesn’t require religion; it seems as poorly supported as Peter Smith’s counterclaim in “The God of Science” article. In both cases, need to consider your better point, that we need to be willing to say ‘don’t know” when we have insufficient information.

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