Is Ignorance Bliss?

The age of the Renaissance man is long gone. No one thinks it is possible anymore for an individual to grasp, fully, all areas of science and technology. Popular software contains millions of lines of code. Mechanisms of the immune response for just one kind of lymphocyte take up thousands of pages of scholarly journals. An iPod's elegantly simple appearance masks underlying technology that is understood by only a tiny percentage of its users.

But, despite the vast incompleteness of our knowledge, recent research suggests that most people think that they know far more than they actually do. We freely admit to not knowing everything about how a helicopter flies or a printing press prints, but we are not nearly modest enough about our ignorance.

The easiest way to show this is to have people to rate the completeness of their knowledge on a seven-point scale. For any question, a “7” denotes the equivalent of a perfectly detailed mental blueprint, and a “1” implies almost no sense of a particular mechanism at all, just a vague image. People happily, and reliably, assign numbers to their understandings of everything from complex machines to biological systems to natural phenomena such as the tides; but these ratings are usually far higher than their actual knowledge.

To continue reading, please log in or enter your email address.

To read this article from our archive, please log in or register now. After entering your email, you'll have access to two free articles every month. For unlimited access to Project Syndicate, subscribe now.

required

By proceeding, you agree to our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy, which describes the personal data we collect and how we use it.

Log in

http://prosyn.org/1pYWsSl;

Cookies and Privacy

We use cookies to improve your experience on our website. To find out more, read our updated cookie policy and privacy policy.