(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘ignorance

“You fix what you can fix and you let the rest go”*…

Humans are natural problem solvers; still, sometimes no amount of thoughtfulness, hard work, or understanding will transform an intractable problem into a resolvable one. But, as Alex Berezow argues, we must accept this harsh reality to have peace in our lives…

Though our species name is Homo sapiens (Latin for “wise man”), perhaps a better one would be Homo problematis solvendis (“problem solving man”). If there’s a mountain, we’ll climb it; if there’s a moon, we’ll fly to it; if there’s a disease, we’ll cure it. Our species’ success in science and technology has even given rise to scientism, the naïve and arrogant belief that science alone is the only legitimate source of knowledge and that any problem — no matter how great — will one day be solved by science.

It is easy to see why many people believe that. We are taught from a young age that the trickiest homework can be solved through diligent study; the toughest sporting competitions can be dominated through training; and the complexities of interpersonal relationships can be settled through understanding and compromise. All of this conspires to create in each of us a false sense that no problem is too big to tackle. Yet, the unfortunate reality is that, sometimes, no amount of thoughtfulness, hard work, or understanding will transform an intractable problem into a resolvable one. Indeed, some problems really have no solution…

Berezow goes on to unpack three examples: the Riemann hypothesis, the problem of aging and cancer, and willful ignorance. Then he urges us to understand them as a metaphor…

As we grow older, we slowly come to the realization that there is very little in our lives that we actually can control. We didn’t control who our parents were, where we were born, our genetic gifts (or lack thereof), or the sort of upbringing we received. We can’t control our spouses or our children, let alone politicians. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that we can barely control our own thoughts and feelings. It should not surprise us, therefore, that the world contains unsolvable problems. I would go so far as to posit that there may be more unsolvable problems than solvable ones.

So, if there’s any moral lesson to learn from the aforementioned “unsolvable problems,” let it be that they serve as a metaphor for the greater truth that we control far less than we think we do, and that we must become comfortable with that discomforting fact. How? Perhaps the Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr could help:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Or perhaps this cheekier version will suffice:

Give me coffee to change the things I can
And wine to accept the things I cannot.

The very concept of a “problem with no solution” goes against human nature, but they’re everywhere– and we need to find ways to relate to them: “Problems with no solution: From math to politics, some things humans cannot solve,” from @AlexBerezow @bigthink.

* Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men

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As we ruminate on resolution, we might we might send bright birthday greetings to Robert Wilhelm Eberhard Bunsen; he was born on this date in 1811. A chemist, he observed– with a prototype spectroscope that he created– that each element emits a light of characteristic wavelength (thus founding the field of spectrum analysis) and used his insight to discover two new elements, caesium and rubidium.

But Bunsen is probably best remembered for his creation of the Bunsen burner, a gas burner with a non-luminous flame that does not interfere with the colored flame given off by the test material–ubiquitous in labs around the world. Indeed, today is (Inter)National Bunsen Burner Day.

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“Ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have”*…

 

Dunning-Kruger

 

The American author and aphorist William Feather once wrote that being educated means “being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don’t.” As it turns out, this simple ideal is extremely hard to achieve. Although what we know is often perceptible to us, even the broad outlines of what we don’t know are all too often completely invisible. To a great degree, we fail to recognize the frequency and scope of our ignorance.

In 1999, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, my then graduate student Justin Kruger and I published a paper that documented how, in many areas of life, incompetent people do not recognize—scratch that, cannot recognize—just how incompetent they are, a phenomenon that has come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Logic itself almost demands this lack of self-insight: For poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack. To know how skilled or unskilled you are at using the rules of grammar, for instance, you must have a good working knowledge of those rules, an impossibility among the incompetent. Poor performers—and we are all poor performers at some things—fail to see the flaws in their thinking or the answers they lack…

The trouble with ignorance is that it feels so much like expertise. A leading researcher on the psychology of human wrongness– David Dunning himself– explains the Dunning-Kruger effect: “We are all confident idiots.”

* James Baldwin

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As we reconsider our confidence, we might recall that it was on this date in 1996 that the cable channel Fox News debuted.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 7, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge”*…

 

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After the fall of the Berlin Wall, East German citizens were offered the chance to read the files kept on them by the Stasi, the much-feared Communist-era secret police service. To date, it is estimated that only 10 percent have taken the opportunity.

In 2007, James Watson, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, asked that he not be given any information about his APOE gene, one allele of which is a known risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease.

Most people tell pollsters that, given the choice, they would prefer not to know the date of their own death—or even the future dates of happy events.

Each of these is an example of willful ignorance. Socrates may have made the case that the unexamined life is not worth living, and Hobbes may have argued that curiosity is mankind’s primary passion, but many of our oldest stories actually describe the dangers of knowing too much. From Adam and Eve and the tree of knowledge to Prometheus stealing the secret of fire, they teach us that real-life decisions need to strike a delicate balance between choosing to know, and choosing not to.

But what if a technology came along that shifted this balance unpredictably, complicating how we make decisions about when to remain ignorant? That technology is here: It’s called artificial intelligence.

AI can find patterns and make inferences using relatively little data. Only a handful of Facebook likes are necessary to predict your personality, race, and gender, for example. Another computer algorithm claims it can distinguish between homosexual and heterosexual men with 81 percent accuracy, and homosexual and heterosexual women with 71 percent accuracy, based on their picture alone. An algorithm named COMPAS (Correctional Offender Management Profiling for Alternative Sanctions) can predict criminal recidivism from data like juvenile arrests, criminal records in the family, education, social isolation, and leisure activities with 65 percent accuracy…

Knowledge can sometimes corrupt judgment, and we often choose to remain deliberately ignorant in response.  But in an age of all-knowing algorithms, how do we choose not to know?  Two scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development argue that “We Need to Save Ignorance From AI.”

* Daniel J. Boorstin

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As we consider closing our eyes, we might send discoverable birthday greetings to Tim Bray; he was born on this date in 1955.  A seminal software developer and entrepreneur, he is probably best known as the co-author of the original specifications for the XML and XML namespace, open standards that fueled the growth of the internet (by setting down simple rules for encoding documents in a format that is both human-readable and machine-readable), and as the co-founder of the Open Text Corporation, which released the Open Text Index, one of the first popular commercial web search engines.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 21, 2018 at 1:01 am

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