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May 4, 2017

Learning to Acknowledge Ignorance

Bruce Murray

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On Earth Day this year, I found myself about three-quarters of the way through Yuval Noah Harari's book, "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind." April's celebration of the planet featured a March for Science, held in more than 600 cities worldwide. The mission was to "communicate science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity [urging political leaders] to enact evidence based policies in the public interest."

Harari offers perspective on the early days of the Enlightenment's Scientific Revolution. As it began, there were a few cities of 100,000 people, but the buildings were mud, wood and straw. Technology advances were not the result of structured science, but primarily incremental improvements by craftsmen.

At the dawn of the Enlightenment, there was no sense of progress. The Golden Age was long gone. Strict adherence to the past may bring a little of the good times back, but nothing was going to change much. "If even Muhammad, Jesus, Buddha, and Confucius – who knew everything there is to know – were unable to abolish famine, disease, poverty, and war from the world, how could we expect to do so?" asks Harari.

Learning When the Gods Knew Everything

Curiosity was entertaining but not a serious endeavor. There was no sense of humanity’s ignorance. The traditions asserted that the gods knew everything important and revealed it to us in scriptures and oral traditions. "It was inconceivable that the Bible, the Quran or the Vedas were missing out on a crucial secret of the universe," he writes.

Here is a personal anecdote of my own ignorance, and then I'll get to this post's point relative to today's professionalism. I live alongside the Columbia River in the northwest corner of the United States. I've wondered why the entire continent isn't called "Columbia," but curiosity never sparked my study.

Harari provided the answer. Christopher Columbus had no idea that he’d discovered a continent. When his crew met the locals, he called them "Indians" because he assumed that they were in the East Indies. A decade later, Italian Amerigo Vespucci led expeditions north of Columbus's route. Vespucci's texts wondered if the lands were indeed an entirely unknown continent between Europe and East Asia. Respected German mapmaker Martin Waldseemüller read the texts and published the first maps of a new world, naming the continent in honor of its discoverer, America. The name stuck.

I was unaware that so many scientists were aboard the early oceanic expeditions and in their subsequent first landing parties. Indeed, the reason for expeditions was to obtain economic advantage. What the scientists learned, and converted into ways to use resources, furthered the economic gain beyond wild imaginations.

Brainstorm and Experiment

When we encounter unknowns, whether in our personal or professional lives, we should explore them. Chris Shelton recommends using the scientific method. Make observations, use existing knowledge and assumptions to form a hypothesis. Engage with scientists and see what they observe and think. Brainstorm to come up with an experiment to test the hypothesis.

This online introduction to the study of philosophy confirms that, "[Experiments] give back more detail, more specifics, more intricacy than the hypothetical concepts with which we design them. The response of nature to experiments breaks up the concepts and theories with which we came, and forces the researcher onto the edge." The learning process goes like this: analyze the data from the experiment. If necessary, develop another experiment, or revise your hypothesis to conform to the data your experiment produced.

For example, we all engage in some form of sales pitching – whether we are selling products and services, or promoting ourselves for a job or advancement. My hypothesis is that I would be more successful if I masked my pitch's intention by starting with fascinating facts, stories or a humorous anecdote.  I’ve begun experimenting by trying a straight-pitch and the masked version. Which will succeed more often?

Dozens of questions arose. What is a fair sample size? How do I determine success or failure, by actual sales and job offers? Or by some subjective judgment about establishing a good relation?

As a Modern Man, I again confess to my ignorance, but I can say this with certainty. What I learn in this experiment would not be a universal truth; it would only apply to my personality and circumstances. But learning what works for me is a suitable goal. Who knows, perhaps one day my exploration into what I don’t know will lead to a universal, scientific discovery. I will only find out by remaining curious, exploring and using science to reveal truths.

Have you had any interesting workplace learning experiences from random experimentation? Let us know in the box below.


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