Blissful ignorance and magical magic

Charles Taylor had a great piece in the Boston Globe yesterday. The opening sentence hits hard. “There’s no shame in not knowing; there’s shame in not wanting to know.” Another piece on Quartz argues that thinking like a scientist is a cure-all for democracy. “If there’s overwhelming evidence for something—like man-made climate change—and you don’t believe it, you aren’t being a skeptic, you are in denial. Being skeptical means demanding evidence, not ignoring it.”

I agree with both of these statements, and I do believe that society would be better if more people followed them, but the Taylor piece, and a comment in response to the Quartz piece paint the problem.

I have a comforting and warm emotional response to not shaming lack of knowledge, and trying to shine light where it wasn’t. I’m sure that response is part of what drives me to be a scientist, and why the part of my job I like the most is the mentoring. It’s likely why one of my favorite classes to teach is an introductory biopsychology course; a course that starts from the basics and builds. The difference in knowledge that many of the students have from the first day to the last is vast, and I like being a part of that.

But, of course, there is a downside to this. The Taylor piece is actually a thesis on why lack of knowledge should be shamed. Why there are things that adults really should know, and should be embarrassed  to not know. I still draw a line between somebody feeling embarrassed and being shamed, and think it would be great if people were intrinsically driven to learn, and embarrassed when they missed some key piece of information, but I imagine that without some of the latter, the former won’t happen. But this is a less emotionally comforting and warm feeling. “There’s no shame in not knowing” is comforting.

In the same way, my first reaction to the Quartz piece is that it would be great if everybody carefully considered evidence, and weighed it equally, drawing sound conclusions. It would be great if we were all skeptical and demanded evidence for things we hear, see, read. Thinking about a world with that makes me happy. But, then I remember that magic tricks are more fun when you don’t know how they’re done. The world can seem less amazing when we figure it out. An overwhelming feeling of happiness can feel less fun when it is reduced to its chemical components and neural circuits. I’m reminded that part of the comfort that people get from life is by not questioning things, and just enjoying the ride. And spending too much time analyzing this kills the comfort I used to derive from thinking ignorance was blissful.

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