Why being a scientist means confronting your own ignorance

I read an essay today arguing that scientists should be stupid. Or more precisely, ignorant. Or even more precisely, they should recognize their ignorance when all others ignore and turn away.

What does it feel like to be wrong?

It doesn’t feel like anything. Most people are wrong most of the time without realizing it. (Explained brilliantly in this TED talk.)

What does it feel like to be proven wrong, to find out you were confused or ignorant?

It hurts, a great deal. And most people flinch away from this. They would rather continue being wrong than experience the feeling of being proven wrong.

But being proven wrong is the only way to become less wrong. Being proven ignorant is the only way to truly attain knowledge.

I once heard someone characterize the scientific temperament as “being comfortable not knowing”. No, no, no! Just the opposite, in fact. The unscientific temperament is being comfortable not knowing, being fine with your infinite ignorance as long as you can go about your day. The scientific temperament is being so deeply  uncomfortable not knowing that it overrides the discomfort everyone feels when their beliefs are proven wrong. It is to have a drive to actually know—not to think you know, not to feel as if you know, not to assume you know and never think about it, but to actually know—that is so strong it pushes you through all the pain and doubt and confusion of actually trying to find out.

An analogy I like to use is The Armor of Truth. Suppose you were presented with a piece of armor, The Armor of Truth, which is claimed to be indestructible. You will have the chance to wear this armor into battle; if it is indeed indestructible, you will be invincible and will surely prevail. But what if it isn’t? What if it has some weakness you aren’t aware of? Then it could fail and you could die.

How would you go about determining whether The Armor of Truth is really what it is claimed to be? Would you test it with things you expect it to survive? Would you brush it with feathers, pour glasses of water on it, poke it with your finger? Would you seek to confirm your belief in its indestructibility? (As confirmation bias would have you do?) No, you would test it with things you expect to destroy it; you’d hit it with everything you have. You’re fire machine guns at it, drop bombs on it, pour acid on it, place it in a nuclear testing site. You’d do everything you possibly could to falsify your belief in the armor’s indestructibility. And only when you failed, only after you had tried everything you could think of to destroy the armor and it remained undented and unscratched, would you begin to believe that it is truly indestructible. (Popper was exaggerating when he said all science is based on falsification; but he was not exaggerating very much.)

Science is The Armor of Truth, and we wear it into battle—but now the analogy begins to break down, for our beliefs are within us, they are part of us. We’d like to be able to point the machineguns at armor far away from us, but instead it is as if we are forced to wear the armor as the guns are fired. When a break in the armor is found and a bullet passes through—a belief we dearly held is proven false—it hurts us, and we wish we could find another way to test it. But we can’t; and if we fail to test it now, it will only endanger us later—confront a false belief with reality enough and it will eventually fail. A scientist is someone who accepts this and wears the armor bravely as the test guns blaze.

Being a scientist means confronting your own ignorance: Not accepting it, but also not ignoring it; confronting it. Facing it down. Conquering it. Destroying it.

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