Virtues/Humility/Being 99.9% Ignorant

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How much can you possibly learn?[1] If you read, studied, and mastered one Wikipedia article each weekday, then after about eleven and one half years you would have studied 3,000 articles. There are now more than 3 million English-language articles in Wikipedia, and the list is growing rapidly. After these years of effort, assuming you could remember all that you read, you would have learned 0.1% of the material in Wikipedia. But Wikipedia contains only the information that the editors have been able to collect, edit, and present so far. It is not all that is known, and it certainly does not include what is not yet known. But after this long-term study effort you would be about 99.9% ignorant of what is in Wikipedia. Perhaps another approach is needed.

If you read about one book each week, after 10 years you would have read 500 books and after 40 years you would have read 2,000 books. This is certainly quite an accomplishment. However Amazon.com lists about 2 million English-language books and their catalog is always moving forward as many new books are added each day. None-the-less your 40-year-long reading efforts cover about 0.1% of the books now available from Amazon.com. Certainly the world’s collection of books is only the knowledge that has been published as books, it is not all that is known, and it certainly does not include what is yet to be learned. Again you would be about 99.9% ignorant of the English-language books that are presently published.

It is certainly a significant accomplishment to become fluent in six different languages. There are more than 6,000 known living human languages. So fluency in six languages represents 0.1% of the known living human languages. This remarkable fluency is again 99.9% ignorant of the world’s languages.

How many people have you met in your lifetime? Certainly it is fewer than 6 million people. Yet if you met 6 million people you would be ignorant of 99.9% of humanity.

The US patent office has issued more than 7 million patents. An extraordinarily prolific inventor with 7,000 patents would hold only 0.1% of the US patents. With more than 10,000 distinct wine varieties, even the most learned wine steward can know only a small fraction of them. Biologists have catalogued more than 1.5 million plant and animal species now living on earth. A biologist who has studied 1,500 of these species is still ignorant of 99.9% of the plant and animal species making up our biosphere. By these measures even experts in a particular specialty only master a small fraction of the total information in their field.

By these several measures, even a very learned person is about 99.9% ignorant. If you are 99.9% ignorant and know twice as much as another person, then they are 99.95% ignorant. This hardly seems like a big gap. Balance well-earned pride with the humility of knowing you are 99.9% ignorant.

Although the massive amounts of information available today make it inevitable that we can never know it all and we are all ignorant, choosing to cherish ignorance is quite different and often destructive. We are choosing to cherish ignorance when we refuse to explore and accept available information that challenges our opinions and beliefs. When we embrace inflammatory sound bites rather than research the more representative evidence, when we forward the next email hoax rather than investigate and debunk the outrageous claims, when we accept dogma and immediately dismiss well-founded but contrary evidence and view-points we are being stubborn and deliberately choosing to cherish and even celebrate ignorance.

Accept our inevitable ignorance, but don’t cherish ignorance. Stay humble, stay curious.

Notes[edit]

  1. This essay first appeared as a blog post on ourgoldenalliance.blogspot. It has been adapted here with permission of the author. See: http://ourgoldenalliance.blogspot.com/2009/11/being-999-ignorant.html The essay was originally written on November 28, 2009. Since then Wikipedia has expanded to more than 5 million articles, and the Amazon collection of books has also grown. By these measures we are now even more ignorant!