Ignorance: We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know

Sep 5, 2021

By Mario Sikora

Part of an ongoing series of articles on clear-thinking skills, excerpted from “How to Think Well, and Why: The Awareness to Action Guide to Clear Thinking” by Mario Sikora (available at http://www.awarenesstoactionbooks.com).

In the last set of articles, we discussed the first obstacle to clear-thinking—our built-in biases—and the antidotes and guardrails to protect us from those biases. The second and third obstacles, and how to guard against them, can be found in “How to Think Well, and Why.” In this article, we will continue with the fourth obstacle: Ignorance.

No one knows everything. Ignorance—the lack of knowledge—often impedes our ability to think effectively. When we lack general knowledge the facts we do know are not understood in their full context; their significance is diminished. A diverse and interesting world, and the solutions to many of our problems, are often right in front of us, but hidden by a veil of ignorance.

Ironically, we live in a time where all the facts in the world are available to us via the internet. We carry the greatest library ever assembled right on our cellphones. But it comes with a drawback.

Socrates argued 2500 years ago that the written word was intellectually harmful to us—the fact that we could write something down meant that we didn’t have to remember it. Thus, when we needed to know something, the knowledge wasn’t available to us unless we knew where it was written down. It created a state of ignorance in which we may not know what we don’t know and therefore not know how to find the insights we need.

One can argue that the net benefit of writing and reading is positive (I certainly would), but Socrates had a point—without a broad base of general knowledge to carry with us in our minds we are destined to remain ignorant, even if the answers we seek lie in the devices in our pockets. We simply don’t know what questions to ask.

Broad general knowledge, however, provides a lattice-work in which the world contains a richness and depth unavailable to the ignorant. The knowledgeable see connections and gain insights others can’t even imagine, and they know the questions to ask and places to look to find the answers others will never see.

In my next blog I will describe how to reduce our ignorance.


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