Saturday, November 28, 2009

Being 99.9% Ignorant

How much can you possibly learn? 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 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 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.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Golden Alliance

We all profess the Golden Rule, but too often we seem to live by the law of the jungle. Why is this so, and what can we do about it? Why doesn’t the Golden Rule work more often?

In the simplest terms:
  1. Fear is primal – it evolved to allow us to survive scarcity.
  2. The golden rule is intellectual
  3. Too often we are too scared to think straight.
Humans survived for millions of years by mastering the law of the jungle—kill or be killed. But the hopeful among us also preached and professed, in every major religion and culture, another rule, the Golden Rule—where we encourage ourselves to treat others as we wish to be treated, or better yet, as they wish to be treated

The golden rule is skittish and timid. Too often the law of the jungle scares off the golden rule, quickly sending it back into hiding. Shout “fire!” and the art gallery quickly empties. Set the threat level to orange and we gladly take our shoes off at the airport, distrust Muslims, buy guns, and approve additional defense spending. Brandish a gun and the high school is overcome with panic. The asymmetry is stunning, but we have the capacity for restraint, we can decide to avoid conflict. Eventually we learn to act for others instead of to others. We can learn to cope with abundance. How can we get there?

We can begin with a pledge to “treat others as they wish to be treated, to the best of my ability, every time, at every opportunity”. Then as we go about our lives we notice whenever we fail to follow the golden rule. Reflect on this and ask “why did this lapse occur?” Were we:
  • Unaware or unobservant,
  • Impatient, under time pressure, or overloaded,
  • Distracted, or preoccupied,
  • Fearful, intimidated, or coerced
  • Angry or vengeful,
  • Filling a traditional role within the organizational hierarchy structure,
  • Completing a transaction, negotiation, deal in progress, establishing a contingency, or square deal
  • Trying to "teach him a lesson",
  • Sometimes life is tough, contention for scarce resources limited options,
  • Complacent, exhausted, or habituated,
  • Greedy, embarrassed, self-involved, chose to cheat,
  • a victim of power-over (of you)
  • exerting power-over (by you)
We can keep a journal of each event. Record what happened, when, who, our immediate thoughts and actions, and our reflection on how we could have acted differently to have lived by the golden rule in this instance. Later we can review this journal and use it as an aid to our own learning and growth.

We can share our stories. We can share our own experiences and learning with others who want to live by the golden rule rather than the law of the jungle. We can choose a partner to encourage and assist us in keeping the journal, analyzing the journal, and encouraging each other to live by the Golden Rule.

As we learn more and gain strength from our experience, wisdom, and growing numbers, we can align our efforts, form an alliance, and begin to help others follow the Golden Rule. Eventually we can create a context, or at least a community, where fear mongering becomes unacceptable, and the golden rule is expected.

Together we can ensure the Golden Rule prevails over the law of the jungle.