>> Monday, June 21, 2010
Read an interesting article today in the NYT (which I like reading, so there) which was discussing people ignorant of their ignorance.
Now before you start scratching your head wondering what I'm talking about, let me explain. Everyone has areas of expertise and incompetence, things they know well and things they don't know. Nothing wrong with that.
For instance, someone might not know all six wives of Henry VIII or why the fact he divorced his first was important. They don't know, but most might know they didn't know. However, there are others who won't have any idea who Henry VIII is or that he had several wives or that his need to throw his first wife over is a big factor in why that so many in North America are protestant. Unless you ask him, he doesn't realize he doesn't know nor likely care why you might think it's important.
There's nothing wrong with that. I know I don't know the proper formula for brick mortar. I also know that, if I decided to build a house by myself, I would have to learn a great deal I don't know (known unknowns) but there are likely dozens of other things I wouldn't even know I didn't know that could ruin what I was trying to do (unknown unknowns) and that I'd be foolish to attempt it without expert help.
The article was focused on these people who don't realize that there's so much they don't know. In the article, they were focused on incompetence/ignorance, people who were clueless about their cluelessness. And we all know folks like that. These are Darwin award winners and crooks too stupid to be believed. And talk show commentators. And, apparently, senators, or at least some of them.
But I don't want to talk about them. There are tons of posts and stories and articles about the chronically clueless. What I want to talk about is the fact that all of us - all of us - have some of these aspects, too, those areas where were are not only ignorant, but that we can't even objectively quantify our ignorance or the implications of our ignorance.
That's one of the things that drives me crazy in the space industry. Too many people think we've figured out all the unknowns, so we can cut our conservatism and safety margins to the bone. I say "nay nay," because I know those margins, those excesses, those versatilities are what kept Apollo 13 from being a tragedy and has saved our spacebuns many a time. Because there are accidents and failings you never even thought of, environments you never considered, aspects you just didn't see coming. (Though it's even more frustrating when people refuse to even address the problems you can readily see - but that's another story).
But it's not just true of space exploration. It's true of engineering and science, of course, but it's true of every day aspects of life. Unexpected illnesses or accidents happen. Jobs are lost. Things you didn't know you didn't know can bite you in the butt.
If we're smart, we not only acknowledge what we don't know, we look for experts where we can and prepare for the worst when there's no one that knows.