Knowledge grows faster than our capacity to learn. Our own knowledge shrinks as a sliver of the total available. We risk becoming ignorant, provincial—ideological islands separated from all who disagree.
Look at any recent study. For example, on Dec. 8 the Fraser Institute reported that Canadian patients now wait 27.4 weeks for treatment, the longest ever recorded.
What do you do with this information? Accept it without question? Try to digest the research? Or ignore it, simply because Fraser published it?
The Fraser Institute does excellent research, but it challenges most of academia and much of the legacy media.
An Inevitable Age of Ignorance
R. Buckminster Fuller proposed the “Knowledge Doubling Curve” in 1982. He noted that in 1900, knowledge doubled every 100 years. By 1945, it doubled every 25 years, and by 1982, it doubled every 12-13 months.
IBM predicted knowledge would double every 12 hours by 2020. ResearchGate says there are over 7 million academic papers published each year.
The situation is no better for doctors. In 2011, medical knowledge doubled every 3.5 years. Researchers predicted it would double every 73 days by 2020.
Pandemic publications prove the point. In the first 10 months of the pandemic, researchers published over 87,500 scientific papers, just about COVID-19.
There is too much to know, but it does not scare us as it should. We take comfort in how much we seem to know, or we find ways to convince ourselves we know more than we do.
Until recently, we held back (apparent) ignorance with specialization and shortcuts.
In the 19th century, German universities invented academic specialization. Medical specialization followed in 1830s Paris. By the 1950s, medicine had sub-specialized.
Today, doctors sub-sub-(sub?)-specialize to maintain a grip on a shrinking sliver of medicine. Hyper-specialized physicians literally know more and more about less and less.
Op-eds (opposite the editorial page) offer a shortcut to viewing news we have no time to digest. Medicine offers its own shortcuts: everything from op-eds and practice guidelines to literature reviews and meta-analyses.
But shortcuts only temporize the torrent of new information.
Inevitably, practice guidelines, policy proposals, and regulatory positions conflict with each other. Generalist physicians must choose one and use it, ignoring others that exist.
Wild West of Ignorance
Once knowledge surpasses specialization and efforts to summarize, we pursue filters based on philosophy. We choose a “reputable” voice.
Our hunt for experts with favourable philosophies opens us up to all manner of wild opinion.
Former high school teachers become famous writing as experts on COVID-19. Law professors become COVID-policy provocateurs. We love it, hungry for more.
We have entered the Wild West of ignorance. Facts have no intrinsic value. Now, they are only tools for our cause—embraced if useful, discarded if not.
The Best We Know Now
At one time, scientists were proud of their humility. They bookended opinion about the current state with caveats about it being only the latest evidence in a field of ongoing study.
Today, scientists have abandoned pride in their humility precisely when the current state eludes them. As knowledge doubles faster than anyone’s ability to assimilate it, specialists have doubled the force and certainty of their opinions.
Ignorance on Purpose
Ignorance grows from the need to ignore. We cannot consume everything published.
The harried race to keep pace with scientific knowledge recapitulates a problem solved in classical antiquity. Liberal (free) citizens required education to be free. They did not need to know everything, just a core of essentials: language, logic, history, rhetoric, and so on. The 17th and 18th centuries faced the same challenge and developed a similar solution: a “liberal education.”
Making Sense of the World
In the early 20th century, John Dewey, American philosopher and progressive educational reformer, reshaped curricula with a focus on applied knowledge. He said we should not fill students’ minds with useless information about metaphysics or politics.
The trouble is that the “useless information” had a use. It existed to help sift the deluge of information. It offered a way to make sense of the world, without deference to experts with whom we already agree.
We can escape ignorance by changing what we choose to learn. Shortcuts and specialization cannot save us. We need less of the latest data and more timeless wisdom.
It starts with reading old books—begin with anything older than you.
Ignore progressives who scoff at everything pre-2016. Progressivism itself is over 100 years old.
Check out the Western Canon—at least be aware it exists. Force yourself to consume things outside your area of specialization.
Re-education will make you less up to date but more able to manage information overload. Your mind will clear as you step away from the bleeding edge of popular opinion.
This is not the first time humanity has become overwhelmed and lost touch with reality or what matters. We can avoid becoming provincial, ideologically isolated, and ignorant, but it will take work. Hopefully it is not too late.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.