Much of our experience of the world is shaped by ignorance. Whether it is a driver yelling at a cyclist because one of them doesn’t know the traffic laws, or an 18th century doctor bleeding a patient because he doesn’t understand the causes of illness, ignorance frequently causes harm — even if the ignorant are trying to help.
I suppose, in part, this is why we have the phrase, “Ignorance is bliss.” The ignorant don’t know whether they are hurting or helping, and in their view, they are doing the right thing. How often is this the case? How often do we do the wrong thing when thinking that we’re acting on our correct knowledge?
I’m afraid this happens more often than not, but the silver lining is that most situations don’t have extreme consequences for our ignorant actions. A deli worker who misreads your order and makes you a turkey sandwich instead of a ham sandwich isn’t causing great problems for anyone, and this is the kind of scenario that fills most of our lives. Rarely are we in an operating room where we have to make an uncertain decision about how to save a patient’s life. We’ve built long, arduous training programs in an attempt to put the best-trained people in those situations that can have dire consequences if we act ignorantly. These training programs don’t always work, but they help ameliorate some of the damage we can cause due to ignorance.
An extreme reaction to our own ignorance is a type of paralysis. We become afraid to do anything because, if we really dig into it, we aren’t certain about very many things. We don’t help people because we’re uncertain about whether they want help; we don’t communicate with others because we’re uncertain of the outcome. However, this conclusion is as faulty as the assumption that we’re better off remaining ignorant and simply assuming that we’re acting from knowledge.
It seems that the best effort we can make is to try to act on our best knowledge of any situation, while recognizing that we’ll probably make a bunch of mistakes along the way — until we invent a crystal ball, that is.