All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure. —Mark Twain
I went all day yesterday without checking my email, not even once. In the ongoing struggle to not spend every waking moment in front of the computer, it was an important step and the interesting thing is I didn’t do it on purpose. Between Mother’s Day and children and the dog and the cats, my day didn’t leave a lot of extra time. I’m rather surprised that we managed to work in two new articles yesterday. There was just too much going on to waste time with something that generally is as pointless as email. If I missed anything important, it can be chalked up to selective ignorance; I chose to not know what was in my email.
Don’t judge me, you do the same thing. Our world contains too much information for us to even begin to comprehend it all. Were we to try, we would drive ourselves crazy. Our minds cannot comprehend all there is to know, so we are forced into a situation of selective ignorance, focusing on what is genuinely important to our specific situation and ignoring all the noise on the outside.
Humorist Garrison Keillor talks about selective ignorance in terms of parenting: we don’t want to know everything our teenaged children are doing when they’re out of our sight. We might say we want to know, but the truth is we do better when we don’t know. Whether they’re having sex or exploring their own sexual identity or smoking pot in the Steak-N-Shake parking lot, there are details of our children’s lives we do best to leave alone.
We utilize selective ignorance more than we think. In many ways, it is an extension of Pareto’s Principle of 80/20 in that 80 percent of what we know (or think we know) is fueled by 20 percent of the information we receive. We focus on what appears to be the best information, the most concise assessments, and then extrapolate our knowledge outward as necessary. This allows us to pay more attention to what is really important.
Author Timothy Ferris might put it better than I do:
We commit acts of selective ignorance more often than we realize. When we see a top ten list, we pay much more attention to the top three than we do the bottom seven. Marketers like creating top ten lists where their product comes out first because, in overwhelming numbers, we tend to buy the number one rated item on the list, often without even considering the other nine.
There actually is a school of science behind mapping what we choose to ignore. They even have their own website. Selective ignorance can be incredibly important in matters of science and technology, which may sound rather counterintuitive after first, but when you think about it, no one can focus on all the science that is being studied. Consider, for example, who you would rather have to operate on your heart condition, your general practitioner, who tries to know as much about all of medicine as possible, or a cardiologist who might ignore things like how to birth a baby or treating pediatric rashes in favor of focusing on less invasive ways of treating your heart murmur.
Not all instances of selective ignorance work to our advantage, though. In an article on the topic, Silvia Roman states:
Nowadays, scientific and technological knowledge usually eludes public criticism and even we have seen how important government decision making were made by the so-called technocrats. We often forget the contingency of this knowledge, the fact that scientists make choices about what to know and what to ignore.
These research choices, intentionally or unintentionally, lead to a selective scientific knowledge and thus, to a limited understanding of complex phenomena.
Correlating complex phenomena across a wide range of scientific understanding is one of those places where selective ignorance doesn’t work, but the limits of our human brains still push us in that direction. One of the promises of quantum computing is that it holds the potential to find the correlation between disparate and even random sets of data. The technology does not have the limits of understanding that cripple the human brain, creating the possibility of greater understanding.
Even if quantum computing allows us to find those distractingly complex phenomena, though, we’re still likely to exercise selective ignorance in choosing what is going to be reported. In fact, it turns out that the level of selective ignorance in science reporting is so severe it often turns into outright misinformation, whether on the part of the people doing the reporting or the researchers themselves.
Selective ignorance in scientific reporting was actually the main topic on John Oliver’s program, Last Week Tonight last night. While the piece is a little long (20 minutes), he does a very good job of demonstrating what the far-reaching effects are of someone who engages in selective ignorance. Grab another cup of coffee and take a look:
Selective ignorance is a tool that has limited benefit. While it helps us cull through the mass of information flooding through our timelines and newsfeeds, when we fail to distribute enough information, or the correct information, we can cause problems.
There are plenty of things I don’t want or need to know. I don’t want to know what you have for lunch. I don’t need to know that your recently removed boyfriend is a douche. However, if you happen to cure cancer somewhere along the way, by all means, we want all the information possible. Not all ignorance is bliss.