Ignorance, Explainers, and Knowing What We Don’t Know

One of the most interesting parts of being a knowledge omnivore is discovering a blind spot. You can be pursuing some obscure technology that existed for 5 years at the turn of the century and suddenly you stumble on Omnipresent Bit of Modern Life That You Do Not Understand. At All.

That was me, last week. I’ve been researching the real technological roots of Steapunk science for a talk I’m giving at the Steampunk Empire Symposium at the end of April. I found myself down a rabbit hole of dead end steam tech innovations when I started wondering how we switched from external combustion engines (aka steam-based) to internal combustion engines. So I started looking up the early history of internal combustion. The first thing I noticed was that internal combustion engines were developed much earlier than I thought they were (1876 for the gasoline engine and 1878 for diesel! How cool!). The second thing I noticed was that I was lost when the articles were talking about variations on internal combustion engines.

Completely and totally lost.

I consider myself an educated consumer.  I research best medical practices and pay attention to my health. I’ve read altogether too much on GMOs vs. organic vs. actually being able to feed most of humanity. I know that climate change is a big frakking deal. I’m intensely worried about antibiotic-resistance. I can’t fix most appliances, but I can understand how they work and why they’re broken. I’m understand both the software and hardware aspects of computers and spend hours meticulously reserching each and every technology purchase, to the point that Cnet can probably tell when I’m thinking of buying new gadgets.

But I drive a car every day and didn’t actually understand the engine that makes it work. I had a vague knowledge that fuel was burned and oil lets the parts move. I knew the engine turned the wheels. I knew that there was coolant involved somehow and that I needed to periodically check the tires.

I knew I wasn’t a car person and that I would never be the one fixing my car. (Not because girls can’t fix cars, but because I can’t fix cars.) But I thought I at least had a working knowledge of the basics.

I didn’t. At all.

I do now, since I spent several hours reading about it and sketching out diagrams and trying to understand, but more importantly, I know what I don’t know and what I still need to read more about.

So how do we know what we don’t know? How *can* we? And how do we communicate those concepts to others?

The traditional, deficit model would say that my ignorance was a failure of science communication. That the experts should have somehow reached out to me more. That they should have “fixed” my lack of knowledge.

But here’s the thing. I didn’t consider myself ignorant of car engines. I never would have read a “how car engines work” article, even if one came across my radar (which I’m sure many have, and I’ve just ignored them or brushed by them, in search of what I considered novel information.

We get frustrated when people won’t read the climate change pieces that we put so much work into. Or when they skim the GMO articles and pick out the bit that they already relate to and think they know. We don’t understand how friends on Facebook don’t understand that their views on evolution are not scientifically literate and make them look silly.

But to them, there isn’t a lack of knowledge there. Of course they understand how climate works. Weather is simple. We’ve lived with it every day of our lives. Of course they know that GMOs should probably be avoided, since they’re just not natural. And while vaccines may not cause autism, they’re just not entirely comfortable with having that many shots that early. They are only being responsible consumers, after all.

There is a profound ignorance in “common knowledge”. Mine was in assuming I knew how an engine worked. And my ignorance wasn’t fixed by a “how car engines work” post. It was fixed by a somewhat-unrelated intellectual tangent. I would have been horribly affronted had someone told me that I don’t understand this huge force of modern life, because what kind of idiot doesn’t understand cars? But by following up on details, I learned that I had a lot to learn.

I don’t mean this to be a treatise against explainers. I love them. They’re some of my favorite kinds of writing, particularly if they are explainers that incorporate a historical view or an understanding of the people behind the science. But here’s the thing: I only tend to read explainers if I think I need an explainer. In my case, that means I seek out explainers on new science concepts, things that I might have to teach (ie, in my field), or things that I already know that I don’t know. (I’m a sucker for astrophysics explainers. I am well aware I am profoundly ignorant in that area and I already know I want to know more.) I find the audience for explainers, judging by the responses I get to sharing them tends to be similar: people who have opted in. People who are already interested. And people who already think they have something to learn.

In my own science communication, I use explainer/101 types of communication in very specific ways. They’re popular at conventions, where you can tie some basic science into things that people are already curious about, whether that’s Airships, Superhero Fashion or TARDIS Physics. That’s the place where explainers really shine – where I have an audience that has already opted into a topic.

In online science communication, I try to use explainers in a more subtle way. There are some people I would never link directly to a “Climate Change 101” article because they already think they know the details, but if I make a comment on a facebook post mentioning how extreme winter weather can actually be a symptom of global warming, with a link to the appropriate section of a climate change article, then people will often be curious enough to engage with that particular detail and read a little bit. They’ll probably then go back to arguing with me about how anthropogenic climate change isn’t a real thing because… volcanoes, but they’ll carry that one isolated fact with them.

And who knows, with enough little isolated facts poking their heads into people’s minds, eventually we might be curious enough to look up the lines that will connect those dots. All without ever being told that we don’t understand.

22 thoughts on “Ignorance, Explainers, and Knowing What We Don’t Know

  1. Congratulations. I was a boy during the 50s and 60s, so I was surrounded by automobile stuff like V8 model engines, books on engines and American Petroleum institute how it works infographics (aka posters). Knowing a bit about how car engines work can be really helpful. The mechanics are fascinating. The thermodynamics are interesting too. The efficiency of the engine is a function of the difference between the temperature of the air and fuel intake and the exhaust temperature. All that moving and shaking and it’s really just about how hot you can make the exhaust gas. Information theory is computer science; thermodynamics is engine science.

    I’m not sure most people really understand the difference between climate and weather. They tend to confuse the too. Meteorologists, when asked, will say that climate is what you expect, but weather is what you get. It’s not just that we are getting warmer weather, but that we now have to expect warmer and warmer weather. It’s not just a hot summer or warm winter, but a whole change in what we can expect.

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  3. I would like to know everything, but I am not able to. There will always be many areas where my knowledge is poor, and which I will never find out about.

    • 20 months later, I feel compelled to note that Youtube has since changed my experience on this point. By browsing the inexhaustible supply of available videos available there, and sometimes by letting Youtube suggest what to watch, I have meaningfully broadened the horizons of my knowledge… just since I wrote that earlier comment!

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