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.


21 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.

  2. Pingback: I’ve got your missing links right here (6 April 2013) – Phenomena: Not Exactly Rocket Science

  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!

  4. それはだかどうか|他のみんな遭遇経験 の問題を私だけかおそらくかどうかの。 それがどのように見えるの一部テキストのあなたコンテンツがオフに実行されている画面。 他の誰かがことができますしてくださいフィードバックを提供、これは彼らに何が起こっているなら、私に知らせて同様に?私はこれが起こる持っていたので、 前に以前、私と問題問題であること。 ありがとうございます

  5. Thanks for one’s marvelous posting! I definitely enjoyed reading it, you may be a great author.I will make
    sure to bookmark your blog and may come back from now on. I want
    to encourage continue your great posts, have a nice morning!

  6. ほとんどあなた請求適切なとそれは私を作る熟考理由はI していなかったことを supprisingly起こるとの前に、この光の以前にこの中を見ていないでした。 あなた記事本当に限りこの特定 行く。 それでもそこに、現時点ではは1の特定問題私はは本当に快適居心地と実際試みの|テーマにアイデアあなたの位置、許可私は観察何すべての残りの部分あなたの訪問者非常によく行わ加入者が}{言わなければならない。

  7. 多くのあなた断言驚くほど正確とそれは私を作る熟考理由はI していなかったことを supprisingly起こるとの前に、この光の以前にこの中を見ていないでした。 この特定ピース本当に限りこの私は個人的に私のためのオンスイッチターン光をした対象行く。 しかしそこ実際にされているちょうど1問題私はは本当に快適居心地のでしばらく の|テーマにアイデアあなたのポイント、許可私は観察まさにすべての残りの部分リーダー素敵行わ加入者が}{言わなければならない。

  8. I’m now not sure where you are getting your info,
    however great topic. I needs to spend a while studying much more or understanding more.
    Thank you for great information I used to be on the lookout for this info for my

  9. [url=http://www.gginza.com/%E6%99%82%E8%A8%88/%E3%83%AD%E3%83%AC%E3%83%83%E3%82%AF%E3%82%B9/daytona/04e74ce5ed154d2e.html]は、コンスタンチンchaykinコンプトゥスの復活祭の時計のケースを模倣するサンクトペテルブルク、ロシアの聖イサク大聖堂のように、全体的な形状は、ドーム、柱廊、鐘塔とすべてのこの記念碑の大聖堂にマッチする色を選んであった。トップの上のギョーシェとゴールドエナメルで飾られたドームは、キリスト教徒のための復活のシンボルと一致するように卵の形状に成形する。4つのミニチュアの鐘塔、24柱構造の側の上のモザイク装飾とすべての他の小さいデザイン要素を考えて、元の建物に合わせて作られている。[/url]

  10. [url=http://www.eevance.com/tokei/chopard]時計は代々、光を金庫は明らかに足りない。ある時計業界関係者によると、腕時計を絶好調そして将来譲渡時いい売値定期掃除は非常に重要な一環。ブランド 時計コピー3年ごとの週波数メンテナンス時間、毎回約5000元の通常のメンテナンス価格ざっと計算して、30年の保養費用とは6万元を投入。[/url]

  11. You’re so cool! I don’t believe I’ve read through a single thing
    like that before. So great to find someone with genuine thoughts
    on this subject matter. Seriously.. thanks for starting this up.

    This site is something that is required on the internet, someone with some originality!

  12. I do consider all the ideas you have offered for your post.
    They’re really convincing and will certainly work.
    Still, the posts are too short for novices. May just you please extend them a
    bit from next time? Thanks for the post.

  13. Hindi Films – Get data on the latest Hindi Movies, New Hindi Film Releases, Bollywood Movies releasing this week and upcoming Hindi Films on Bollywood
    Hungama, India’s premier bollywood portal.

  14. Thanks for another informative website. The place else may just I am getting that kind of information written in such a perfect manner?
    I’ve a venture that I’m just now operating on, and I’ve been on the glance out for
    such info.

  15. Of 37 popular yoga poses, 4 had an average metabolic equivalent of job ― a measure of the energy needed to do the precise activity ― of additional than three.
    This signifies that 4 yoga poses fulfilled the criteria for getting a moderate physical exercise, as opposed to a light-intensity exercise
    (searching at you, child’s pose).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *