Friday, 26 October 2007

Handling the ignorance

I'm astonished in observing, day after day, how the people is unable of handling their own ignorance. Note, I'm not disturbed by the ignorance itself - people are not walking versions of Wikipedia - but there are many different ways to deal with it, and the first one is admitting to be ignorant in respect to something. There is nothing wrong in that, and it often is a very wise and clever achievement. In my work the ignorance is everything: when there is no ignorance, the information engineer/computer scientist is hardly useful at all. A good engineer differs from a bad one in what he's able to identify the ignorance scope, and to selectively and promptly counter-act to reduce it. Once there is no more ignorance left, or the amount is completely under control and can be handled by somebody less skilled than you, our job has ended.

Some time ago, a consultant hired by the company in which I used to work introduced me and some others to the theory of the five orders of ignorance (P.G. Armour, The five orders of ignorance, CAMC, Oct 2000):
  • 0th: Lack of Ignorance (I know something and can demonstrably prove it)
  • 1st: Lack of Knowledge (I don't know something, but I know that I don't know it)
  • 2nd: Lack of Awareness (I don't know something, and I don't know that I don't know it)
  • 3rd: Lack of process (I don't know something, I don't know that I don't know it, and I don't know how to find out that I don't know it)
  • 4th: Meta Ignorance (I don't know that there are these levels of ignorance)

When we fall in the 0th, there is no problem. The 1th is easy to handle: go to wikipedia, borrow/buy a book, ask an expert. The 2th is tricky: but if you know that in the future it's likely that new ignorance will show up, you can try to plan something to make this new ignorance to show up as soon as possible. This action is not possible if you fall in the 3th, but if you're aware that you're in the 3th, you can still plan something to counteract the ignorance when it will show up. Socrates would have placed in a good position in this scale, being on the level 1 of ignorance. For many of us is normal to fall in the 2nd level of ignorance even in our area of expertise - I think it's not a good signal if you fall in the 3th in your work - it may mean that you are quite a beginner.

Unfortunately, many and many people, from all the professions, fall into the 4th: they don't know absolutely anything, and they are absolutely convinced of their knowledge, that it's not possible that some ignorance will show up later on in the processes, and that there is the possibility that they are not aware of something. I think that no professional working in any skilled job should fall in the 4th: what if a doctor is so convinced of a treatment not to be opened to the slightest doubt? There'd come the troubles... and often it is: people rely on professionals that are supposedly "experts" in their field.

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