Sunday, September 8, 2013

Taxonomy of Ignorance and the Unknown Unknowns

from What is Ignorance? QCubed
As we know,  
There are known knowns.  
There are things we know we know.  
We also know  
There are known unknowns.  
That is to say  
We know there are some things  
We do not know.  
But there are also unknown unknowns,  
The ones we don't know  
We don't know.
  ( Donald Rumsfeld, DOD briefing, 2002 )
It’s migration season in the mid-Atlantic region, and the night sky is full of small birds traveling south, prompted by internal warnings calibrated uniquely to each species. This past week, according to the ebird birdcast, my region expected nighthawks, red-eyed vireo, and a variety of warblers. I headed out in my kayak early this morning to see what I could see, and sure enough, in a stand of trees hanging over my favorite part of Marsh Creek Lake, red-eyed vireo, black and white warblers and black-throated greens were foraging for insects, readying themselves for a day of rest and another long night of flight.

I had never seen a red-eyed vireo until this morning. Yet, all my life, fall and spring, they’ve been traveling overhead. No one is quite sure how they know what routes to travel. No one knows for certain what determines their start.

And no one knows completely why song bird populations are declining. Loss of habitat, changing weather patterns, pesticide overload on monoculture fields . . . 

The same mysteries surround declining bat populations, and the alarming colony collapse disorder, threatening not just bees, but food crops and agricultural economies. A large percentage of the world’s food supplies depends on pollination by bees. As bees vanish, yields fall. According to a recent US News report: "More than $30 billion worth of crops in the U.S. could be seriously at risk if the continuing die off of honeybees were to reach critical levels." The article continues:

"Academic researchers from the University of Maryland and federal scientists from the Department of Agriculture decided to collect pollen from seven major types of crops along the East Coast where CCD has been especially destructive - where bees had been in serious decline – and fed them to healthy bees.
"The pollen fed to the healthy bees contained an average of nine different types of pesticides and fungicides. One pollen sample had 21 different chemicals."
"The researchers discovered that the healthy bees that ate the fungicides – which are supposedly harmless to bees – were actually three times more likely to become infected with a parasite that's known to cause Colony Collapse Disorder . . .
"What the study also indicated is that there may not be a single cause of the collapse of bee colonies in North America – it could be a complex web of many chemicals that involves different types and classes of pesticides and fungicides."
I’ve long appreciated Wendell Berry’s 2004 essay “The Way of Ignorance,” discovered in a library book of the same name, eventually purchased so I could read - yet again - Berry’s discussion of helpful and foolish ignorance. He begins with this:
"Our purpose here is to worry about the predominance of the supposition, in a time of great technological power, that humans either know enough already, or can learn enough soon enough, to foresee and forestall any bad consequences of their use of that power. . .

"Ignorance plus arrogance plus greed sponsors “better living with chemistry,” and produces the ozone hole and the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico." (53)
Berry offers a taxonomy of ignorance, his own classification of the kinds of ignorance that shape our understanding (summarized online along with a variety of other attempts to classify the unknown/unknowable):                                                      
Varieties of ignorance:
  • Inherent ignorance — ignorance that stems from the limitations of the human brain
  • Ignorance of history — due to our unawareness of what we have forgotten, and never learned
  • Materialist ignorance — willful refusal to recognize what cannot be empirically proved (narrow-mindedness)
  • Moral ignorance — willful refusal to come to a moral conclusion on the basis it may not be ‘objective’
  • Polymathic ignorance — the false confidence of knowledge of the past and future
  • Self-righteous ignorance — ignorance arising from our failure to know ourselves and our weaknesses
  • Fearful ignorance — stemming from the lack of courage to believe and accept knowledge that is unpopular, unpleasant or tragic
  • Lazy ignorance — stemming from not being willing to make the effort to understand what is complex
  • For-profit and for-power ignorance — deliberate obscuring or withholding of knowledge (e.g. advertising, propaganda)
                     (Dave Pollard: The Way of Ignorance)
Berry’s interest in discussing ignorance is to probe the ways that lack of humility lead us into harm, not just on a personal level, but even more, on a societal, even global scale:
"What I have said so far characterizes the personal minds of individual humans. But because of a certain kind of arrogant ignorance, and because of the gigantic scale of work permitted and even required by powerful technologies, we are not safe in dealing merely with personal or human minds. We are obliged to deal also with a kind of mind that I will call corporate, although it is also political and institutional. This is a mind that is compound and abstract, materialistic, reductionist, greedy, and radically utilitarian. . . The corporate mind is remarkably narrow. It claims to utilize only empirical knowledge – the preferred term is “sound science,” reducible ultimately to the “bottom line” of profit or power – 
"Ignorance, arrogance, narrowness of mind, incomplete knowledge and counterfeit knowledge are of concern to us because they are dangerous; they cause destruction. When united with great power, they cause great destruction. They have caused far too much destruction already, too often of irreplaceable things. Now, reasonably enough, we are asking if it is possible, if it is even thinkable, that the destruction can be stopped. To some people’s surprise, we are again backed up against the fact that knowledge is not in any simple way good. We have often been a destructive species, we are more destructive now than we have ever been, and this, in perfect accordance with ancient warnings, is because of our ignorant and arrogant use of knowledge."(59) 
The topics I’ve been tracking of late all call into focus the forms of ignorance Berry describes. Advocates of fracking, genetic modification, consolidated animal feeding, monocrop agriculture dependent on pesticides and herbicides, all point to “sound science” that denies, or ignores, potential harm.  Caution flags are dismissed as “unproven” scare tactics, while the historic record of corporate/industrial malfeasance (tobacco? Agent Orange? DDT? asbestos?) is politely disregarded.

At the same time, I encounter fearful ignorance (“I don’t want to know!”), moral ignorance (“Whatever is happening is inevitable”) and all too often, lazy ignorance (“Who has the time to understand this, and really, does it matter?”)
Plea for help from fifth-generation farmer Bruce Kennedy, East Smithfield,
 Bradford County, PA. Photo by Iris Marie Bloom

I find myself wondering, in the light of this: what does it mean to love my neighbor?

The woman I met not long ago sick at heart that fracking fluid is being injected into abandoned oil wells in her rural county.

The friends who can no longer eat out – anywhere – for fear a simple meal, cooked in the wrong oil, or with unacknowledged ingredients, will make them sick for days.

What does it mean to love the beekeeper who shared her grief at the devastation in her hives?

Or the daughter of generations of gulf shrimpers lamenting the dead zone that’s destroyed her family’s way of life?

How has my own willful ignorance contributed to the harm experienced by others?

How, through lazy ignorance, am I complicit in past, present, and future calamity?

What should I know, that I've chosen not to know?

And how can I “dissent and withdraw,” in Berry’s words, from the tragic arrogance that ignores the dangerous “unknown unknowns”? 

This is the fifth  in a series on food and farming, Jesus' nature parables, and the intermingling of justice, sabbath, shalom, and the sweet, shared hope of God's green equity:

Your comments and questions are welcome.