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Recognizing Ignorance: the coming Age of Science

In his book titled Sapiens the historian Yuval Noah Harari writes of people roughly around the year 1500 and before assuming that we can't know everything. Admitting ignorance was a step in humanity extending its knowledge. Harari extends the admission of ignorance to the development of science, adding that there were those who also accepted that what they considered knowledge could be proven wrong and that together the two attitudes opened the way to modern science.

He writes:

Premodern traditions of knowledge such as Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Confucianism asserted that everything that is important to know about the world was already known... Ancient traditions of knowledge admitted only two kinds of ignorance. First, an individual might be ignorant of something important. To obtain the necessary knowledge, all he needed to do was ask somebody wiser. There was no need to discover something that nobody yet knew... if a peasant in some thirteenth-century Yorkshire village wanted to know how the human race originated, he assumed that Christian tradition held the definitive answer. All he had to do was ask the local priest.

And if the wise people couldn't answer the question, the gods not having revealed the answer, the question was considered unimportant. Or those few who thought otherwise (dissidents) were marginalized or persecuted, and they might found a new tradition that claimed to know everything that was worth knowing.

Writes Harari:

Modern-day science is a unique tradition of knowledge, inasmuch as it openly admits collective ignorance regarding the most important questions.

He points out that Charles Darwin "never argued that he had solved the riddle of life once and for all." In science, moreover, competing theories are "vociferously debated on the basis of constantly emerging new evidence." Measuring and mathematics were a big part of the coming new science, as were statistics regarding measuring and researching societal and psychological matters. Harari writes of second-year psychology students at his university having to take 'Statistical Methods in Psychological Research' and adds:

Confucius, Buddha, Jesus and Muhammad would have been bewildered if you told them that in order to understand the human mind and cure its illnesses you must first study statistics.

Statistics was to become a basic requirement in physics and the biological sciences as well as sociology, economics and political science. The aim is accuracy, but "Scientists," writes Harari, "usually assume that no theory is 100 per cent correct." (Measuring without a little approximation can be difficult.) Despite its the imperfections of humanity's measurements, scientific theories are obliged to stand up to the test of utility. "A theory that enables us to do new things," writes Harari, "constitutes knowledge."


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