Does it pay to be ignorant?

In the 1950’s there was game show on the new medium of broadcast television called Twenty-One, hosted by one of my favorite vintage comics, Jack Benny. Two contestants competed against each other in separate isolation booths, answering general knowledge questions to earn 21 total points. It later turned out the whole show was rigged, as fictionalized in the film Quiz Show.

But before that, a parody show ran, mocking the quiz kids. It was called “It pays to be ignorant”. Everybody at the time thought that was a joke, which it was.

Flash forward to today, when one of my favorite  writers, Josh Bernoff, penned a post which turns the comical presence of that long ago show into a thought-provoking question: does it indeed pay to be ignorant?  

Well, in fact, he asks the far subtler question “What comes before learning?” The answer, he posits based on his decades, is ignorance. He cites the classic example of the Nobel laureates Penzias and Wilson who discovered the Big Bang’s background noise, having initially attributed it to pigeon droppings on the dish of their radio telescope,

His eloquent thesis statement doesn’t lend itself to synopsis, so I quote him at length:

“If you are going to learn, there are going to be a lot of moments in which you feel stupid. In fact, you are not stupid. You are either ignorant or wrong. Both are curable with evidence. After you get past that feeling of incompetence, you get the reward: insight. Now you know something you didn’t know before.

We live in a culture overflowing with know-it-alls. We know (or imagine we know) how to fix the opioid epidemic, how to fix the student debt crisis, how to preserve the spirit of free enterprise while protecting the most vulnerable among us. Especially among our politicians, there is an overwhelming desire to have all the answers. (Except when there’s a desire to do nothing; in those cases, passively, “more research is needed.”)

Ignorance feels uncomfortable. Finding out that you are wrong about anything is unpleasant. But unless you embrace the discomfort and the feeling of being wrong, you will never learn anything new.

This is why it is so important to seek evidence and recognize when you are at the peak of Mt. Stupid. There is no shame in ignorance, only in failing to act to cure it.

I wish some of our politicians would more often say, ‘I don’t know; I’m going to find out.’ Ignorance is curable. Certainty and immunity to evidence are not.” 

This is “good stuff”, as 20th Century “Tonight Show” host used to say in rendering his highest praise to guest comics. As Shaw said “He knows nothing; and he thinks he knows everything. That points clearly to a political career.” George Bernard Shaw, Major Barbara

Or to quote Yeats: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” William Butler Yeats, The Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats

And finally, in the immortal words of Russell:

“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” - Bertrand Russell .

(KC: Source of all quotes: GoodReads)

In another article, Bernoff advocates keeping an open mind in research and analysis. Inevitably you go into a study with a hypothesis. It is wise in Bernoff’s eyes to be very open to disproving it—doing so can be a far more valuable outcome than confirmation.

What role TN&A can play (or How can we help?)

As hard as you try, it is hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way (to paraphrase an old country music classic). In other words, there is an inevitable confirmation bias when you try top keep an open mind within a business context that you’ve been in for years, especially if there is tribal corporate group think.

That’s where T. Nugent & Associates can help. Like Spock in Star Trek, we’re incapable of speaking other than the truth to all audiences, including the powerful. Or ignorance pays, as we come to each challenge with the proverbial tabula rasa, able to detect the elephant in the room without binoculars.

So, if you need a fresh set of eyes to examine your status quo, let us know here (link to landing page).