How to calibrate your ignorance

Ignorance is a wonderful thing. Without it everything would be of equal importance, with it we can ignore everything but the oft one thing that matters.

Without ignorance I couldn’t drive a car, nor could you. When driving we don’t meticulously inspect ever blade of grass in the ditch, let alone even look at details of cars passing by. No, we just look down the road, sometimes day dreaming, and we either feel fine or we feel disturbed.

A disturbance is the mind selecting something that needs our attention. An deer galloping through a nearby field, a car headed the wrong direction or a person standing by the side of the road. Unless you’re in NYC then it’s normal to race by people standing in the middle of the road.

We act quickly to adjust for the disturbance and then we’re back to happy as a clam until the next.

Driving requires ignoring most of what we see and focusing on the few things that matter. That’s ignorance at work.

Ignorance is great when it’s well calibrated. It’s problematic when it’s maladjusted. A teenager learning to drive doesn’t yet have the intuitive ignorance necessary for a pleasant experience. The car lurches, screeches to a halt, whiplashes when changing lanes. And probably trails too closely to the car in front.

But, soon enough, ignorance is calibrated and driving because a mostly thoughtless, emotional activity for yet another person.

If we had to pay attention to every detail around us, nothing would matter. Ignorance allows us to find meaning in our experience. But, it can be problematic when it’s underdeveloped. We might not know that just because we have the right of way, doesn’t mean other drivers will heed it. And then there’s an accident because of the assumption that people follow rules.

But, how do you know if your ignorance is well calibrated or not?

It’s impossible to know what the future holds. What you can do is ask yourself two questions.

  • What’s the expected cost of being wrong? (high/medium/low)
  • What’s the expected cost to know? (high/medium/low)

You have to use your ignorance to answer this question, so all bets are off. But, without your ignorance what would you have? Nobody can predict the future, so ignorance is the only thing that can guide our intuition, even about ignorance itself.

Then take a look at this chart to decide what to do:

Calibrating Ignorance