Proclaim Your Ignorance: When Things Don’t Work

A college professor I once had enforced a zero-tolerance policy for late homework. This included the woes of technological mishaps: “My printer ran out of ink”, “My computer crashed”, “I lost my internet connection and could not access the link to turn the paper in”. Murphy’s Law, he told us, especially lords over technology. Acknowledge the likelihood for technical hiccups and prepare accordingly.

That memory stays with me. But even as I venture forth into the world of information technology, the excuse still remains tempting. When something goes wrong, blame technology. Why?

“When you make a prediction that goes so badly,” Nate Silver explains in The Signal and The Noise, “you have a choice of how to explain it. One path is to blame external circumstances – what we might think of as ‘bad luck.'” Silver uses an example with weather forecasts: “When the National Weather Service says there is a 90 percent chance of clear skies, but it rains instead and spoils your golf outing, yo can’t really blame them.”

What’s tempting about the excuse is that bad luck can happen with technology. The program runs 90 percent of the time and, well, now is the one time out of ten that it doesn’t. These kind of things can happen.

But there’s a danger to that line of reasoning. We can hide behind the veil of probabilities. How were we to know that the half of a percent chance this thing would break actually could occur? As Silver quips, “[w]hen you can’t state your innocence, proclaim your ignorance.” How could I have known that was going to happen? I had no idea that would happen. The shelter ignorance provides takes us out of the picture, exactly where we want to be.

Danny Kahneman has a line from Thinking, Fast and Slow that I throw around often. We have “an almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.” I find it almost ridiculous to type that we also have the propensity to ignore our ignorance of throwing around ignorance as an excuse. Getting around that is the real challenge. How can we know when something is legitimately out of hands and what can we do it?

Well, in the meantime, I’ll go back what that college professor told us.

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