Four things everyone should know about ignorance

By Michael Smithson

Michael Smithson (biography)

“Ignorance” is a topic that sprawls across a grand variety of disciplines, professions and problem domains. Many of these domains have their own perspective on the unknown, but these are generally fragmentary and often unconnected from one another. The topic lacks a home. Until fairly recently, it was a neglected topic in the humanities and human sciences.

I first started writing about it in the 1980’s (e.g., my book-length treatment, Ignorance and Uncertainty: Emerging Paradigms), but it wasn’t until 2015 that the properly compiled interdisciplinary Routledge International Handbook on Ignorance Studies (Gross and McGoey 2015) finally appeared.

Given the wide-ranging nature of this topic, here are four things everyone should know about ignorance.

  1. Views of ignorance are largely negative

One of the reasons why ignorance might not seem a topic for serious thought is our largely negative view of it. Ordinary terms for ignorance and ignoramuses have pejorative connotations, and commonplace metaphors for the absence of knowledge refer to characteristics such as blindness, darkness, concealment, blockage, and anxiety. The default assumptions about ignorance, uncertainty, or other states of non-knowledge are that they are negative states that people are (or should be) motivated to be rid of.

  1. Ignorance has benefits

These defaults are only part of the picture, and badly mistaken in many instances.  To begin, people are not always motivated to get rid of their unknowns. Numerous kinds of temporary unknowns are required for entertainment, a sense of freedom of choice, the excitement of an adventure, and, indeed, research. Without unknowns none of these exists.

Additionally, there are things that many people do not want ever to know. Reasons for this include beliefs that such knowledge would be traumatic, or dangerous, or blasphemous, or taboo.

There also are “positive” motives for finding or generating new unknowns, for example in the service of creativity in the arts and in virtually any research area.  Research that doesn’t raise new questions or unknowns is research that has come to a dead-end.

  1. Ignorance is not always a negative aspect of human affairs

In fact, ignorance is an essential component in social relations, organizations, and culture. It underpins important forms of social capital. You can’t even have a genuine conversation without ignorance. Privacy, civility, and trust all are socially mandated ignorance arrangements and agreements.

Organized specialized knowledge literally is coordinated ignorance, which spreads effort that goes with acquiring knowledge, and risk that goes with doing without knowledge.

  1. The study of ignorance does not land neatly in any one discipline

The study of ignorance splatters across disciplines with disregard for disciplinary boundaries. The literature on ignorance studies includes contributions from anthropology, behavioural economics, communications, health and medicine, literature and cultural studies, management science, philosophy, political science, psychology, and sociology. Nevertheless, much remains unexplored in the realm of ignorance.

Exploring this territory requires us to move beyond stereotypical views of ignorance as externally imposed, unwanted or marginal. Instead, we must understand that much ignorance also is socially (even strategically) constructed, desired, and central to the human condition. Moreover, the various collections of ideas and approaches to thinking about, studying, and utilizing ignorance are not self-integrating. Indeed, the question of whether an over-arching integrative framework for dealing with unknowns can be achieved is an unanswered question.


Gross, M. and McGoey, L. (2015). Routledge international handbook of ignorance studies. Routledge: New York, United States of America.

Smithson, M. (1989). Ignorance and uncertainty: Emerging paradigms. Springer-Verlag: New York, United States of America.

Find out more:

“Ignorance!” is an edX Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) by Michael Smithson and Gabriele Bammer. A new expanded eight week course will run from January 10, 2017. Register at If you can’t wait, you can take the archived course by following the same link.

Biography: Michael Smithson is a Professor in the Research School of Psychology at The Australian National University. His primary research interests are in judgment and decision making under ignorance and uncertainty, statistical methods for the social sciences, and applications of fuzzy set theory to the social sciences.

5 thoughts on “Four things everyone should know about ignorance”

    • Whenever a new science is introduced there is great reluctance to accept it due to the prior way the knowledege of sbject has been established. This applies in the universities among the professors who wish to monopolize how the subject is being explained and taught. It has led to one authority claiming that new scientific theory can only develop after the previous contender has died. Thus the claim of “don’t want to know” and of ignorance is valid, although most unsatisfactory.

      • I am writing this due to the difficulty that my discovery of logical modelling in macroeconomics has found in gaining much acceptance. Its basic presentation is provided in my working paper “SSRN 2865571 Einstein’s Criterion Applied to Logical Macroeconomics Modelling” (on the internet).

        My associated writings took the form of a 310 page soft-cover book “Consequential Macroeconomics–Rationalizing About How Our Social System Works” which is also in e-copy form and may be obtained directly by writing to me at when I will gladly send an e-copy.

        I believe that most new science should be shared without the source trying to monopllize and obtain possible gains from this knowledge.

  1. For anybody else looking for it, the archived course is accessible via a direct link at Using a google account, the registration is a single click, allowing to then enrol to see the materials.
    It looks like it’s worth participating rather than just reading materials – I like how the instructors use intriguing quizzes and games as part of teaching, and engage with student discussion – summarising each week’s debate and suggesting links to relevant literature.
    I’m curious about what focusing on ignorance specifically might contribute (vs. knowledge production or uncertainty more generally). I’ll be joining the new course.


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