Sunday, January 06, 2008

Wanted: A course in ignorance

Today I shoved to the back burner my work on three essays resulting from our recent encounters in Costa Rica. (See last night’s post.)

Earthlink, my DSL provider, went dead for about six hours so I happily turned to books on this cold, damp Portland Sunday. I was fortunate enough to pick up Lewis Thomas’ “The Fragile Species,” one of my recent Hillsdale Book Sale acquisitions. I’ve mentioned Thomas (1913-1993) before. He’s best known for “Lives of the Cell.” Like it, “The Fragile Species” is full of insight.

Here’s just one example before I turn in for the night. Lewis, doctor, medical researcher and succinct writer, knew the virtue of humility in his profession, despite the public’s lofty expectations of and demands on it. In an essay titled “Becoming a Doctor,” Thomas recommends that the first two years of medical school make room for a “few courses in medical ignorance” — “so that students can start out with a clear view of the things medicine does not know.”

There is no better qualification for any professional, or for anyone for that matter, than to be aware of what one doesn’t know, and to freely admit it. Humanity would be well served by studying its ignorance.

How often in political campaigns do candidates admit to ignorance? We should think better of them, not worse, for such admissions.

Instead of an honest “I don’t know, but I’ll find out,” far too often we get evasion, question-begging or outright lies, and pay a terrible price for it.

No need to name names.

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Blogger Scot MacLean said...

Dear Rick,

I enjoyed reading your thoughtful entry about knowing the extent of one's own ignorance. Lewis Thomas was one of my favorite authors prior to medical school, but I don't think I had retained his comments that you quote - it is a very important point.

I was reminded of two other books, that sit next to Lewis Thomas on my bookshelf, and that I have not pulled out in some time but thought I would mention to you, although I doubt you are in need of extra reading material!

The Two Million-Year-Old Self by Anthony Stevens (a Jungian analysts explication of human consciousness and collective experience.)

Symbiotic Planet by Lynn Margulis (a theory that was once considered bizarre - that mitochondria and chloroplasts were once independently functioning organisms, is now generally accepted as valid by the scientific community, and yet seems little known by many.)

I will continue to enjoy reading the Red Electric!

Scot MacLean

11:08 PM  

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