09 February 2014

We Don't Know What We Don't Know

When I was still fairly new to teaching, I made friends with a colleague in her first year as a teacher. After completing our first term set of report cards, E. promptly threw out all of her records: marks, notes, even attendance records. Imagine her quandary when a parent asked for justification of their daughter's mark in that course. E. didn't know that she had to maintain all those records for seven years.  

And because she didn't know what she didn't know (and we didn't know that she didn't know), she didn't think to ask. 

Here are a few examples of things I didn't know that I didn't know. 

1. Do you know why there's so much violence on TV? I'm talking North American TV here (I'm not sure what it's like in other parts of the world). I just found out. It's because it gives the commercials a nice, peaceful feeling that make viewers feel more comfortable, opening them up to the sales pitch. I figure this explains why the show Touch was kind of sweet and very creative in its first season — and then turned into disgustingly violent crap in its second season. "Sure, we'll renew the contract. But you've got to ramp up the violence ... it's not selling enough doodads!" Because I didn't know that there might be a financial reason for the violence on TV, I never thought to ask.

2. Do you know why our economy is hell bent on growth at all costs? Herman Daly, former World Bank economist and someone who understands the system, says: "The growth ideology is extremely attractive politically because it offers a solution to poverty without requiring the moral disciplines of sharing and population control." And don't think for one minute that Daly is being cynical. He's been to the inside and he knows of what he speaks. But I didn't know what I didn't know ... and so never bothered to ask why our economy apparently must keep growing when growth in a mature system equals cancer.

There is lots about the climate change emergency that people don't know they don't know. I can't tell you the number of times I've heard or seen well-educated and well-respected climate scientists talk about oncoming impacts of the climate crisis without ever mentioning that the most urgent problem is what will happen to our food systems because of those impacts. And because the public doesn't know what they don't know, they don't speak up and ask about threats to our food security.

A corollary to this conundrum is that ignorance begets ignorance. So if you didn't learn the carbon cycle in school, then you probably don't know that you don't know the carbon cycle. And that can misinform your understanding of climate change until the cows come home. For example, here's, ahem, an interesting comment from an online article about climate change:
"Plants use carbon dioxide and put off oxygen, so the more carbon in the air the better plants grow and the more oxygen they put out. The better that plants grow the warmer the air. BTW CO2 settles toward the ground and is readily absorbed by plants, and causes problems with people's breathing."
See how he sort of knows something about it, while not understanding enough to have a full grasp of the short-term carbon cycle and the greenhouse effect (perhaps confusing carbon dioxide with carbon monoxide?). 

But it's people like this fellow who are impacting other people's understanding (or lack thereof) of the climate change threat — without knowing what he doesn't know so he doesn't think to learn more.

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I would appreciate hearing your thoughts or questions on this post or anything else you've read here. What is your take on courage and compassion being an important part of the solution to the climate change emergency?