“The More We Know…

…the greater we find our ignorance.” Gardiner G. Hubbard, the first President of the National Geographic Society


This is a popular sentiment. As I looked for similar quotes I stumbled upon this one from JFK: “The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds.”

Regardless of the truth of the sentiment, this rhetorical form–I’ll call it “The More…The More” statement–is seductive. It sounds so strong, kind of like Leia saying to Grand Moff Tarkin “The more you tighten your grip…the more star systems will slip through your fingers.” On the face of these statements, I don’t accept that ignorance increases as knowledge does.

But I can accept the statement that more knowledge makes understanding meaning more complex, maybe harder. This is what I think Kennedy and Hubbard were saying, in fairly elegant terms meant for rhetorical impact, not logical soundness.

The utter disappearance of the Air Malaysia jet is tragic. The failed search for it is a big fat metaphor for human limitations in the era of Big Data. It reminds me of The Onion’s “World’s Largest Metaphor Hits Ice-berg: Titanic, Representation of Man’s Hubris, Sinks in North Atlantic.”

This symbolism of human limitations is explored in today’s New York Times article by Pico Iyer, “The Folly of Thinking We Know.” Ayer’s piece is a good meditation on our weaknesses and blind spots. And I always love hearing mention of the Overconfidence Effect, our persistent belief that we think we know more than we really do (and with great confidence, no less).

I’m most interested I hearing your thoughts on this. Does all this information make us smarter yet dumber? Are we more informed but less wise?

Wisdom of the Elders

What is wisdom, the illusive trait sought by the great minds from every era?

From National Geographic

From National Geographic


Here’s my simple (and purely speculative) starting point: A x I = W (Age x Intellect = Wisdom). Everyone gets wiser as they get older, right? And intellect has a “multiplier” effect. If you’re “smart” (I) and you learn from your mistakes and successes (A), then you’ll gain W amount of wisdom.

I doubt it’s that simple.

Wisdom is rightly associated with age. So how important is wisdom to aging gracefully, accepting the inevitable with some degree of peace?

A recent article in The New York Times, “The Science of Older and Wiser,” investigated the question “Will wisdom help you age and die with more equanimity and acceptance.”

The article examines the work of several scientists. One, Vivian Clayton, a geriatric neuropsychologist in Orinda, California, “scour(ed) ancient texts for evocations of wisdom, she found that most people described as wise were decision makers….She determined that wisdom consists of three key components: cognition, reflection and compassion.”

So I’ll modify the equation: A x I x (R+C)=W

While I don’t think that the unexamined life is not worth living–there are good people who aren’t capable of reflection, or who pretty much live in the moment–self-knowledge is a good thing, as is one’s understanding of everything outside oneself.

I think a modicum of acceptance is key, as does Monika Areldt, an associate sociology professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

“’Wise people are able to accept reality as it is, with equanimity.” Her research shows that when people in nursing homes or with a terminal illness score high on her wisdom scale, they also report a greater sense of well-being. ‘If things are really bad, it’s good to be wise,’ she said.”

What I liked most about the article is seeing the scientific study of wisdom. This quality has mostly been examined through the lens of philosophy. I look forward to hearing more from science about wisdom. Maybe science can’t go that far in exploring and explaining wisdom.

What do you think are the components of wisdom?