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Imposed Ignorance and Humble Ignorance—Two Worldviews Paul G. Heltne There are at least two kinds of ignorance in the human world. These differ so dramatically that they may be seen as opposing worldviews. One ignorance worldview is built on the belief that one knows or understands a situation or a subject rather thoroughly, perhaps even definitively or absolutely , when, in fact, one does not. This sort of ignorance-masqueradingas -certain-knowledge often comes to us as whole systems of thought and work and with intellectual buffers that make its facts, claims, and practices beyond question. Its assumptions, often invisible or unstated, are thereby unassailable. You know that you are in the presence of this kind of ignorance when you are made to feel that it would be foolish to ask questions about derived conclusions or about basic assumptions. This kind of ignorance is, thus, purposely imposed on many and camouflages our true state of ignorance. Wes Jackson has demonstrated that the metatechnology of modern agriculture is just such a purposeful ignorance; indeed, Jackson may be the first person ever to have articulated the basic assumptions of agriculture and held them up to examination. That does not keep modern agriculture from being a very cherished and comfortable pattern of thinking and acting for lots of folks, on the farm and off. Since we all cherish, in some fashion, what we are used to and do not like to be embarrassed, purposeful ignorance can be long-lived indeed. There is another kind of ignorance. Acknowledging that one does not know is a humble kind of ignorance, one that is, in fact, filled often with the joy of discovery and wonder at what is discovered. This is the kind of ignorance-based worldview that can help us fathom the messes we are in, articulate assumptions and processes, entertain questions and be enriched by them, and imagine new ways and new knowledge. 136 Paul G. Heltne Humble ignorance can imagine that it might be wrong and hopes that its community will correct it early enough to avoid harm. It can marvel at what it sees that it cannot hope to understand or control. It knows that it must question certainty and jargon. I believe that purposeful ignorance is deeply rooted in the process of our cultural systems and possibly in the processes of our consciousness. It may seem contradictory, but the patterns of purposeful ignorance often include scientific ways of thinking and speaking. The propensity toward purposeful ignorance may deepen as scientific insight moves toward management applications. Below, I offer two brief illustrations to show how deeply ingrained and potent purposeful ignorance is. In contrast, I also propound an alternative way of looking at nature that may help keep us in the humility of an ignorance-based worldview. microfauna By way of an initial illustration, let me quote a brief passage from an Aldo Leopold article, “The Last Stand,” written sixty-five years ago. Leopold describes how a Swiss forest has been yielding high-quality timber since the seventeenth century under a regime known as selective harvesting. A contiguous forest area of the same kind of timber was clear-cut in the seventeenth century and has never recovered despite intensive forestry care. Leopold then notes that: Despite the rigid protection, the old slashing now produces only mediocre pine, while the unslashed portion grows the finest cabinet oak in the world; one of those oaks fetches a higher price than a whole acre of the old slashings. On the old slashings the litter accumulates without rotting, stumps and limbs disappear slowly, natural reproduction is slow. On the unslashed portion litter disappears as it falls, stumps and limbs rot at once, natural reproduction is automatic. Foresters attribute the inferior performance of the old slashing to its depleted microflora, meaning that underground community of bacteria, molds, fungi , insects, and burrowing mammals which constitute half the environment of a tree. Now this is the part that applies to ignorance; Leopold continues: “The existence of the term microflora implies, to the layman, that science Imposed Ignorance and Humble Ignorance—Two Worldviews 137 knows all the citizens of the underground community, and is able to push them around at will. As a matter of fact, science knows little more than that the community exists, and that it is important. In a few simple communities like alfalfa, science knows how to add certain bacteria to make the plants grow. In a complex forest, science knows only that it is best...


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