In defence of ignorant thinking

Suppose you want to contribute to the understanding of some subject, but you are presently ignorant about it. Should you do something closer to (a) read everything that’s been written so far, then join in, or (b) think about it yourself a lot before you even look at the basics of what others have come up with?

My guess is closer to (b), though I’m not confident. I’ll tell you why, then you can tell me why I’m wrong if you care to.

Any given topic has many ways to frame it; different assumptions to assume, axioms to emphasise, evidence to notice, questions to ask of it, and aspects to cut out or leave in or smooth out in the abstraction process. Some varieties of each of these things are much more useful than others for making progress, and even the useful ones may help with progress in different directions. When different people approach the same topic, they will do it with a different set of all of these things, because they have different intuitions about it and are familiar with different approaches and other topics. I don’t know of a better, more formal way to try out such things. Once you have understood something complex in the terms set of abstractions etc, it becomes harder to see it in other ways I think, particularly if you have to make up those other ways yourself. So if you start by reading what everyone else has said, you miss out on an opportunity to make a new way to think about it.

Most ways to think about a problem are probably unsuccessful in creating anything new of value. So you might think it’s a tragedy of the commons – it’s better for progress on a subject if each person joining it spends a bit of time at the start trying their own approach before they are familiar with the old work, but it is better for each individual if they just get on with the old work since their own approach probably won’t be any good. But if you do come up with a successful approach, I assume you are duly recompensed with status and glee and that sort of thing.

If eventually we have a perfect general understanding of how to best conceptualise topics, and how to ask the most productive questions and make the best assumptions and so on, then (a). Until then, I’m in favour of a bit of ignorant thinking. What do you think? (assuming your answer is b, or you are an expert on this topic).

11 responses to “In defence of ignorant thinking

  1. I doubt you are sufficiently compensated with status. Whether you are compensated with glee depends on what you enjoy. If you enjoy exploring enough for its own sake, go ahead and explore and enjoy. Just don’t expect others to reward you much.

  2. The main vice I’ve noticed in ignorant thinking is being unwilling to subsequently pay attention to feedback from those who have knowledge of the relevant prior thoughts. Ignorant thinking is great for the reasons you identify, but it’s incredibly annoying and wasteful of everyone’s time when people insist on long-refuted errors in the fields in which I’m expert, even after I give out pointers; I strive to avoid this vice when I ignorantly think.

  3. Also, publishing thoughts on a subject effectively ups its general ‘SEO’ – which attracts more people to work in the field/on the problem – thereby exponentially shedding more light on the subject… Unless your goal is egoistical glory, then better to keep it secret until the idea is perfected.

  4. i like the two-stage approach (which i suppose is closer to your b): stage 1: think about an issue for yourself. stage 2: once you’ve gotten somewhere, look at what others have done. stage 1 allows for a lot more originality in your approach, and even if you come up with something unoriginal, having thought the issues through for yourself is valuable. stage 2 acts as a check on missteps at stage 1 and allows you to build on others’ insights. having gone through stage 1 also allows for a more critical and productive engagement with existing work at stage 2. the tricky part is when to transition from stage 1 to stage 2. not too soon, not too late.

  5. Brian Scholl suggests three steps: 1) read a review article to get a general sense of the topic; 2) think about it for yourself; then 3) dive into the literature.

  6. I’ve also wondered about this; my usual solution is to dive into litt if it’s a subject I just want to get through, but to hold off as long as possible if it’s the sort of area where I’ve already heard several competing but unsatisfying takes. In the second sort of area, I’ve often had some nagging feeling in the back of my head that “there’s something just a bit off” with those previous attempts. Sometimes, tracking down what exactly is “off” can be pretty fruitful. Often it’s seems previous answers to a question have ended up doing a good job of answering a closely-related-but-not-identical problem.

    Another benefit of writing out, or otherwise exploring, your own first-generation answers: it can help to sharpen your attention to the points made by the authors you read. Perhaps it helps you form a cognitive map of the subject before the reading starts, so you’re not as likely to feel like you’re wandering into a swamp of unknowns.

  7. I prefer B, if by that you mean a higher data to abstraction ratio. People have a tendency to rely on other people’s abstractions as an intellectual crutch, rather than analyzing information and creating their own consolidation of the facts. Of course you need tools with which to assess the facts. It’s very difficult to absorb the amount of data necessary to form your own “model” without having one though, so I would think that a lot of creativity comes from being able to remold your own abstractions rather than ignoring other people’s. I’m still generally in favor of people having more data though; if you don’t understand the data, chances are you don’t understand the model as well as you think you do.

    So the risk you mentioned could be a beneficial deterrent, since most research simply needs people to apply and test already extant -if not fully formed- rules, but to develop a new science or, more commonly, to improve a given methodology requires someone that can generalize creatively.
    Personally I find that analyzing what I need to know and then finding out who has the answers is more helpful than trying to weigh opposing arguments. You usually do the same thing in the end, but I find it’s a useful approach.

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  9. My answer is this: read James Surowiecki’s “The Wisdom of Crowds”.

    If he’s right, then educating yourself about what’s been done before will contaminate your ability to add value.

  10. Read up right until just before where the experts start to disagree. Think of it as hill climbing, sometimes you really have to start over, but you want to wander enough that you don’t get stuck, yet not too much that you lose your current progress.

  11. Perhaps some kid of experiment can be devised to settle the matter?


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