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Ignorance is Bliss

By Daniel Hubbard | May 6, 2012

James Clerk Maxwell, deep thinker and owner of a beard that only a genealogist could love.

What is more important in research, what we know or what we don’t know? Learning something new in genealogy always leads to more questions than it answers. There is always more that we don’t know than what we know. Every bit of information leads to the hope that more details can be discovered. Finding a name leads to questions about a whole life. Finding a name leads to questions about parents.

A recent issue of Scientific American had a short opinion piece that got me thinking. If I can try to boil it down to a central thought it was this—research is not characterized by the facts we accumulate. It is characterized by what we know must lie just outside the knowledge we have at hand. We know it is there yet we don’t know what it is.

 

Thoroughly Conscious Ignorance

The article quoted  James Clerk Maxwell, probably the greatest physicist in the span of time between Newton and Einstein, as saying that there is an attitude of

“Thoroughly conscious ignorance that is the prelude to every advance in knowledge.”

In other words, there are always things, that with some thought, we feel we really ought to know or at least might be able to discover. The trick is to develop that “thoroughly conscious ignorance,” to ascertain what it might be that lies just beyond our current grasp.

Sometimes we think of genealogy as being just the facts of parent-child relationships. At its root that might be true but it is nearly impossible to limit it that way. To prove those relationships we generally need to go beyond them, acquire other knowledge about the people involved and use that knowledge to prove or disprove a connection. All that knowledge that lies just beyond our current reach becomes important. So, we need to try to determine what it might be. We need to be conscious of our ignorance.

Terra Incognita

My favorite way to try to discover my genealogical ignorance is to try to write all that information down—not just notes or a research report but a biographical sketch or a narrative. Try it. The holes and boundaries become apparent. Often everything will look complete until the writing is supposed to flow. Where it doesn’t flow, when it lacks coherence, the writing is revealing ignorance. In mapping out a person or a story we might discover that there is still a place we have to label terra incognita. The writing excercise has produced Maxwell’s thoroughly conscious ignorance and we are ready, once again, to make progress.

Genealogy isn’t just about the names and dates. It isn’t just about the relationships. It is about identifying the knowledge that lies just off shore and going on a voyage to discover it. It isn’t just accumulating information. It is about the curiosity. It is about that terra incognita.

By the way…

It is very doubtful that he actually said it, but there is a quote sometimes attributed to Einstein that goes something like this

“If I knew what I was doing, it wouldn’t be called research, would it?”

That saying appears on coffee mugs in labs the world over. Maxwell would probably change that quote to “If I knew what I was looking for, I wouldn’t be doing research.” Not a great coffee mug slogan but closer to his meaning.

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