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Knowledge and Ignorance


Knowledge and Ignorance


He [Arthur] felt a spasm of excitement because he knew instinctively who it was, or at least knew who it was he wanted it to be, and once you know what it is you want to be true, instinct is a very useful device for enabling you to know that it is.
     Douglas Adams, So Long And Thanks For All The Fish (1985)


The utmost extent of man's knowledge, is to know that he knows nothing.
     Joseph Addison, "Essay on Pride" (1794)


Any increase in knowledge anywhere helps pave the way for an increase in knowledge everywhere.
     Isaac Asimov


The true delight is in finding out and not in knowing.
     Isaac Asimov


There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that "my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge."
     Isaac Asimov, column in Newsweek (21 January 1980)


In the life of a man, his time is but a moment, his being an incessant flux, his senses a dim rushlight, his body a prey of worms, his soul an unquiet eddy, his fortune dark, and his fame doubtful. In short, all that is of the body is as coursing waters, all that is of the soul as dreams and vapours; life a warfare, a brief sojourning in an alien land; and after repute, oblivion. Where, then, can man find the power to guide and guard his steps? In one thing and one alone: the love of knowledge.
     Marcus Aurelius, Meditations II, 17


For knowledge itself is power.
     Francis Bacon, Religious Meditations
     "Of Heresies"


There is nothing makes a man suspect much, more than to know little.
     Francis Bacon, Essays (1625)
     "Of Suspicion"


A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.
     Saul Bellow


I have tried to know absolutely nothing about a great many things, and I have succeeded fairly well.
     Robert Benchley


. . . he that increaseth knowledge, increaseth sorrow.
     Bible (Old Testament), Ecclesiastes 1:18


Knowledge is the small part of ignorance that we arrange and classify.
     Ambrose Bierce


There's nothing new under the sun, but there are lots of old things we don't know.
     Ambrose Bierce


Ignoramus, n. A person unacquainted with certain kinds of knowledge familiar to yourself, and having certain other kinds that you know nothing about.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Tomorrow's going to be wonderful since today, I do not know anything.
     Niels Bohr


The great obstacle to knowledge is the illusion of knowledge.
     Daniel J. Boorstin


What did insects do at night before there were electric lights?
    Bill Bryson, I’m a Stranger Here Myself:  Notes on Returning
    To America After Twenty Years Away (1999)
    “Life’s Mysteries”


Why do we thank someone from the bottom of our heart? Why not the middle of our heart? Why not, indeed, the whole heart? Why not the heart, lungs, brains, spleen, etc.?
    Bill Bryson, I’m a Stranger Here Myself:  Notes on Returning
   To America After Twenty Years Away
    “Life’s Mysteries”


Ignorance: When you don't know something and somebody finds it out.
     Jethro Burns


It is far safer to know too little than too much. People will condemn the one, though they will resent being called upon to exert themselves to follow the other.
     Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh (1903)


Not only do I not know what's going on, I wouldn't know what to do about it if I did.
     George Carlin, Brain Droppings (1997)


The nicest thing about anything is not knowing what it is.
     George Carlin, Brain Droppings (1997)


There should be some things we don't name, just so we can sit around all day and wonder what they are.
     George Carlin, Brain Droppings (1997)


YOU LEARN SOMETHING NEW EVERY DAY. Actually, you learn something old every day. Just because you just learned it, doesn't mean it's new. Other people already knew it. Columbus is a good example of this.
     George Carlin, Brain Droppings (1997)


Most people don't know what they're doing, and a lot of them are really good at it.
     George Carlin, Napalm & Silly Putty (2001)


It is the tragedy of the world that no one knows what he doesn't know — and the less a man knows, the more sure he is that he knows everything.
     Joyce Cary


To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain a perennial child.
     Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Oratore (c. 50 BC)


Knowledge is the only instrument of production that is not subject to diminishing returns.
     J. M. Clark


If you made a list of all the things you know for certain under four headings: (1) those things that you know from direct experience, (2) those that logically follow from self-evident truths, (3) those that you believe because you were told, (4) those you "just know" because of an intuitive gut-level feeling, which one of the headings would have the longest list?
     Mihaly Csikszentihalyi, in The Evolving Self: 
     A Psychology for the Third Millennium


Ignorance is never out of style. It was in fashion yesterday, it is the rage today, and it will set the pace tomorrow.
     Franklin K. Dane


[I]gnorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.
     Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (1871)


Well, allow me to introduce myself to you as an advocate of Ornamental Knowledge. You like the mind to be a neat machine, equipped to work efficiently, if narrowly, and with no extra bits or useless parts. I like the mind to be a dustbin of scraps of brilliant fabric, odd gems, worthless but fascinating curiosities, tinsel, quaint bits of carving, and a reasonable amount of healthy dirt. Shake the machine and it goes out of order; shake the dustbin and it adjusts itself beautifully to its new position.
     Robertson Davies, Tempest-Tost (1951)


To be conscious that you are ignorant is a great step to knowledge.
     Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil (1845)


My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he [Sherlock Holmes] was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to me to be such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.
     "You appear to be astonished," he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. "Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it."
     "To forget it!"
     "You see," he explained, "I consider that a man's brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones."
     "But the Solar System!" I protested.
     "What the deuce is it to me?" he interrupted impatiently: "you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work."
     Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, A Study in Scarlet (1887)


"Breadth of view, my dear Mr. Mac, is one of the essentials of our profession. The interplay of ideas and the oblique uses of knowledge are often of extraordinary interest. You will excuse these remarks from one who, though a mere connoisseur of crime, is still rather older and perhaps more experienced than yourself."
     Sherlock Holmes in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 
     The Valley of Fear (1915)


You will know, or Watson has written in vain, that I hold a vast store of out-of-the-way knowledge without scientific system, but very available for the needs of my work. My mind is like a crowded box-room with packets of all sorts stowed away therein — so many that I may well have but a vague perception of what was there. I had known that there was something which might bear upon this matter. It was still vague, but at least I knew how I could make it clear.
     Sherlock Holmes in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 
     The Case Book of Sherlock Holmes (1927)
     "The Adventure of the Lion's Mane"


When a scientist doesn't know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty darn sure of what the result is going to be, he is in some doubt.
     Lee A. Dubridge


We don't know a millionth of one percent about anything.
     Thomas Alva Edison


To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by the way which is the way of ignorance.
     T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets. East Coker (1940)


Inexplicably, ignorance frequently does not produce the expected condition of humility; but rather a towering arrogance, in which state the uninformed clings to the justification of unknowledge like a doomed soul sinking in quicksand clutches a rotted vine.
     Harlan Ellison, An Edge in My Voice (1985)


Just as much confusion, however, reigns in this [knowledge of the climate] as in any other department of knowledge. Certain surmises and legends have become stereotyped, and experience is generally rejected unless it happens to conform to the preconception.
     Bergen Evans, The Natural History of Nonsense (1945, 1958)


Whatever Nature has in store for mankind, unpleasant as it may be, men must accept, for ignorance is never better than knowledge.
     Enrico Fermi, in Laura Fermi, Atoms in the family


I was born not knowing and have only had a little time to change that here and there.
     Richard Feynman


I finally figured out a way to test whether you have taught an idea or you have only taught a definition. Test it this way: You say, "Without using the new word which you have just learned, try to rephrase what you have just learned in your own language." Without using the word "energy," tell me what you know now about the dog's motion. You cannot. So you learned nothing except the definition. You learned nothing about science. That may be all right. You may not want to learn something about science right away. You have to learn definitions. But for the very first lesson is that not possibly destructive?
     Richard Feynman, "What is Science?" (speech, 1966)


I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.
     Richard Feynman, "What Do You Care What Other People 
     Think?": Further Adventures of a Curious Character
     "The Making of a Scientist"


Being ignorant is not so much a Shame, as being unwilling to learn.
     Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard's Quotations (1975)


Dare to be naive.
     R. Buckminster Fuller, Synergetics (1975)


He that knows little often repeats it.
     Thomas Fuller


We tend to see our own experiences as the normal process, so we are often amazed that anyone could have taken a different path. But when we do meet up, it's always fascinating to compare notes about the different ways to get there.
     Daniel Gilly


Nothing is more terrible than to see ignorance in action.
     Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Maxims and Reflections I


I know. You know I know. I know you know I know. We know Henry knows, and Henry knows we know it. We're a knowledgeable family.
     Geoffrey (John Castle)
     James Goldman, The Lion in Winter (movie, 1968)


Science is the father of knowledge, but opinion breeds ignorance.


Far more crucial than what we know or do not know is what we do not want to know. One often obtains a clue to a person's nature by discovering the reasons for his or her imperviousness to certain impressions.
     Eric Hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind (1954)


It is not at all simple to understand the simple.
     Eric Hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind (1954)


If a little knowledge is dangerous, where is the man who has so much as to be out of danger?
     Thomas Henry [T. H.] Huxley, "On Elementary 
     Instruction in Physiology" (1877)


Man's going forward from cocksure ignorance to thoughtful uncertainty.
     Kenneth G. Johnson


The secret of staying calm in a crisis is not having all the facts.
     Garrison Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion
     "The Lives of the Cowboys" (June 19, 1999)


A man must have a certain amount of intelligent ignorance to get anywhere.
     Charles F. Kettering


Nothing is the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.
     Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength To Love (1963)


That which we know is a little thing; that which we do not know is immense.
     Pierre-Simon de Laplace


The man who has everything figured out is probably a fool. College examinations notwithstanding, it takes a very smart fella to say, "I don't know the answer!"
     Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee, 
     Inherit the Wind (play, 1955)


We are here and it is now: further than that all human knowledge is moonshine.
     H. L. Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy (1949)
     "SententiŠ — The Mind of Man"


Kid, life's hard. But it's a lot harder if you're stupid.
     Robert Mitchum


Knowledge is power if you know it about the right person.
     Ethel Mumford


It would be better not to know so many things than to know so many things that are not so.
     Felix Okoye, The American Image of 
     Africa: Myth and Reality


The greater the ignorance, the greater the dogmatism.
     William Osler


Ignorance of one's ignorance is the greatest ignorance.
     Laurence Johnston Peter


... Then anyone who leaves behind him a written manual, and likewise anyone who receives it, in the belief that such writing will be clear and certain, must be exceedingly simple-minded...
     Plato, Phaedrus (c.360 BC)


They say a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, but it is not one half so bad as a lot of ignorance.
     Terry Pratchett, Equal Rites (1987)


Its [the Necrotelicomnicon] contents had made it what it was. Evil and treacherous.
     It contained forbidden knowledge.
     Well, not actually forbidden. No one had ever gone so far as forbidding it. Apart from anything else, in order to forbid it you'd have to know what it was, which was forbidden. But it definitely contained the sort of information which, once you knew it, you wished you hadn't.
     Terry Pratchett, Moving Pictures (1990)


"We are here and it is now. The way I see it is, after that, everything tends towards guesswork."
     Terry Pratchett, Small Gods (1992)


He who knows little quickly tells it.
     Italian Proverb


To know and to act are one and the same.
     Samurai Proverb


"Most ignorance is by choice, you know, and so ignorance is very telling about what really matters to people."
     Kim Stanley Robinson, Red Mars (1993)


To know things really well we must know them in all their ramifications; these being numberless, our knowledge is always superficial and imperfect.
     Franšois, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, 
     The Maxims (translated by Louis Kronenberger, 1936)


The mind, through laziness and habit, clings to whatever is easy or attractive. Because it does, our knowledge remains limited, and we never take the trouble to develop as much as we might.
     Franšois, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, 
     The Maxims (translated by Louis Kronenberger, 1936)


Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects.
     Will Rogers


There is much pleasure to be gained in useless knowledge.
     Bertrand Russell


History is full of people who out of fear, or ignorance, or lust for power has destroyed knowledge of immeasurable value which truly belongs to all of us. We must not let it happen again.
     Carl Sagan, Cosmos (1980)


The struggle for knowledge hath a pleasure in it like that of wrestling with a fine woman.
     George Savile, W. Raleigh (ed.), Complete 
     Works of George Savile


It is better, of course, to know useless things than to know nothing.
     Seneca, Epistles (45 AD)


It takes considerable knowledge just to realize the extent of your own ignorance.
     Thomas Sowell


There's none so blind as they that won't see.
     Jonathan Swift, Polite Conversation (1738)


Knowledge is a sacred cow, and my problem will be how we can milk her while keeping clear of her horns.
     Albert Szent-Gy÷rgi, Science 1964, 146, 1278


It is sometimes quite enough for a man to feign ignorance of that which he knows, to gain the reputation of knowing that of which he is ignorant.
     Charles Maurice De Talleyrand


So much has already been written about everything that you can't find out anything about it.
     James Thurber


... we never knew an ignorant person yet but was prejudiced.
     Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad (1869)


I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said I didn't know.
     Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (1883)


The ignorant are afraid to betray surprise or admiration . . . they think it ill manners.
     Mark Twain, Notebook, 1883


All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then Success is sure.
     Mark Twain, Notebook, 1887


But we are all that way: when we know a thing we have only scorn for other people who don't happen to know it.
     Mark Twain, The Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc (1896)


In this world we often make mistakes of judgment. We do not as a rule get out of them sound and whole, but sometimes we do. At dinner yesterday evening — present, a mixture of Scotch, English, American, Canadian, and Australasian fold — a discussion broke out about the pronunciation of certain Scottish words. This was private ground, and the non-Scotch nationalities, with one exception, discreetly kept still. But I am not discreet, and I took a hand. I didn't know anything about the subject, but I took a hand just to have something to do. ... In my position I was necessarily quite impartial, and was equally as well and as ill equipped to fight on the one side as on the other.
     Mark Twain, Following the Equator (1897)


It was a wide space; I could tell you how wide, in chains and perches and furlongs, and things, but that would not help you any. Those things sound well, but they are shadowy and indefinite, like troy weight and avoirdupois; nobody knows what they mean. When you buy a pound of a drug and the man asks you which you want, troy or avoirdupois, it is best to say, "Yes," and shift the subject.
     Mark Twain, Following the Equator (1897)


Nothing is so ignorant as a man's left hand, except a lady's watch.
     Mark Twain, Following the Equator (1897)
     "Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar"


The older we grow the greater becomes our wonder at how much ignorance one can contain without bursting one's clothes.
     Mark Twain, "University Settlement Society" 
     (speech, February 2, 1901)


There was no coarseness inside of Jack at all, and Jack in the course of seventeen or eighteen years had acquired a capital of ignorance that was marvelous — ignorance of various things, not of all things. For instance, he did not know anything about the Bible. He had never been in Sunday-school. Jack got more out of the Holy Land than anybody else, because the others knew what they were expecting, but it was a land of surprise to him.
     Mark Twain, "Jack Van Nostrand" (speech, December 22, 1905)


I have told him all I know about it. And now he knows nothing about it himself.
     Mark Twain, "The Begum of Bengal" (speech, 1907)


We cannot say we know a thing when that thing has not been proved. Know is too strong a word to use when the evidence is not final and absolutely conclusive.
     Mark Twain, "Is Shakespeare Dead?" (1909)


... loudness convinces sixty persons where reasoning convinces but one.
     Mark Twain, "Is Shakespeare Dead?" (1909)


I would rather have my ignorance than another man's knowledge, because I have got so much more of it.
     Mark Twain, Albert Bigelow Paine (ed.), 
     Mark Twain's Letters (1917)


It was a mistake to deal in sarcasms with Webster. They cut deep into his vanity. He hadn't a single intellectual weapon in his armory and could not fight back. It was unchivalrous in me to attack with mental weapons this mentally weaponless man, and I tried to refrain from it but couldn't. I ought to have been large enough to endure his vanities but I wasn't. I am not always large enough to endure my own. ... his ignorance covered the whole earth like a blanket and there was hardly a hole in it anywhere.
     Mark Twain, Bernard DeVoto (ed.), Mark Twain in Eruption (1940)


A little ignorance can go a long way.


A man is never astonished that he doesn't know what another does, but he is surprised at the gross ignorance of the other in not knowing what he does.


Any frontal attack on ignorance is bound to fail because the masses are always ready to defend their most precious possession — their ignorance.
     Hendrik Van Loon


Ignorance is all that saves some people: if they knew more they would do worse.
     Lemuel K. Washburn


     "Why don't you get out a book?"
     "And go to all that trouble? Yeah, sure! Look, I'm a busy guy! I've got other things to do with my life besides this, you know!"
     "Why waste time learning, when ignorance is instantaneous?"
          Hobbes and Calvin in Bill Watterson, Attack of the 
          Deranged Mutant Killer Monster Snow Goons 
("Calvin and Hobbes," 1992)


Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone.
     Oscar Wilde


It is a very sad thing that nowadays there is so little useless information.
     Oscar Wilde, "A Few Maxims for the 
     Instruction of the Over-Educated"


Only the shallow know themselves.
     Oscar Wilde, "Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young" (1894)


Stupidity has a certain charm — ignorance does not.
     Frank Zappa