Renewable Ignorance

by Herman Daly

We are all born pig-ignorant. Upon having accumulated a lifetime of knowledge we all promptly die. Ignorant babies replace learned elders. Knowledge is a depleting resource; ignorance is renewable. Yes, libraries and data banks grow, but knowledge finally has to exist in the minds of living people to be effective and evolve—unread books, unseen videos, and un-accessed hard drives are inert.

Like Sisyphus, we push the rock up the hill only to have it roll back down again. Progress is not completely illusory. However, it is three steps up followed by 2.5 steps backward. Successive generations repeat earlier mistakes. They also invent new ones. Any solution to a given mistake is usually forgotten within two or three generations and we have to learn it again. But it is not all bad—after all, babies are delightful and happy while old people are grumpy—ignorance is bliss. Life consists of more than knowledge. Life expectancy has increased, so the old know more when they die, leaving the babies with still more to learn.

Old person and baby

Progress comes with moving forward and taking steps backward. With progress comes the massive transfer of knowledge where older people must decide what is important to teach and young people must decide whether it is worth it to learn it. (Image: CC0, Credit: NPR).

A massive transfer of knowledge to each generation is an unavoidable necessity. This transfer is not automatic. It requires two decisions. The old must decide what knowledge is worth their effort to teach, and the young must decide what is worth their effort to learn. Some knowledge passes both filters and becomes the basis for guiding the future and for discovering new knowledge. Other knowledge fails to pass one or both filters and is lost. Just as the world is always only one failed harvest away from mass hunger, so it is always only one failed generational transfer away from mass ignorance.

What do we know about these two generational knowledge filters? What do they let pass and what do they filter out? I really don’t know the answer, but I have one speculation, taken from E. F. Schumacher’s reflections on Thomas Aquinas and Rene Descartes. Aquinas said that even uncertain knowledge of the highest things is worth more than certain knowledge of the lowest things. Descartes believed otherwise, that only knowledge that had the certainty of geometry was worth retaining, and uncertain knowledge should be abandoned even if it pertained to higher things. These two filters have very different selection biases. In their extreme forms, they represent opposite errors of judgment about what knowledge to keep and what to jettison.

Which error are we most likely to commit today? I believe we overemphasize Descartes and pay too little attention to Aquinas. I take Aquinas’s “higher things” to mean purposes, knowledge about right purposes. Lower things I take to refer to techniques—how to efficiently do something, assuming it should be done in the first place. We have overdeveloped our relatively certain knowledge of technique and left underdeveloped our less certain but more important knowledge of right purpose. The old seem more interested in teaching technique than purpose, and the young obligingly seem more interested in learning technique than purpose. So we develop more and more power, subject to less and less purpose. As physicist Steven Weinberg says, the more science makes the universe comprehensible and subject to our control, the more it also seems to render it pointless, and the less our control is guided by purpose.

These thoughts remind me of a public debate I participated in at LSU in the 1970s regarding the construction of the River Bend Nuclear Power Plant near Baton Rouge. I presented economic and safety reasons for believing that the plant should not be built, that there were cheaper and safer alternative sources of electricity, etc. After my presentation, a nuclear engineering consultant from MIT made his rebuttal on behalf of Gulf States Utilities. It consisted entirely of presenting a scale model of the reactor core and explaining how it worked. He never replied to any of my arguments or said a word about why the reactor should be built. But his exposition of technique easily won the public debate. Afterward, everyone crowded around his model pointing to this and that, asking how it worked. “How to” questions of technique totally displaced “what for” questions of purpose. Maybe I needed a scale model meltdown of a reactor core! Maybe I needed a course in public relations. I might as well have been whistling Dixie.

Also, I am reminded of a conversation with a friend who was the film curator for the Library of Congress. He told me that digital recording techniques were now so advanced and cheap that the Library would soon be recording and preserving everything that appeared on TV, YouTube, radio, or Twitter, etc. Historians and scholars could then decide what was important and valuable. Librarians would avoid this difficult qualitative decision, and at the same time feel good about themselves for not imposing their value judgments on future historians. While I understand this point of view, I cannot share it because it seems to be yet another example of “how-to” questions displacing “what for” questions—a displacement likely to be continued by the “value-free” future scholars for whose benefit this almost infinite attic of junk is to be saved.

A visual of the ozone hole over Antarctica

The ozone hole is an example of new knowledge that is a surprise for the growth economy, but it is bad news. (Image: CC0, Credit: NASA).

Knowledge is offered as a panacea these days. Young people are urged to go deeply into debt to “get a degree” and are assured that the growth economy will allow them to pay it back with interest and still come out ahead. Many have been disappointed. As one who has spent over 40 years in universities, I am doubtful about this exaltation of knowledge, even though in arguing for a steady state economy I have appealed to physical limits, not knowledge limits, leaving open the question of how much qualitative development could be supported within a biophysical steady state without quantitative growth. Also, the “knowledge limits” I have appealed to are themselves knowledge—knowledge of physical limits, mainly the laws of thermodynamics, rather than any inherent limits to knowledge itself.

Although I am eager for knowledge to substitute physical growth to the extent possible, the basic renewability of ignorance makes me doubt that knowledge can save the growth economy. Furthermore, knowledge, even when it increases, does not grow exponentially like money in the bank. Some old knowledge is disproved or canceled out by new knowledge, and some new knowledge is the discovery of new biophysical or social limits to growth. New knowledge must always be something of a surprise—if we could predict its content then we would have to know it already and it would not really be new. Contrary to common expectation, new knowledge is not always a pleasant surprise for the growth economy—frequently it is bad news. For example, climate change from greenhouse gasses was recently new knowledge, as was the discovery of the ozone hole.

One thing I have learned about universities is that much of what is taught in them today is based on the labor theory of value—”it was hard for me to learn this, so it must be worth teaching it to you.” This is a poor generational filter, and is even found in economics, which of all disciplines should know better! Also, much abandoned knowledge should have made the cut but did not. Indeed the whole field of history of economic thought has been cut from the curriculum to make room for more econometrics—the art of pretending to measure ephemeral and tenuous correlations among ill-defined variables in a world where the relationships to be measured change faster than the data for estimating them accumulates. The classical economists’ concept of the stationary state economy did not totally disappear, but almost.

Is just trying to save everything a solution? No. Do I have a solution? No. So I will stop here and simply ask that we all, young and old, pause, and calmly consider the proper balance between the “what for” and the “how-to” questions as filters for the generational transfer of knowledge. Let’s help the babies deal better with the perennial problem of renewable ignorance.

Herman DalyHerman Daly is CASSE Chief Economist, Professor Emeritus (University of Maryland), and past World Bank senior economist.

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9 replies
  1. Tim Gieseke
    Tim Gieseke says:

    Thank you for that knowledge and taking the time to filter it for us. I also find it ironic that in an era of free information the cost of “education” keeps rising. We should be teaching “filterization” of data, or perhaps better stated, we need to teach how to think in systems rather than points. That process has a tendency to self-filter. So the question I have, is at what age in a baby’s life do we lose the ability to efficiently teach systems thought. Or is it a societal and filter process as you state. I do recall as a school kid in the early 70s, I was first taught about the linear food chain and then the systematic food web. Today, I read about corporations’ effort to create a sustainable supply chain as we have yet to understand supply webs. So I often find myself in the similar room as you were in the 1970s at LSU, talking about how the system could function when most everyone else looks at me like I am babbling about unimportant issues. I mean, if it is sunny, only a fool would build an ark.

  2. Larry Shultz
    Larry Shultz says:

    There are 3 components of modern literacy testing:
    prose, document and quantitative literacy.

    Proficiency in prose literacy is 340 to 500 on this test. At 409 you could infer the purpose of an event described in a magazine article.

    Proficiency in document literacy is 335 to 500. At 372 you could contrast financial information given in a table regarding the difference between various types of credit cards.

    Proficiency in qualitative literacy is 350 to 500. At 400 you could determine the number of units of flooring required to cover a floor in a room, where the area of the floor is not evenly divisible by the units in which the flooring is sold.

    In 2003 only 12% of the 19-24 year olds passed the lowest threshold (340) for prose literacy. 13% passed the lowest threshold for document literacy (335). 10% passed the threshold of qualitative literacy (350). These are abysmal statistics. How long can an industrialized nation endure with so many of its young so bereft of adequate mental preparation for the modern world?

    Every two years the Jump$tart coalition gives national financial literacy tests to High School seniors. Since 30% of students do not complete high school one may postulate that, on average, this third of America would do worse than average on this test. This 31 question age-appropriate multiple choice test shows a financial literacy rate of 56% (F) in 2008. Less than 1% got an A or an A+. Additionally the schools that give the test are self selected which most likely skews the results higher.

    We are also lagging in civic literacy. In a 2006 test given to college seniors at 25 random colleges the average grade was 48.4%. For example less than 46% know that “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal” comes from The Declaration of Independence. Since these are seniors in college one may assume that the average 24 year old, most of who have not taken 4 years of college would score even lower. This test is administered by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. A failing grade was received on all test areas, American History, American Political Thought, America and the World, and the Market Economy. In 2008 the ISI found the average test scores of adult high school graduates of all ages was 44% and for adult College graduates of all ages it was 57%. Based on the previous testing new college graduates are probably driving the test results down. “Not to know what has been transacted in the past is to be always a child” Cicero.

  3. Christopher Paterson
    Christopher Paterson says:

    Dear Mr. Dale,

    There is plenty of life between 0 (a baby) and 100 (an old savvy (?) man). At a certain moment in time a myriad of relationships and exchanges happens between people of all ages, races, cultures, status, education and so on.

    This means that is not realistic to imagine a knowledge transfer generation gap. This transfer happens everywhere, everyday. It’s always building up.

    I would add also that no human being can hold the knowledge and experience of any field as smaller as it can be. And that every advancement, improvement, conclusion comes from an individual brain. The more complex it is, more this is true. That’s why papers and books are irreplaceable, by the way. Obviously, collective work is very important for many reasons: motivation, fast exchange of knowledge and experience, and so on, but it doesn’t change the picture.

    Karl Marx put these two facts together very well: “at any given point in history there is only so much that a man can see”. That’s the main limitation.

    Well, returning to your article, I believe that your main intention there was to show that the “knowledge transfer generation gap” just reaffirms that decoupling is not a realistic expectation because there are strong limitations, also, from the knowledge advances side of the decoupling equation.

    For many other reasons I don’t see, also, decoupling, in a significant scale, possible. But among those I wouldn’t include an imaginable knowledge gap. There is no such a gap.



  4. Bob Drysdale
    Bob Drysdale says:

    The most worrying filtration system of all is of course the technology it’s self. I can go to the national library and read the contemporary account of my ancestors being pardoned by James V1 forth for their part in the battle of Sauchieburn in 1388. But NASA cannot retrieve the records of the first moon landing because the storage system is now out of date and cannot be rebuilt!! ( I suspect if they went on to Ebay they would probably find some guy in Florida still using it to run his sprinkler system)
    But seriously, think of how much of our knowledge is now in electronic form, unreadable except by complex machines which are constantly being updated and replaced. 8 inch floppy’s and even 3i/2 disc are now mostly unreadable. We are replacing CD’s with DVd’s and memory sticks and so it continues. What is the average life of a hard disc. 5years-10years. Not very long in real terms. The Scottish records office would have had to replace the Sauchieburn record 118 times if it had been on a hard disc.
    On a personal level most of us now store our family photos on our computers so what happens when our present range of computers is replaced by something completely different and incompatible. Then of course theres all the stuff stored in the clouds these days. Where exactly is that? We have plenty of clouds in Scotland but the only information they have is about when it’s going to rain!

  5. AlienObserver
    AlienObserver says:

    Dear Mr. Daly

    please try to see it the other way round. The only hope I have for a future is that the young will not share the false knowledge the rich and powerful are desperatly clinging too.

    Almost always when I converse with elders about the limits of growth they dismiss even the possibility of such a concept. and today the world is run by rich old men that grew up in the sure (but false) knowledge that growth is there an will ever be. I also would guess that there is more such false knowledge in the heads of men today then there is true knowledge, thus forgetting would be a bless and not a curse.

    It is very hard to accept that knowledge you had almost religious faith in is proven wrong by reality. The rich old men that run the world rather choose to ignore reality and instead stick to the false knowledge that helped getting to riches and power.

    The more wealthy and powerful they are, the more tenacious their persistence in the delusion of never ending ressources and endless growth becomes. It is, imo, a generational struggle that could bring us steady state economy, rather than an educational effort.

    Only by wresting it from the hands of the rich and powerful that have stolen it from them will the young generations have a future worth looking forward to.
    (Also see my Blog: )

  6. Dave McNaught
    Dave McNaught says:

    As always I appreciate Dr. Daly’s perspectives. This article is a bit of a departure for him, but I still found it provocative. I have just heard about a book from Harvard philosopher, Michael Sandel, called What Money Can’t Buy. I have not read it yet, but I write to encourage it to Dr. Daly and others interested in this general issue. The core thesis of Sandel’s book is a critique of our culture’s preoccupation with markets, which has distorted our sense of values and assessments of our own or others’ life objectives. It seems to be the very reflection of Dr. Daly’s distinction between those who contemplate purpose aside from simply technology…the why as well as the how. I lament this narrowing of value governing human pursuit, and blame it on the economic structures we have created over the last 500 years. It has always seemed to me that a steady state economy will arise with a more “purpose oriented” value system. Enjoy reading.

  7. Bruce E. Woych
    Bruce E. Woych says:

    Posted: 14 Jun 2012 10:00 AM PDT
    Murder in the AmazonIn May 2011, married environmental activists Zé Cláudio Ribeiro and Maria do Espirito Santo were shot to death outside their house in the Amazonian state of Para. A month later VICE traveled to Zé Cláudio’s hometown of Marabá, which was once in the middle of the rainforest


  8. Bruce E. Woych
    Bruce E. Woych says:

    What is missing here is the acknowledged “wisdom” and historic fact that new ignorant generations fall victim to the same predatory practices that were outlawed or “learned away” by the experience of previous generations. Previous generations of the so called “learned” do not stop this process even as it insidiously appears. It is easy to pass the buck to a new generation, it is harder to stand and fight your own generation from taking advantage of their ignorance. There are plenty of predators in the new generation that will re-invent abusive exploitation and learn brutal domination under greater resource depletion and scarcity. But it is the old guard that commands the advantage and the evil of institutional chaos is eagerly awaiting another “dumb down” generation to exploit.

    Don’t blame the future blame the present. Teach your children well!

  9. Sakari A. Maaranen
    Sakari A. Maaranen says:

    Perhaps Life per se is the Sisyphean endeavour. The genome is a medium of reproduction and evolution; the phenome its vehicle of survival. Perhaps Life is “how to” and purposes its mere subjects.

    The nature of how Life was born gives it the purpose to grow. The mechanism of Life, how to survive long enough to reproduce, occurred first and later developed symbolic thought capable of conceiving its purpose. The mechanism of “how to” was here first. Did it not create Reason that conceived the purpose?


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