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A Puzzling Human Condition: Learning to be Ignorant by Gene Myers

A Puzzling Human Condition: Learning to be Ignorant by
Article Posted: 02/04/2011
Article Views: 894
Articles Written: 194
Word Count: 1145
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A Puzzling Human Condition: Learning to be Ignorant

Education,Self Improvement,Business
In a recent article (Club of Clowns – Part 4: The Wild Horse Race) I wrote about a tug-o-war contest that was won not by the biggest and strongest, but the smartest. The “trump card” was not some secret weapon, but science-—physics to be specific. In other words, the weapon was knowledge. The “human condition” problem was that the lesson was lost on the participants, the so-called experts, and the media. We seem to be a stubborn and hard-headed lot. When confronted with results that do not match our experience, expectations, and prejudices we either write them off as an anomaly or find comfort in the psychological process of denial.

Ignorance is no crime. Ignorance is simply the absence of knowledge, and each of us is vexed by it in one form or another; and sometimes ignorance is exacerbated by too few opportunities to learn. Stupidity is different. Stupidity is to know better, but do it anyway. In the same article referenced above I wrote about four of us entering a wild horse race where one of us came within a foot of being killed. Our condition of pure stupidity was fueled by false bravado and booze, which is often the case.

Learned ignorance, on the other hand, is a completely different species. I’ll cite an example I learned from J. M. Juran. What I would like you to take away from this example is this: Ignorance may be learned even by the brightest of people when remaining ignorant suits their personal purposes. Sounds a bit sinister, doesn’t it? (Bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha!)

In the mid-1800s, about the time Pasteur validated his germ theory in Paris, and Lister developed antiseptic procedures in London, in Vienna, Austria lived a physician by the name of Ignaz Semmelweiss. The good doctor worked in a clinic where 30 percent of all childbirths ended fatally for the mother. The cause was puerperal infection, which was believed to be a “fate” not a problem; it was considered to be unpreventable. Well, Dr. Semmelweiss had a theory that the root cause was an unsanitary practice-—by the physicians themselves! You can imagine how that went over! At the time, doctors would go from patient to patient “cleaning” their hands by simply wiping them on their smocks. The dirtier the smock, the greater number of patients the doctor had; and therefore, the soiled garment stood as an advertisement of individual success and worth. Semmelweiss had everyone in his unit wash their hand in chlorinated lime solution between patients, and (wonder of wonders!) maternity deaths declined to one percent.

Naturally, Semmelweiss recommended to the board that all physicians follow his lead. His peers were outraged. They did not want to use a chlorine hand wash because it robbed them of an important status symbol of the time; and it made no difference that a contemporary had data to prove his case. In the light of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the doctors chose to be ignorant! Semmelweiss was forced to leave the clinic within the year.

More than two centuries later I attended the L.A. Classic, a December weekend college basketball tournament, hosted by USC and UCLA. Six other teams from around the country were invited. My brother played on a Michigan team that was supposed to rule the world. Jim Murray, a nationally-known Los Angeles Times sports columnist wrote, “They average six-seven, jump like they’re seven-seven, and run like they’re five-seven.” In the championship game, a bunch of runts from UCLA ran them into the boards and off the court. At the time Michigan was rated No. 1, and UCLA No. 30. Later that season, UCLA won their first NCAA title, and people started to notice their coach, John Wooden.

A year later I watched Wooden run a practice. It didn’t look like any other basketball practice I had ever participated in or watched. Not a word, not a pause, only continuous movement emphasizing quickness and conditioning. It looked like a hockey practice. Although Wooden cherished athleticism and size, he recruited quickness first. Size was secondary. Gail Goodrich was one of the stars of that first team. He was only six-one, but had a “monkey arm” sleeve length of 37; same as my six-eight brother. Goodrich was only five-eight when Wooden recruited him.

“Why?” wondered practically everyone.

“Because he has quick hands,” replied Wooden.

Wooden did not spend much time scouting opposing teams preferring to spend time perfecting his team’s execution of his plan and vision. “Let ‘em prepare for me!” he quietly announced.

Yet in spite of his unequalled records: 10 NCAA Championships (seven in a row) and being compelled to retire at age 65, coaches were slow to emulate him because his methods were not “mainstream”; seemed like the wrong thing to do in spite of evidence to the contrary. You’ve got it: learned ignorance!

Finally, as a manager in the oil tool industry, I visited one of our plants in San Bernardino so a young engineer could demonstrate to me his discovery of how to increase productivity and profits by 100 percent. After presenting overwhelming evidence and proving his case, I suggested he call in his boss and the plant manager and show them.

“I don’t know,” he said quietly, avoiding my eyes. “They’re really set in their ways; don’t like anything new or different.”

“But you’ll double output in a market that will buy ten times what we can make,” I said. “Think of the profitability! Think of the yearend bonus you and the management team will get—-thousands!”

“Well, okay… I guess… I’ll set up a meeting. Will you be there?”


The presentation took place in front of the entire San Berdu management team. The young engineer masterfully presented an irrefutable case. It was freaking poetry!

The management team sat silently and squirmed uncomfortably looking to the plant manager for how to react. Finally the engineer’s boss chuckled through a sneer-smile.

“Well,” he began, “I don’t know nothin’ about that kind o’ system…” (I could hear in my mind, I don’t cotton to that there fancy book learnin’) “…all I know is how to make drill bits! Hell, ah bin doin’ it for 35 years” And with that he sat back snorted and directed the sneer-smile at the plant manager who was nodding his head knowingly with a sneer of his own.

I probably should have kept my mouth shut, but I could not. I looked the dipshit dead in the eye and said, “Yeah, and you’ve been doing it WRONG for 35 years!”

I was told to leave the premises and never come back.

I didn’t. The place closed in six months due to lack of profitability.

Learned ignorance struck again.

Copyright 2011 by Gene Myers.

Author of Songs from Lattys Grove (2010) from PublishAmerica, Baltimore, MD.

Author of After Hours (2009) from Strategic Publishing, New York, NY.

Related Articles - ignorance, stupidity, learned ignorance, Ignatz Semmelweiss, Pasteur, Lister, John Wooden, oil tool industry,

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