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The Human Condition: Learned Ignorance Revisited by Gene Myers

The Human Condition: Learned Ignorance Revisited by
Article Posted: 09/10/2011
Article Views: 380
Articles Written: 191
Word Count: 1135
Article Votes: 6
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The Human Condition: Learned Ignorance Revisited

Business,Science & Technology,Self Improvement
To set the tone, here’s a quick 150-word review of a previous article on the subject…

The late J. M. Juran told about Austrian physician Ignatz Semmelweiss (1818-1865) who was committed to an asylum and committed suicide at age 47. He lived in the time of Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) and Joseph Lister (1827-1912).

Semmelweiss was a victim of learned ignorance.

About 35 percent of all women entering his hospital to give childbirth died of puerperal fever, the cause of which was the physicians themselves. When conducting examinations patient-to-patient they simply wiped their hands on their smocks. The dirtier the smock; the more successful the doctor was perceived. In Semmelweiss’ unit, the death rate of birthing mothers was less than one percent because he and his staff washed their hands in a chlorinated lime solution between examinations. When Semmelweiss presented this evidence to the hospital board, his contemporaries were outraged! Damned if they were going to give up such a visible status symbol! They chose to be ignorant because (to them) saving lives wasn’t the issue. ________________________________________________________________________

This prevailing human condition has thrived through the ages, and has certainly been alive and well during my career.

I joined a multi-billion dollar oil tool corporation having previously been employed by one of the largest firms in America. At first when I offered an opinion or talked of a business system, management was all ears; eager to learn what I experienced. However, as time passed, respect diminished because of a paradox in their belief system. On one hand nothing good came from outside the industry, which they stated: “If it ain’t oil, it ain’t shit!” On the other hand they snorted: “If you’re so smart, why do you work for us?” Sheesh! Talk about damned if you do, damned if you don’t!

At the Tech Center for that company we churned out hundreds of patents, but basically used none of them choosing to copy our competitors instead. Patents were attempts to impress and frighten others (or at least fake-them-out). Of course in that industry the tactic was laughable, and patents were mainly a game among engineers to see who could get the most for his resume.

NOTE: Though unabashed copycats, the company was excellent at customer service—in fact, the benchmark for the industry. As such, a second-to-market strategy worked well.

Four years ago, my partners and I came up with a unique application of converting discarded ore material into a very useful product with tremendous market potential—which was not the original objective. The discovery was the result of serendipity—an accident. Yet when presented to the investing community, they didn’t like it; or rather they didn’t like the fact that “we” had an original idea. The response was typically, “Who else is doing this?” It was unwelcome news that nobody else had thought of it before some dumb schleps like us.

I also learned from working in the oil patch that there was no safety in patents and nondisclosure agreements (NDA). My experience is firsthand on both sides. The industry is full of absolute pirates! Ignoring my own counsel (and experience with learned ignorance), I became my own victim by presenting the above conversion findings to the largest oil service company in the world after they signed an NDA. (What was I thinking?)

Well… They recently filed a patent application for converting the same material to the same product albeit with a completely different process. They did the work in Russia, and one of their former executives told me they always go offshore so they can cook-the-books by backdating their disclosure material. As bad as that may sound, it actually validates (to the investment community) our original premise. That is, now our idea has “credibility”. Hot damn!

The investment community has a tribal knowledge hang-up in that they believe patents offer protection. I’m here to tell you that in the oil patch it ain’t necessarily so—especially if you’re a “little” guy. A patent exposes your technological breakthrough; a deep-pocketed competitor rips it off, and dares you to get into a court battle knowing you have not the resources for a long-term, expensive fight. Big companies also attempt the same thing with each other, but it occasionally backfires, and the only real winners are the law firms involved.

Example: A dominant oil tool manufacturer held five major patents that defined a particular product. My former company blatantly copied every one with an in-your-face, take-that attitude. We were sued for infringement, but WON the court battle. Ten years later, the judge died, and the case was reopened because the plaintiff charged the original jurist was incompetent. A re-trial was ordered; my company lost, told to pay $205 million in damages, and cease production.

Patents disclose technology, and are more often “stolen” legally. That is, any firm with a competent technical staff can figure out how to design around most patents. For example, General Electric had a specific patent for a brazing material used to attach polycrystalline diamond compacts to drill bits. My engineers figured out how to copy it legally by combining different elements of the material in several steps. Hoo-hah! Later when we invented a method for diamond coating three-dimensional surfaces, we DID NOT patent the technology choosing to keep “everything” proprietary mainly to thwart GE. It’s been 20 years and so far, so good. Patents, schmatents!

Other famous examples of learned ignorance are as follows:

The world is flat. Well, that may have been just plain ignorance. Keep in mind ignorance is defined as lack of knowledge. Learned ignorance is having knowledge but continuing status quo anyway.

Galileo invented the telescope, and by observing Jupiter’s orbit, discovered Earth circled the Sun—not the other way around as was the prevailing belief supported by the Church. Religious leaders held that Earth was center of the universe. (That’s right, God told them so.) Galileo was told to recant or face torture. He did, but was held in “house arrest” for the remainder of his life.

Then there is light. Science-and-virtue supported the wave theory, but ignorance-and-superstition (the establishment) believed in the corpuscular theory. Wave theory eventually won out, but not until all those (in high places) who believed to the contrary died.

Sometimes learned ignorance has tragic consequences. Chuck Yeager, when writing about his days as a test pilot, told of pilots dying in inexplicable crashes. Investigation revealed that certain rivets were installed incorrectly at the factory by a grizzled worker who ignored the engineering documentation because, “I’ve been installing rivets MY way for years!”

Then there are those who continue to write even though evidence shows their output has no commercial value. Hey, wait a minute…!!!

Gene Myers (

Related Articles - learned ignorance, corporation, patents, nondisclosure agreements, tribal knowledge,

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