Seeking Knowledge and Willful Ignorance


I had a great time recording a fun episode of Seeking Truth in Networking, an awesome podcast with my friends Derick Winkworth and Brandon Heller. We talked a lot about a variety of different topics, but the one I want to spend a few more minutes on here came in the first five minutes. Brandon asked me what question I liked to be asked and I mentioned that love to be asked about learning. My explanation included the following line:

I feel like the gap between people that don’t understand something and the willfully ignorant is that ability to take a step out and say “I don’t know the answer to this but I’m going to find out.”

I’ve always said that true learners are the ones that don’t accept the unknown. They want to find the answer. They want to be able to understand something as completely as they can. Those that I consider to be willfully ignorant choose not to do that.

Note that there is a difference between incidentally ignorant and willfully ignorant. People who are incidentally ignorant are unaware they don’t know something. They haven’t had the opportunity to learn or change their thought process on something. It would be like going to a random person and asking them about how to launch a rocket to another planet. They’re ignorant of the steps because they’ve never had the opportunity to learn them. They’ve never been exposed to the info or had a need to know it. People who are willfully ignorant choose to not learn something even after they’re exposed to it.

Where There’s a Will

We deal with people who choose not to learn things all the time. Even I choose not to learn everything. I don’t have all the Pokemon memorized. I don’t have the registration number of every Starfleet vessel in my mental Rolodex. There are a variety of other more technical topics that escape me. However, my reasoning for choosing not to learn those things is not because of malice. It’s because of self preservation.

If you exposed to something that you are curious about and choose to learn more you will often find yourself consumed by it. I am always on the lookout for a new laptop bag or hiking backpack. When I search for them I will find myself watching videos and reading reviews that are full of terminology that I don’t understand. I educate myself to the best of my ability but I don’t consider myself to be an expert on messenger bags or ultralight hiking packs. And after a while that knowledge is filed away for another day and I have to relearn something all over again when I’m on the hunt for a new bag.

Let’s contrast the acknowledgment of not being able to know everything with the phenomenon of choosing not to learn something out of spite or malice. This is like a networking engineer saying something along the lines of, “I’m not going to learn OSPF because it sucks and I’ll never use it.” A statement like that should immediately raise flags. In this specific case a working knowledge of OSPF is important for anyone building and maintaining networks. You may not need to know the details for every LSA in the database but you at least need to know how OSPF is different from RIP.

This kind of willful ignorance of information makes IT difficult. Why? Because actively choosing not to learn or understand something creates two hurdles to overcome. The first hurdle is showing people where to learn more about it. That is hard enough in and of itself. Every bookshelf in every office everywhere has the kinds of books that people refer to when they need to teach someone something important about networking or wireless or any other enterprise IT technology. Thanks to the power of search engines today it’s even more accessible to get people on the track to learning something new.

The second huge hurdle with those that are willfully ignorant isn’t access to knowledge. It’s getting past their objections to learning it. People have biases that need to be challenged and overcome. I’m not going to speak on anything aside from technology but we all know that everyone has their viewpoint and their understanding and changing their mind about something has varying degrees of difficulty. If someone is convinced, for example, that SHA-1 is an unbreakable protocol and nothing you can show them to the contrary convinces them that is willful ignorance. Evidence that is contrary to the facts isn’t invalid evidence. The quality of the evidence is always important to understand but choosing to dismiss it entirely out of hand solely because it doesn’t fit your understanding is not the kind of position someone in IT needs to take.

A Changing Landscape

Think about some of the following statements:

  • Switching is cheap, routing is expensive
  • 640K is more than enough memory
  • Unbreakable encryption

These are all statements that have been said in the past. They’ve all been proven over time to be wrong. Could you imagine if there was someone out there today that though programs needed to run in less than 640K of RAM? Or that believed that routing packets was too expensive and everything needs to run at layer 2? Those people would get laughed out of the data center.

Those statements are no longer true, but the attitudes behind them are the real problem. It’s not that something is taken for granted but that we choose not to accept anything other than that fact as the truth. Even today we could have positions like virtual reality will never take off or that quantum computers are too noisy to ever be commercially viable. In five years or a decade those statements may prove to be totally wrong. But if I’m still saying them and purposely choose not to learn why they are incorrect then I’m in the camp of being willfully ignorant of the truth.


Tom’s Take

The point of this post wasn’t to call out anyone specific for anything. Instead, I wanted to highlight that we all believe what we believe and we resist learning things that don’t square with that. How we choose to overcome that friction defines us as well as defining us with our peers. If you want to spend your career believing that a protocol is better and you won’t learn anything else then I hope your career is successful and long. I say “hope” because in the world of IT those that clap their hands over their ears and refuse to update their knowledge and understand are running on that kind of hope. They hope their level of knowledge never needs to change. They hope their skills will be enough for years and years of employment. And, in almost every case, they hope they can learn something new fast enough to get a new job when they realize that the attitude of willful ignorance will leave you high and dry.

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