I Don't Know

by Steve Mason

"Every time I pick up the paper, I see you answering a whole lot of different questions. So tell me, what don't you know Mr. WiseInHeimer?"

Very simply, I don't know the answers to the questions I don't answer. The other day, a fellow was going on and on about how life on Earth was such a miracle. If the planet wasn't tipped at just the right angle, and if it wasn't spinning in just the right way, and if it wasn't traveling on just the right path, we wouldn't be here.

Many people believe that such a combination of random events all coming together in the same time, and the same place, means that the universe is intelligently designed. To me, all it means is that we exist where we can - and we don't where we can't. In other words, putting all the pieces together to suit Mankind would be a difficult task indeed - but if all the pieces are already in place and we happen to come along, it's an entirely different proposition. It's not a matter of the world being here to accommodate us but rather, a matter of our being here because the world is accommodating.

If it weren't the way it is, we wouldn't be the way we are. And, by the same token, the reason I always manage to answer readers' questions is because I only pick those that I can answer. We live on Earth because it just happens to suit us and I choose questions that just happen to suit me.

However, there is something to be said for knowing when you don't know. There are lots of things I don't know, and even some things I can't know.

A mathematician once mentioned that his field of expertise was topology. But when I asked if he could explain his work in words that I could understand, he thought about it for only a few seconds before saying, "No".

For me, thinking in terms of numbers, and making sense of the way they relate to each other in different dimensions, would be like a cat trying to figure out a jet engine. Clearly it was beyond my inherited abilities. Ditto with music. Although I certainly enjoy a classic tune, I lack the prerequisite genes to truly relate to it. I can tap my foot with the best of them, but when it comes to something like looking at sheet music and hearing the melody in my head - forget it. And while I like a glass of wine, my taste buds don't go much beyond telling red from white. In fact, I usually have to peek just to make sure. Discerning the subtle nuance of a north-slope vintage is way past anything I can even imagine.

But such shortcomings are a problem only if one isn't aware of them, or far worse, refuses to acknowledge them. The well-educated person is never afraid to say: "I don't know," and is perfectly comfortable changing their mind in the face of new evidence. To behave otherwise is to admit intellectual insecurity.

I saw truly frightening evidence of this when I last turned on my computer. The leading news story involved NASA scientists theorizing the existence of a vast ocean on Mars in the past billion years or so. This was all perfectly straight forward, but then there was an additional screen where people could share their opinions. How in the world could one have an "opinion" about such a thing? Curious, I clicked on the next page. I could only envision my cat trying to figure out a jet engine analogy as I read some of the comments.

Several souls thought it was the work of Democrats and/or environmentalists. More than a few quoted from their Bibles. One fellow actually said that "a theory is just somebody's opinion", while another used his "common sense" in deciding that the weight of such a hypothesized ocean would cause the planet to tip over and fly apart.

It occurred to me that this may be why politics and religion are such popular topics of conversation. One need know nothing to have an opinion. But to address issues in science with such limited understanding is beyond anything I can comprehend. Were you to ask me how some dufus could possibly believe that he was equal to the task, I'd have to say: I don't know.

Contact the author with questions that he just may be able to answer directly via email at: DrSBMason (at) aol.com

Return to Port Of Call Home Page
Return to August/September 2007 Table of Contents