Knowledge Versus Certainty

Such is our world that, on the very same day, we can come across examples of the utterly crass and the sublimely clear, in the very same place.

Yesterday, I found both on Facebook.

The first example I noticed was the crass one, posted everywhere:

According to all known laws of aviation a bee should not be able to fly. Its wings are too tiny to get its fat little body off the ground. The bee, of course, flies anyway, because bees don’t care what humans think is impossible.

Sometimes a statement is so gigantically stupid that it leaves the thinking mind breathless.  I don’t know if it was devised by a deeply ignorant person or by someone who knew precisely what they were doing but wanted to make a little mischief.  Perhaps it was both: a mischief-maker egging on the profoundly ignorant, in order to laugh at them from a distance.

What exactly is so stupid about this statement?

Well, first, it isn’t true.  There is no scientific theory that says a bumble-bee should be unable to fly.  This is a canard invented by an ill-informed British journalist writing for a trashy tabloid magazine in the Seventies, and I apologise for the tautology of that statement.

More significantly, it illustrates the extraordinary arrogance of the ignorant.  Apart from a person who knows nothing, who would refer to the “laws of aviation”?  Going on from that, who but a complete fool would talk about “all known laws of aviation”?

The laws of aviation have to do with the proper regulation of pilots and flying.  I suppose they meant the laws of aerodynamics, but when you’re appealing to the lowest common denominator, these  distinctions are of little relevance.  It sounds important and that’s all that matters to the empty-headed, blustering bombast.

It looks like a tiny experiment in flattering the Great Unwashed.  Give them the illusion of knowledge.  Give them a little spurious scientific justification and let them loose on whatever you want to attack.  They’ll go out spouting your nonsense because it makes them feel slightly important for perhaps the first time ever, even though they have not the slightest idea what any of it means.

This is how to whip up crowds, and though it’s only a small thing, it reveals precisely how to mobilise the ignorant.  It’s very clever: make them feel informed while keeping them in the dark.

On the bright side, I came across a wonderful website called Ask a Mathematician / Ask a Physicist, which attempts to answer questions about existence clearly, with honesty and with humility.  The language is clear, the explanations are lucid and when a question is too hard, they admit it.  What’s more, unlike the proponents of ignorant certainty, the folks behind this site are motivated by knowledgeable bafflement.

If the speed of light is constant, how can it slow down?

How do executive ball-clickers work?

What’s an axiom?

How can you be certain of anything?

These are the kind of questions asked — some silly, some profound.  And as I’ve said before many times, because scientists are trained to always admit when they might be wrong, the answers are refreshingly honest.  Sometimes they amount to little more than We don’t know.

This is a million miles removed from the ill-informed foolishness behind All known laws of aviation.

And that, my friends, is the difference between absolute intolerance and open-minded, thoughtful acceptance.

In the years to come, I think these distinctions will become very important for our society.


Also on Bock
McCain and Palin — The Certainty of the Know-Nothings

The power of belief

16 thoughts on “Knowledge Versus Certainty

  1. Donal Rumsfeld stated the limits of human certainty with this famous quotation, which might be an axiom for all I know:

    “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”

    All generalizations are dangerous, including this one. Nothing is certain, not even this statement. When do the pubs open? Barmen don’t worry about epistemology; they just want to see the colour of your money. Now taxi drivers have certain opinions about many contested issues. And local barbers can predict the outcome of sporting events with 99.99% certainy. I’ll just stick to death and taxes, certainly.

  2. hnmm, interesting. It brings me back to my post grad days studying tech comm in UL and taking the English language assunder. Now if only I could get a job as a tech writer!

  3. In his clumsy business-speak way, Rumsfeld was articulating something quite important, even if he did it in the context of the unjustifiable invasion of a foreign country.

  4. dammit, I came on here to check the latest comments and two hours later I am still reading that site. Desperatley trying to find a “wrong” answer, of course ;)

  5. Seriously slow week in the Limerick music scene I see “canard” ” tautology” really?
    What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how
    infinite in faculties.

  6. I am flattered you checked my IP address but seriously tautology. Sorry for going off point! I finish at 4 by the way!

  7. I happened across this very canard not too long ago in the research of a science writer with Discovery Channel. I just read it back now to verify. An article in Scientific American from 1989 traced the story back to a dinner party anecdote about a Swiss engineer who made some back-of-napkin calculations about bees’ wings and made the now infamous pronouncement. Anonymously, of course.

    There exists however a French book from 1934 titled Le Vol des Insects by M.Mangan in which the author wrotes, and I quote: “I applied the laws of air resistance to insects and I concluded that their flight was impossible.”

    He does add (cognizant of the fundamental incompleteness of science) “one shouldn’t be surprised that the results of the calculations do not square with reality.”

    That part, the whole point of the story, has been omitted ever since.


  8. Well I will be honest I had to look it up even though I think I have a fair vocabulary (in my humble opinion), so I won’t pretend to offer an alternative now. It is obviously correct in its context but I would be curious to know if anyone else knew what it meant!
    By the way I reread the article again and now I don’t know which catagory I fit into.

  9. I suppose it all depends what we come across in the course of our lives, but tautology is not a particularly obscure word. If it was, I wouldn’t use it.

  10. Redundancy would have worked just as well. However, rob learned a new word.

    Was the statement about the ill-informed Brit the tautology, or the was it the trashy tabloid quip?

    Nice article.

  11. The tautology was canard and tabloid, although having said that, British journalism went through a phase in the seventies and eighties when being an idiot was part of the job description.

    I’d disagree with you about redundancy. It’s too vague. Tautology was designed to describe a specific thing.

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