The Power of Not Knowing

By | Tuesday August 27th, 2013

“Knowledge is power”. Never has this sentence been truer than in our knowledge-oriented society. However, the things we do not know can be equally important. Just think of all the facts we didn’t know in the past, which all of a sudden became so important: the disastrous side effects of CFC, for instance, which silently destroyed the Earth’s ozone layer while we were using it to cool our coke in the fridge and styling our hair with tons of hairspray. Or think of the consequences of modern fishing techniques. Would you ever have thought we could overfish our seas one day?

It’s not surprising that a lack of knowledge can drive you up the wall. Goethe’s Faust almost lost his mind over all the questions he didn’t have the answer to. He even sold his soul to the devil just to get a bit more insight on “whatever binds the world’s innermost core together”. This hasn’t changed much over the years. Today, “not knowing” has even become part of scientific research. At the institute for advanced study at the University of Konstanz, Germany, “Nichtwissen” (non-knowledge) is one of the research focuses. Together with experts from economics, anthropology, politics, sociology and law, scholars discuss the value of those things science has not yet discovered.

The perfect example on how such non-knowledge emerges is the elaborate field of genome sequencing, which often raises more questions than it answers. With genetic testing growing more sophisticated each day, you can conduct a DNA analysis at home in your living room – no doctor required. As Bonnie Rochman describes in her article “The DNA dilemma: A test that could change your life” in Time Magazine 26/2012, some companies offer DNA analytical tests for “information on 200 specific traits and health risks” for 99 dollars. Under the premise “forewarned is forearmed” they encourage parents to test their children or themselves. This way, they can find out easily whether they have any genes that indicate the risk of certain diseases. With this knowledge, they can at least take preventive measures such as avoiding certain foods or types of sports that could potentially promote the development of a disease.

But what about diseases that can’t yet be prevented or treated like Alzheimer’s disease or multiple sclerosis? Do we really want to know whether we may have to suffer from such a disease even if we can’t do anything against it? On the other hand, some results of a DNA analysis might not help us today, but they might be lifesaving in 20 years, when new insights and treatment options have been discovered. My46, a research project of the University of Washington, allows participants of research studies to store their genetic results and to choose what results they want to receive – and when. An idea that could spread in the near future as DNA sequencing is becoming more and more common.

This, of course, also applies to many other fields: What if a geologist detects a huge amount of previously unknown raw material reserves. Should he leave it where it is? Or maybe better save it and wait what technology research comes up with for this material in ten or twenty years? And what about video surveillance in public places? Should the authorities delete the files at the end of each day? Or wouldn’t it be smarter to save them? Mind you, the police might be looking for a wanted criminal two weeks later who crossed the place exactly that day?

The idea not to burden us with knowledge until we can really use it is tempting to me. As long as we can have it in a data warehouse that reliably saves it all – until the day we know how to use and evaluate it. Until then, the real power lies in not-knowing.

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Hermann Wimmer


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