Is It Ever Better Not to Know? | Quillette

Sometimes secrets are justifiable. But that seems only to be the case in a circumscribed sphere of knowledge. And—in the United States, at least—information remains classified for only so long before it becomes legally accessible to the average citizen and the press. This fact alone suggests an acknowledgement of certain short term risks associated with knowledge, while also admitting that over the long run we value knowledge over its absence or suppression. So, with these concessions in mind, let us further interrogate our intuition.

Would it be better not to know that the Earth orbits the sun? Before Copernicus revived the heliocentric hypothesis, widely accepted by ancient Greek philosophers, Europeans in Christendom could reasonably assume that they were the center of the solar system. Galileo’s observations helped rob us of this comforting myth. Clear thinking clergy at the time certainly guessed what the consequences might be. The leader of the most powerful religious organization on the planet, the Pope, felt that we would all be better off not knowing. At play was a moral calculus intended to sort out whether certain knowledge might be dangerous. In this case, it might cause people to lose their faith (or erode the power of the church, somehow). Of course, the heretics were correct about our place in the solar system. But the rumor of civilization’s great moral demise was vastly overstated.

We may have lost our centrality to the universe, but we retained our special stature as beings created in the image of the Almighty. In 1859, however, that changed too. Charles Darwin upset our intuitions in a way most people still haven’t fully grasped. Darwin understood the subversive consequences of his theory clearly, which partly explains why he waited so long to publish his book on evolution by natural selection, and why he confided to his friend Joseph Hooker that it was like “confessing to a murder” to show that species are not immutable, and that evolution is not a synonym for progress.

From: Is It Ever Better Not to Know? | Quillette

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46 thoughts on “Is It Ever Better Not to Know? | Quillette

  1. Secrets are power. If information about the nature of the world we live in is being concealed, one does have to wonder who gains power from that.

    Of course, this should not be read as support for secret systems that let cars be fueled with water that the oil industry doesn’t want you to know about.


    • Yeah; but it’s become one of those stories that’s too good to check, like “Columbus learned the Earth was round, before that Christians all thought it was flat” and “I can see Russia from my house”.


      • These are all the more unnerving in an article about the spread of knowledge. Indeed, it seems particularly common for this kind of myth to be spread this way. We all lie to ourselves about “them” – the Dunning-Kruger people who aren’t as smart as we are – but we’re all idiots about something.


  2. I think it’s a harder question than my side likes to acknowledge.

    If we take as an assumption that political sausage making is a nasty business that can be “disinfected” by openness, is it better to do that disinfecting and risk not having sausage made, or just focus on whether the resulting sausage is good?

    I’d posit, for example, that part of the dysfunction in Washington is that we no longer have tools like earmarks to quietly slip into bills at the last second in order to get things done. I honestly don’t know if that’s a good or bad thing, since the earmarks themselves were often wasteful but not usually enough to tilt a given policy from “good” to “bad.”


    • An important skill for watching political sausage-making is learning to not care when you see tongues going into the mixer.

      And some people just can’t do that. Some worry that the tongues were unsustainably harvested using non-carbon-neutral means. Some thing the tongue is haram. Some throw up at the thought of eating tongues.


      • Indeed. I think not focusing on minor distractions is going to be a real problem going forward, as we’ll soon have political candidates who got drunk in College and posted pictures on facebook/twitter/etc. instead of those who did so without leaving a digital trail.

        People are going to need to learn not to care about imperfections rather than moralize over them. I predict it’ll be a long hard slog.


        • Remember when Douglas Ginsburg’s Supreme Court nomination was derailed because it came out that he liked to blow a doob or two in college?

          Remember the same thing happening to Neil Gorsuch? Didn’t think so. It never even came up as a thing. (Not saying Gorsuch did or didn’t. He’s just of an age that it’s unlikely that he didn’t at least try it.)


  3. One of the characteristics of digital media is that the official word on things is no longer the official word.
    That’s a paraphrase. You can find the original in Pavlik & McIntosh.


  4. Youtube believes that you really don’t want to see pictures of cats removing people’s eyes.
    I could give you half a hundred other examples of things you probably don’t want to know about.

    The issue is that if you don’t know about it, Law Enforcement also doesn’t know about it.

    Kid sits around all day playing video games in a diaper. Other kid videotapes this (including kid yelling at his mom to get his diaper changed)… Child Services gets called. But to do that, you need to leave the video up.


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