Academic Research: The Pursuit of Ignorance (aka Farting Around In The Dark!)

“You’re a perfectionist with an inferiority complex!”

That about sums up the standard response to my moping about not being ‘cut out’ for academia, despite being a consistent high achiever. Sometimes, I angst that my grades reflect nothing more than a capacity to ‘bullshit my way through’ assignments, and have little to do with how much I actually know. I put off pursuing an academic career for a long time because of this, believing wholeheartedly that I was a fraud. There are times when I still truly feel this way, despite many achievements, acknowledgements and glaringly obvious realities demonstrating time and again what rubbish that notion is. There’s never enough reassurance…and I am told that even with a PhD in hand, feeling like a professional fraud never really stops popping in to say hi from time to time.

Imposter-Syndrome-Doodle.png

Where does this come from? What impact does it have on us and the research work we generate? Well, Barcan (2016) suggests that academia is the perfect environment for feelings of professional fraudulence to flourish. Why? Because we operate in a realm that generates lots of new knowledge and information very quickly, and we think that if we don’t digest it all, we won’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s almost as if we, for some strange reason, think that we should know it all.

So, many of us become know-it-all’s.

In a tremendous effort to hide our perceived fraudulence, we employ what Barcan calls ‘academic bluff’ and pretend to know a whole lot more than we really do, relying on rigid knowledge structures to protect us from the unknown – and perhaps also the inherently unknowable. We avoid the messy unknowns.

I am personally guilty of this. In an effort to conform to the rigid thought I once believed was expected of a professional scientist, I accepted facts and knowledge without question. Along with several of my undergraduate peers, I accepted facts as absolute rather than as knowledge emplaced in unknown spaces. To me, all things became ultimately knowable, it was just a matter of time, effort and funding. If it couldn’t be scientifically established and quantified, then it probably wasn’t real. The result was a hurtful suppression of my spirituality and cultural traditions, personal realms from which a great care and curiousity about the world around me had always welled like a desert spring. It stifled the freedom to wonder about the stuff beyond human comprehension, and to believe in possibilities. No one forced me to think this way, and frankly, it is ridiculous to have done so. Just ask all of the deeply spiritual and cultural scientists out there! But studying science amongst the uphill battle for evolutionary biology to be recognised as fact, not opinion, and the loud voices of Atheist scientists can be overwhelming and confusing. Particularly when one already feels that they are an academic fraud.

Mayim Bialik – who not only stars on The Big Bang Theory as a neuroscientists, but actually is a scientist in real life as well – talks about how she navigates being both a scientist and Jewish. Mayim shares very similar spiritual views to me in a lot ways.

But what about the value of what we don’t know? Are we not ‘researchers’, and does not that title implicitly suggest that our role is to seek out the unknown? Or perhaps – as in the case of much cultural and more-than-human geography work – establish why some knowledge(s) cannot and should not be known? In challenging the discourse of academic mastery, expertise and knowledge, Barcan believes that an important strategy is to not be a know-it-all, and instead embrace the unknown by recognising the limits of our own knowledge and capacity to know. In my field, this is crucial. Geography is all about challenging what we think we know by recognising what we don’t.

In his astounding, thought-provoking, and utterly incredible TED talk, neuroscientist Stuart Firestein (2014) challenges the idea of a ‘pursuit of knowledge’ and instead suggests that research-based investigation is more of a “farting around in the dark” sort of process, a pursuit of ignorance: that which we don’t know. Taking the popular models of knowledge accumulation – like puzzle pieces, onion layers, and ‘the tip of the iceberg’ – Firestein skilfully rejects them as implying that there is a knowable body of facts that we will eventually uncover in totality. That everything is ultimately knowable. Firestein disagrees. He thinks that knowledge is more like a ripple, where every new piece of information generates new questions, and thus an endless cycle of acknowledged ignorance and unknowns.

What I love about this is that it so eloquently, yet so simply, highlights one of the key characteristics of, and perhaps the thing I love most about, science. That science cannot prove anything, its function is to disprove. The rest is unknown. We know what is not, but what is remains open to possibilities. I trained as an ornithologist under one of Australia’s most reputable avian biologists. He was brilliant, highly published with a huge impact factor, and a name that everyone in the field knew. And yet, despite all his arrogance and academic pomp, he quietly said to me one day, “a good scientist isn’t afraid to say ‘I don’t know’ – in fact, it should be a requirement to do so”.

I couldn’t agree more. The role of research is to investigate research questions, and Firestein argues that it is continual acknowledgement of our ignorance that gives rise to questions of increasing quality. By engaging with the unknown – and the unknowable – we generate a more meaningful understanding of knowledge. Or, more appropriately, knowledge(s). If geography has revealed to me nothing else, it is that there is a lot that I do not, cannot, and should not know about others – human and more-than-human alike. By recognising that ignorance, nurturing it and acknowledging it, I make myself a better geographer. I realise that my knowledge – and all knowledge – is forever incomplete, and that this enriches our world. It grows plurality, where different ways of knowing and doing can contribute to what Star Trek-ian philosophy so beautifully describes as ‘infinite diversity in infinite combinations’.

So, the next time that I feel like an academic fraud, perhaps I will now endeavour to put Firestein’s advice into practice and rather than agonising over ‘what do I know about it?’, instead embrace my ignorance to consider ‘what can I ask about it?’. After all, research is all about the unknown – perhaps it could benefit from a little more ‘farting around in the dark’!

References:

Barcan, R., 2016. ‘Feeling like a fraud: Or, the upside of knowing you can never be good enough’, in Academic life and labour in the new university: Hope and other choices. Routledge.

Firestein, S., 2014. The pursuit of ignorance. TED. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nq0_zGzSc8g

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