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Dismantling Human Ignorance

An overseas client recently asked me what I thought was the greatest problem facing humanity.

My response: “Collective human ignorance.”

Human ignorance exacts a double toll on our species and planet. First, it contributes to the most serious problems we face – diplomacy failures, ongoing wars, poverty amid growing income disparity, rampant societal anxiety, environmental destruction, and numerous forms of blatant discrimination, to name a few.

Second, and even worse, human ignorance stops us from solving these problems.

What does it mean to be ignorant? Though often used as a synonym for stupidity, ignorance is more precisely a lack of knowledge, experience, or awareness rather than foolishness.

It’s a tall order to reduce or eradicate human ignorance, but we can take some important cues from a breakthrough event in the history of sailing.

The problem of longitude

Sailing on water has ancient roots, but for centuries, sailors had no way of accurately knowing where they were once land was out of sight. Thousands of lives were lost due to ignorance about maritime longitude.

That particular ignorance was acknowledged, then addressed.

In 1714, the British government offered a substantial reward to anyone who could figure out how a ship could pinpoint its location when no land was in sight. For centuries, scientific attempts such as the sextant and the practice of dead reckoning had been prone to costly errors in determining longitude at sea. Britain desperately sought a reliable solution.

The prize was eventually won by John Harrison, a carpenter and self-taught clock maker from Yorkshire, who devoted his life to solving the problem. His early efforts drew criticism and huge opposition from the establishment of the time.

John Harrison's first attempt at a Maritime clock

In 1773, after numerous designs and trials, the 80-year-old Harrison was formally recognized for producing a maritime clock that reflected a completely novel way of thinking. He had been at it since his late teens.

Harrison developed a solution to a serious problem and thus conquered a particular human ignorance. How did it happen? A careful study reveals four elements that can serve us today in overcoming collective ignorance:

1. Awareness of the problem

The most powerful form of awareness is pain and discomfort, which may or may not be felt by the majority. In the case of 18th century maritime navigation, it was sailors and their families who most vehemently called for solutions, not the general population or even royalty. Those closest to the problem were those who lost loved ones and livelihoods. The persistent voices of those in pain eventually were heard by the wider society.

2. Collective will to address the problem

Maritime ignorance drew more widespread attention when those who controlled resources became enlightened, and felt pressured to act. When they calculated the economic and emotional toll of lost sailors and their cargoes, the self-interest of the empire kicked in, and they acted.

3. Resources to support those who address the problem

Britain established a Board of Longitude to address the problem of maritime confusion. The actions of those key decision-makers went beyond lip service, offering a reward exceeding 20 thousand pounds (more than 3 million in today’s US dollars) to anyone who could solve the problem. John Harrison stepped up because he had the will and skill, though he did petition for the monetary prize.

4. Time to get it right

Designing a device to pinpoint longitude couldn’t happen overnight. Harrison’s experiments and models developed over 60 years before he got it right. What made all the difference was his persistence over time, and his ability to see a breakthrough solution – a maritime clock.

From our perch in the 21st century, we can see that many vexing problems rooted in ignorance have gone by the wayside. Smallpox, medieval torture, and unsafe food storage practices were defeated not by accident, but by heightened awareness, collective will, resources, and reasonable time. The fact that we can now see inside the human body without surgery, and that we’ve identified germs rather than demons as a root cause of disease, began with the will to respond to physical pain and illness.

It's easy to look at past progress and even question why it wasn't accomplished sooner. But it's a supreme challenge to see today's challenges and convince society to act collectively on them, especially when the problems impact the margins of our society.

What problem in your family, in your workplace, or in the world is kept in place by ignorance or narrow thinking?

Will you be the next John Harrison?

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