Ignorance really can be bliss

Registrations are open for the free new online ANU course which explores the topic of ignorance.
10 June 2015

You need unknowns, otherwise there's nothing to discover and there's nothing new to create.

Is knowledge power or is ignorance bliss?

A new free online course at The Australian National University (ANU) will explore the topic of ignorance and explain why there are some things in life people are better off not knowing.

Course co-presenter Professor Michael Smithson, from the ANU Research School of Psychology, said while people thought of ignorance as being something negative, that isn't always the case.

"One of the positive things that comes from ignorance is freedom," Professor Smithson said.

"To have personal freedom you need parts of your life and your future that you don't know about, otherwise you're not free to make choices. If everything is laid out for you and you know all about it, you've got no freedom."

He said researchers, artists and entrepreneurs all need ignorance to give them room to create, while a life where you know everything that is going to happen strikes people as being dreadful.

"You need unknowns, otherwise there's nothing to discover and there's nothing new to create," he said.

He said much of our entertainment also requires temporary ignorance.

"Imagine knowing beforehand the plots and endings to all the books you'll ever read or the movies you'll ever see," he said. "The same goes for pleasant surprises, such as birthday or Christmas presents."

Despite the benefits Professor Smithson said there is also be a dark side to ignorance, which can often contribute to serious social problems such as prejudice and racism.

He said public ignorance about key issues could also be detrimental to democracy.

"It was Winston Churchill who said the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter," Professor Smithson said.

"There has been debate ever since the founding of democracy about the extent to which it is possible to have an informed voting public.  It would be great if we had a really informed and scientifically literate voting public, but I think that's probably impossible."

Professor Smithson and co-presenter Professor Gabriele Bammer, from the ANU Research School of Population Health, will present a balanced appraisal of ignorance, when it is a problem and when it is not, during the five-week online course.

The Massive Open Online Course titled Ignorance! will run for five weeks starting 23 June and will be administered through the edX website.  Registrations are now open at https://www.edx.org/course/ignorance-anux-igno101x.

The course video captions have been translated into Simplified and Traditional Chinese, and features Chinese glossaries.