Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Value Of Ignorance

Most people think they're really smart.  They're wrong.  Don't worry - I count myself as part of this crowd.

We all read up on lots of things that aren't our field of expertise and then imagine that we're experts.  I've been known to spend my nights reading Wikipedia articles on black holes just because I find them fascinating, and it gives me a little more knowledge.  However, this knowledge is shallow at best - any competent physicist would laugh at me while he or she ran circles around my ignorance.  Still, none of this stops any of us from giving long soliloquys about ocean currents, survival techniques, or dance.  It lets us sound smart, and most folks really don't know enough to challenge us.

And that's a good thing from a writing perspective.

Think about it like this - have you ever watched a military movie with a professional Soldier?  Most Soldiers I know can't watch them because these movies are so out of touch with reality that they laugh the whole way, pointing out every error they find(which are legion).  Most people find this annoying since they just want to enjoy the show.  They have enough shallow understanding to enjoy what they see without having so much that the movie is unwatchable.

This is a gift to we writers.  Unless our chosen field is really nuclear physics, dance choreography, or Army battalion commander, we don't know the real intricacies of the subject, so we learn just enough to get by, and most readers give us a pass.  After all, it sure sounds like we know what we're talking about.  However, if truly probed, our knowledge base collapses.

We have to use the ignorance of the general public to get them to buy off on what we write.  Go esoteric enough, and most people won't question what you say.  In science fiction, does anyone really care enough to learn about the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle to know why the position and momentum of an object can't be simultaneously measured with a high degree of accuracy?  Or is it enough to use it in ways as some sort of techno-babble talking about the problems with your teleportation device?  It may sound laughable to a scientist, but it sure looks smart to those of us who read internet articles and like books.

Use the ignorance of the audience when you need to.  It can be in terms of geography(is that bridge really there in Dearborn?), politics(it sure would be neat if states could really nullify federal laws in their territory), or whatever else advances your plot.  Don't go so overboard that even the casual reader will look at you funny, but it's not always bad to cheat a bit on the details.  Remember, if it's stupid but works, then it's not stupid.


  1. It's why I stopped watching "Chicago Fire" and generally wait for home viewing of any movie featuring firefighters--I was just annoying other people who didn't know what was being done laughably wrong.

    1. I have to do the same thing with certain shows. Maybe we'd enjoy more stuff if we weren't as well versed. :-P