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Most people - including myself - don't want to admit their ignorance. And yet we're all ignorant about most things in life. Some people don't know a lot about astronomy or physics. Some people can't really tell you how their car works. To some people anatomy is just a bunch of vaguely squishy things inside our bodies. 

How do airplanes work? What's the political structure of your country? What's the capital of your country? How do you raise livestock? How does evolution work? What's the French word for "ignorant"? 

By and large, for the most part the world simply slips by us, and we keep focused on our work and our families and our hobbies and our passions. And for the most part that's pretty much fine most of the time, except when it isn't. Except when we need to come together to make some big group decision about a major issue, and we'd like to have everybody as informed as possible about all the nuances so we can come to a genuine, best-interest-for-everybody consensus.

But in order to do that, we first need to admit that we're ignorant, which is incredibly hard - harder than you think. Even if you're highly educated and well-read, you still only understand the barest sliver of the sum total of human knowledge, and most big issues facing society are going to require a much broader slice.

Why don't people admit their ignorance? Pride? Shame? Ignorance of their own ignorance? Probably all of the above.

And here's where science communication can help. There are few - very few - areas in life where people are willing to admit their ignorance. A public event on a "neutral" topic like science is one of those places. Have you ever been to a science lecture, and listen as the audience asked questions at the end of the talk? Each and every one of those questions was a single human being opening up, allowing themselves to be vulnerable, and admit their ignorance. 

They felt safe to do that in that space because the topic was so narrowly defined, and nobody's ego was on the line. They could freely ask a question about science because that was the entire point of attending the event: to learn about something new. The Q&A portion at the end was just another part of showing up.

For most people most of the time, this admission of ignorance and willingness to be vulnerable started and ended with that single question. But in some cases, they learned something without realizing they learned it. They learned that they can open up, be ignorant, and be respected and praised and have their curiosity satisfied.  Perhaps, without knowing it, they use that moment to become a little more brave than they were before, and allow themselves to admit their ignorance about something else.

And from there, they allow themselves to learn just a little bit more.


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