Monday Morning Insight: the Obstacle to Discovery

(We missed posting last Monday due to travels, but here’s another in the continuing series of quotes to start the week.)


This week’s quote interests me more in its paraphrased form than its original form — which is unusual, because I think most originals are better by far than any adaptation — but the message in it is what’s important.

Famed historian Daniel Boorstin wrote, in his marvelous book The Discoverers:

The great obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents, and the ocean was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.

Removing the geographic references and increasing the magnitude a bit produces a shorter, much more general version:

The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.

I appreciate that, because I see it in action all the time. What blocks me from learning more about a subject, what interferes with my discovering some new truth about a person or an event or a situation, is my own misguided belief that I already know what I need to know about it — and my surety that what I think I know is true. But often that’s an illusion, and a self-made one.

Hubble View of a Nitrogen-Rich Nebula

So much to know in this wide, wondrous universe;┬áso little time to learn everything we might. (Image: “Hubble View of a Nitrogen-Rich Nebula” by NASA; public domain, from Flickr.)


Maybe you can relate to that idea. Maybe you’ve had the eye-opening experience of realizing that what you thought you knew wasn’t quite accurate. I think it happens to each of us at one time or another; the question is whether we regularly recognize that, as Dr. W. Edwards Deming once said, “We know a lot that isn’t so.”*

Can you think of any illusions of knowledge that you hold on to? Despite them, this week I hope you discover something new!

*Attributed to Dr. Deming by one of his proteges, Bill Scherkenbach.

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3 Responses to Monday Morning Insight: the Obstacle to Discovery

  1. Gray, Go all the way for a truly great quote. I’ve found ignorance whether recognized or not to be a great driver of discovery. The “not X but” part of the quote adds little…substitute any of a multitude of concrete or abstract nouns it makes little difference. So rid the quote of the muddle in the middle for…”The greatest obstacle to discovery is the illusion of knowledge.” Now there a quote to stand the test of time.

  2. J. Michael Antoniewicz II says:

    Clarke’s First Law, second half.