Tuesday, 27 September 2016

The circle of ignorance and why stupid people think they know everything

“The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” So wise is the saying (or something like it) that at different times it’s been attributed to Aristotle, Socrates, David Byrne, Donald Trump, Albert Einstein. And me.
A psychologist once demonstrated to me the truth of the saying using a simple visual analogy: let’s call it the circle of ignorance. If everything you know is represented as a circle, then everything you don’t know lies outside the circle. The circle’s border is the limits of your knowledge, and defines your awareness of what you don’t know. By the laws of geometry, the more you know, the bigger the circle, the larger its circumference, the greater your awareness of what you don’t know.
Only stupid people (and reality TV billionaires) think they know everything.
But we can all get a bit a swept away with scientific advance and forget that answering any question usually results in several new questions.  I’ve recently been writing a piece for a national magazine examining exactly how close we are to conquering cancer. And the answer, despite the astounding progress we’ve made since 1970, is still “not very”.  
Just ten years ago, the scientific world was quivering in excitement at a new breed of targeted cancer drugs called monoclonal antibodies that would transform cancer into a condition you lived with rather than died of. And they were certainly a great step forward: today they are helping many people live longer. But no-one’s saying they’re game-changers any more. We’ve discovered that cancers become resistant to them and their effects are often short-lived.
So immunotherapy – treatments that get the body’s own immune system to fight cancer – has become the next big hope for cancer. Again the headlines raise the prospect of cancer being beaten. But the more immunotherapy treatments are tested, the more we understand the severity of their side effects, the more we understand that cancer evolves to evade these approaches too.  
Cause for us to put our heads in our hands and despair? Of course not. Advances in our knowledge of cancer and how to treat it mean we’re twice as likely to survive 10 years after a cancer diagnosis as we were 40 years ago. But let’s start accepting that we’re not always as clever as we think we are. And let’s stop expecting scientists to answer what might be impossible questions.