Confronting your ignorance

I like to think of myself as fairly learned.

I have GCSEs, A-Levels, a Degree, a post-graduate diploma. I spend a lot of time listening to podcasts about all manner of things – science, technology, society, design, culture – and I like to read.

But there is loads. Seriously loads that I don’t know.

The above statement is, of course, true of us all. But, there’s something about being a parent that throws this into stark relief.

Kids ask questions. You start explaining something to your kids, and you suddenly realise you do not have the answer.

‘Is this mist or fog?’ *blank look and panicked guess*

‘Why is it misty/foggy?’ *quick say something about moisture in the air and hope for no follow-up questions*

‘How do power stations make electricity?’

This is one that stuck with me. I have no idea how a power station creates electricity from coal. I know that this is something they do. I know that we rely on that power for all sorts of stuff. And I kind of assume that although I pay extra to use renewable energy, the energy I actually get in my home is from these nearby coal power stations we were discussing. I assume that, but I don’t know.

The two pages below are, roughly, the extent of my knowledge.

My ultra basic bluffer’s guide to electricity, Chris Oxlade’s ‘Using Electricity’

Now, I know I’m not an idiot. I assume I’m probably above average when it comes to ‘knowing stuff’ (although a recent edition of This American Life told me about the Dunning-Kruger effect, and I’m now not so sure).

But realising how little you know about how electricity is produced, and then realising that your child, of course, assumes you know the answers, and then, reflecting on how much you rely on someone – anyone – understanding that science (so you have lights, and WiFi [how the heck does WiFi work?!], and your fresh food doesn’t rot in a cupboard) doesn’t half make you starkly aware of your own ignorance.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to find out how electricity is made.


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