I remember very clearly as a child asking my father a question and receiving an unexpected reply, “no one knows.”

How did he know? And was this true?

I could appreciate that my father might not know – but there are billions of people in the world. Could it be that no one knew!

Or perhaps he meant – people are working on it, and no one knows yet! There is so much more to discover. More research is needed.

I rejoiced in this for a long time and then, only years later, I woke up to something. Perhaps my father meant no one knows and no one will ever know, no matter how much they study the problem. Some things, many things, are unknowable.

It took me a long time to accept the wisdom of appreciating that many things are unknowable.

Throughout my formal education in science I have been trained, and even inspired, by stories of progress.

I have been set exams and essay questions that had answers. I have been taught to design experiments specifically so that they would generate answers. I rejoiced in the gradual scientific progress, where each year precision increased and our ability to explore hitherto unknown realms expanded.

I had dwelt in the world of “all things knowable.” I had thrived on optimism and come to believe that “everything seems impossible until it’s done” and that one day every question could be answered.

How many other people are like me and took a long time to recognise, or still do not accept, that some things are unknowable? The answer to that question is clearly unknowable – but in a sort of trivial way – it’s not worth finding out!

More interesting categories of unknowable things relate to policies, human diversity, and dynamic knock-on effects. One can think of several different reasons why the solution to a problem may be stubbornly unknowable.

Firstly, it may just be too complicated. In maths and chemistry things can sometimes be reduced to integers and atoms, and good predictions can be made. Biological systems are less digital, human societies are unpredictable. There are too many parameters, none of which is known with much accuracy. As Medawar said “science is the art of the soluble” but I guess the stock market will always be impossible to predict and those who work in the policy space know how complicated things can be.

Sometimes answers are unknowable not because of the complexity of the problem, but the complexity and diversity of those asking for a solution. Imagine you are tasked with building a by-pass round a country town. Everyone wants the by-pass. You can either go left or right, and drive a noisy highway through one of the two farming communities on different sides of town. Half will celebrate and half will decry your choice, whatever it is. This is the “you can’t please all of the people, all of the time” situation and it arises because people are different, have different circumstances, histories, preferences etc. Even if you add up the people, you can’t factor in how great the individual hurt could be. The optimal answer is unknowable.

A third reason relates to the dynamism of situations, but specifically to the way a problem can respond to initial attempts to solve it. You see COVID spreading in other countries, you close the borders and restrict movement to stop the pandemic. You save lives and protect the economy. But critics point out that there were downsides and suggest your initial responses were extreme. There is no way of knowing what would have happened had you acted differently since you cannot re-run the experiment and there are no precise control experiments. Australia’s COVID response was good but whether or not it was optimal is unknowable.

For these and other reasons our world is, and will always be, up to its neck in unsolvable problems. The failures are often attributed to the ignorance and stupidity of humankind and our inability to learn history’s lessons, but I don’t think that’s fair.

I do think though that it is very important to recognis e the inevitability of uncertainty and move away from trusting those who confidently claim to have all the answers – the knowers and promisers.

Populists proclaiming they have a quick solution are so often more attractive than those who point out the limits of knowledge. This yearning for convenient lies may be one of the many reasons there are few philosophers in power. Instead, it is the false messiahs who carry the day repeatedly, though their charm is often short-lived.

The internet, although it is not entirely to blame, because of the absence of curation of knowledge, and the way it provides voices to those intent on misleading, has made the problem of populism more acute in recent years. But hopefully this too will pass. Because another force is at work – the force of education. The continuing growth in honing critical thinking skills by deep study across the globe.

It is also important to remember the benefits of a broad education. I studied science but other perspectives are critical. We need institutions that value a range of different disciplines. The practical disciplines but also those involved in fundamental philosophical questioning that remind us of the complexity of the world and expose those promising false solutions.

The more people who are inoculated against false advertising the better.

Professor Merlin Crossley

Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic and Student Life



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