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On managing ignorance

Much ink gets wasted on knowledge management these days. Bandolier is beginning to wonder whether we should be spending more time worrying about ignorance management. For a start, there's more ignorance around than knowledge, or perhaps the ignorance is spread more widely. All of us are ignorant about so very much, so we all start from exactly the same position.

We deal with our ignorance by forgetting about it, and trusting the lack of ignorance of others. Take salt. Good stuff, salt. Put a human cell into water without salt and it swells and bursts. But if there is too much salt, water is sucked out of the cell and it shrivels and dies. Cells tolerate salt only in a narrow range, and because salt is important we measure it, or at least our laboratories do. We don't know how, but the result comes back, we use it, and rarely if ever get a wrong result. Laboratories have overcome ignorance to be able to generate lots of salt results fast and right. They don't hold samples up to the light and guess.

And yet....

And yet in other areas some of us are happy to guess. Bandolier is astonished by newspapers and websites giving advice about "so-called" natural products. Grapefruit seed extract for all manner of problems has come up again.

And yet go to the literature and what do we find? Not only no studies of benefit of any sort, but several showing adulteration of grapefruit seed extract with synthetic chemicals, some used in household cleaners. If grapefruit seed extract has any good effect, it is probably because of adulteration, while givers of advice are ignorant about the harm these chemicals may cause.

Wake up and smell the drain cleaner. If a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, a lot of ignorance is much, much, worse. Chinese medicines filled with steroids or NSAIDs, Ayurvedic medicines loaded with arsenic and mercury; it is time someone got a grip on these issues.

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