Opinion is really the lowest form of human knowledge. It requires no accountability, no understanding. The highest form of knowledge is empathy, for it requires us to suspend our egos and live in another’s world. It requires profound purpose larger than the self kind of understanding.
– Bill Bullard
Opinion has always been my dirty word. I don’t like it. Instead, I like this quotation — even though I have no real context for it. I don’t know who Bill Bullard is, I don’t know why he said this. And I’m not here writing about empathy either.
In the past year, especially as the environment around me becomes more political and more willing to talk political, I’ve declined having an opinion on some particular topics and I explain myself with the simple: “I just don’t know enough to have an informed opinion”.
My current approach to life is mindfulness. To be mindful about all sorts of things, which has led me to this “I don’t know enough”, which I’ve been told is fine, and even good.
I work in a lab on campus here in the Ecology & Evolutionary Biology department, and for the first time in my life I’m starting to progress into actual, self-driven research. It’s been a semester and a half since I’ve started. And I have nothing to show for.
Just a swirling culmination of papers I’ve read, and a base understanding about this topic that I’ve been researching.
So, today I met with my mentor of sorts, a post doc, and we discussed a starting point for my compiling somewhat of a mini review, because I had no idea where to start.
And as I sat there, slowly beginning to understand how I was going to frame this paper, totally excited to start on it, she told me something that I’ve been thinking about since. That once I hit grad school, the biggest struggle is the feeling of “I don’t know enough”, and that this feeling doesn’t go away — you just get used to it.
To be comfortable being uncomfortable.
Her words sounded eerily similar to my justifications for not having an opinion, and she was squashing that idea. (Which sort of made me uncomfortable.)
But I already am comfortable with being uncomfortable, right? I thought I enjoyed writing about things that were uncomfortable — I’m here, writing this, because I’m enjoying thinking over these few statements that made me uncomfortable — was that not already one of my central artistic, thematic interests?
And I’ve been writing these sort of essays a bit in the spirit of E. B. White for a few months now, and contemplated the thought of ever sharing them. And I did not want to do it.
Would I slander the name of writers who write essays if I dare say I’m writing an essay? Who the hell am I to put my opinion on the internet, acting as if I know something. I don’t fucking know anything. I’ve evolved my own view of life so much that sometimes I wish I could slap my younger self for thinking such ignorant things — so to avoid my future self slapping my present self I can’t be as definitive as something published on the internet parading as an essay—
A few months later, I published my first essay just yesterday (I refer to them to my friends as “pretentious blogs”, because let’s be real) after some deliberation, so it seems oddly suiting to have had this discussion with my post doc mentor today.
I pushed that publish button yesterday with much gusto and reveled in the masochistic adrenaline thrill of this is totally making me uncomfortable I don’t want to slander the name of E. B. White even though I know no one will read this because LET’S BE REAL.*
So, back to today, I sat there, listening to her talk about poster presentations: how people will approach you and ask if you’ve read a specific paper, and how often times you will not have, and how it’s not an act of condescension, it’s just the exchange of thought. And how the addition of new knowledge will continually alter and affect your studies for as long as you continue to work in that field.
And that was strangely comforting.
That seems counter-intuitive to how the world works, especially in regards to certain online communities, where the lack of knowledge of a particular is criminalized and met with hostility. (Which is largely a reason that I’ve been vocal about knowing how I don’t know whenever anything political comes up.)
And yet, I will get nowhere in my field unless I can synthesize and process the information that I have researched, knowing that I will continue to evolve my understanding.
And that is incredibly comforting.
A hypothesis is not an opinion.
This freedom, which I understood as the basic foundation of how science is conducted, is actually the same exact freedom that made me fall in love with art.
Before Darwin and those that influenced him, theories that attempted to explain the phenomenons of evolution and species diversity, were not correct. They even seem sort of silly today because of all the science done between then and now.
But there is something intensely admirable about daring to put together observations and facts into a greater understanding, knowing that you may be entirely, outlandishly wrong.
And yet you do, fueled not by ignorance or egotism or naivety, but by sheer curiosity and fascination for this bizarre and equally, if not more, outlandish world.
* I originally published this on Medium a day after I’d published another short essay, but now I feel that it’s no longer worth bothering with, so I haven’t and won’t be uploaded it.