Now that I am a regular commuter on the train to Waterloo, I have the perfect opportunity to catch up on lost sleep, read a good book, and eavesdrop on other people’s conversations.

My first week at work has coincided with the first full week of the London 2012 Olympics, so no prizes for guessing what the majority of the population is talking about.

On my journey back this evening two men were talking about sport and the Olympics (of course) and how the internet at work was slowing down as everyone was streaming a different sport to their computers. After a little while, the conversation veered off onto a slight tangent. They had moved onto discussing sporting injuries, when one of the men said how he had injured his knee playing rugby, and that he had needed an operation to “fix him up”. He thought it was rather funny the effect that the general anaesthetic had on him, and following this he said “I don’t want to know how that anaesthetic works. And if I asked I probably wouldn’t like what I heard, let alone understand it. Ignorance is bliss.”

I can hear all you scientists and science communicators cry out in disbelief. How could a fully-grown (and what looked like a reasonably sensible) man purposely decide to be ignorant? Was it that he was afraid of how it worked? Or that he just wouldn’t ever be able to understand the complexity of the science behind an anaesthetic?

Ignorance can be related to age. There are some things young children just don’t understand because they haven’t had the chance to experience certain aspects of life that they need to grasp a concept. For example, I would be very surprised if a child understood the true meanings behind a book like George Orwell’s Animal Farm. To them it’s just a book about animals. But as you grow up and experience the world you begin to understand the subtle political and historical references hidden in the story.

But in the case of the man on the train, this definitely wasn’t age related. He had CHOSEN to be ignorant. He hadn’t even tried to find out what was going on.

I’m trying to understand why people want to be ignorant about science. Science is such integral part of our lives, without it the Drs and surgeons wouldn’t have been able to fix that man’s knee, let alone have those who invented smartphones or discovered electricity.

What does it boil down to? What are the reasons for this ignorance? Is it down to the science communicators? Are we not doing our jobs properly?

This is something I find VERY difficult to believe. There are many excellent science communicators who do their absolute best to make science accessible to those who are not familiar with it. Yet when I say that I am going on to study science communication, a lot of people give me a very blank stare. They don’t know what it means.

There are many different types of science communicator; the journalist, the presenter, the researcher who wants to tell the world about how amazing his field of science is, science teachers, science writers. All of these people are science communicators. Some are excellent at what they do, and some just need a bit more practice. But in the end, as long as you are enthusiastic about your science (or any science), it will come across and you will inspire others. Enthusiasm is infectious.

There are some areas of science where ignorance is common. For example, there are many religions that do not allow their followers to study evolution (read the “The Young Atheist’s Handbook” by Alom Shaha which gives some more examples). There are also people who do not believe in global warming.

I think a lot of the world’s ignorance is purely down to laziness. People just cannot be bothered to get up and go on an adventure, to discover and learn something new. It could also be down to the fact that some people just don’t want to hear it. They believe their world works in a specific way, and will not listen to or believe anything else. Sometimes though, I do think it is down to fear, the fear of not understanding and looking stupid.

I often catch myself saying “this may be a silly/stupid question, but….” which I know is silly/stupid. There is no such thing as a stupid question when it comes to science. By asking a question you are allowing your curiosity to find out something that interests you. And if you don’t understand the answer, that is not a problem either! There are many things on this planet, and far beyond that not even the cleverest of scientists understand.

Ignorance, when it comes to science, is most definitely not bliss. By deciding not to learn about something, we are actively shutting down and dismissing a part of our world. It also makes it difficult for people to distinguish between genuine science and bogus science (Homeopathy being a prime example).

So, man on the train, try to let go of some of that fear, and learn something new. You may surprise yourself at what you are capable of understanding. You never know until you try.

PS: For those of you who are interested in anaesthesia and how it works, check out this link.

Go to the orginal article here or listen below