Innovation and Optimal Ignorance

 “Optimal ignorance” is the idea that “experts” can be so constrained by their own knowledge that it hinders their ability to innovate. That in fact, a somewhat incomplete knowledge of the discipline may enhance rather than inhibit creativity. If optimal ignorance is a valid concept, it has far-reaching implications for the specific types of resources that are likely to be most effective in solving complex problems.

The Innovator Charles Kettering     

Charles Franklin Kettering (1876-1958) was born in the year the telephone was invented and died at the peak of America’s industrial supremacy. He ranks second only to Thomas Edison in the number of patents to his credit (200). Among his inventions are the electric cash register, the individual ringing function for party line telephone service, and the electric starter for the automobile engine.

Kettering began his career with National Cash Register, cofounded Delco Corporation and served as the research chief at General Motors (GM) for over twenty-five years. While at GM, he brought life to a struggling division known as Frigidaire by encouraging the development of Freon gas. A strong supporter of medical research, in 1945 he cofounded the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute. The quintessential American success story, his life was one of genius, innovation, and vision, of turning handicap into advantage.  

Kettering recognized that experts could be so constrained by their own knowledge that they were less likely to find solutions to complex problems. As a result, he regularly assigned such problems to “nonspecialists.” In 1940, at the Sesquicentennial of U.S. Patent Law, Kettering observed that nonspecialists were responsible for some of the greatest inventions in history.

It is very difficult to tell just who is going to originate a new thing. A Schoolteacher, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. Goodyear was a store clerk. Fulton and Morse were artists. The Wright brothers ran a bicycle shop and George Eastman was a bookkeeper. The developments that made these men famous had practically no relationship to their occupations. But, of first importance each of them had an idea. And, with these men, the perfection of the idea became the controlling influence.

In the early 1920s, one of the most serious problems facing the automotive industry was fuel knock, which robbed engines of power and severely limited automobile performance. It was not known whether the knock was a problem with the engine or the fuel. And while fuel was not the primary business of GM, it had a vested interest in finding a solution to the problem, since it adversely affected the demand for automobiles.

Kettering was already the head of a large research team at GM when the fuel knock problem surfaced. He assigned the problem to Thomas Midgely, a mechanical engineer. Neither Midgely nor Kettering were experts in fuel chemistry, but this may have been providential. Thomas Midgely possessed something much more valuable than formal training in fuel chemistry; he possessed the ability to fail intelligently -- that is, in a manner that brought him one step closer to finding the solution. Midgely’s research team performed a multitude of experiments and discovered that the knock was caused by pre-ignition of the fuel. Various formulations of the fuel chemistry, first with kerosene and then iodine, ultimately led to the discovery of tetraethyl lead. This ingredient precipitated the development of high-octane gasoline which led to the introduction of high-compression engines with significantly improved performance.

Perhaps due to his own educational difficulties, or his significant accomplishments in spite of these difficulties, Kettering developed an inherent distrust for so-called experts and highly educated individuals. [Poor eyesight caused Kettering to drop out of the engineering curriculum at Ohio University. He finally completed his degree at the age of twenty-seven, but only after enlisting his college roommates to read the textbooks to him.] He believed that experts could be so caught up in what they already knew that they frequently encountered difficulties in learning anything else. As a result, they may be less likely to find an innovative solution to a difficult problem. As Kettering liked to point out, “The Wright brothers flew right through that smoke screen of impossibility” (T.A, Boyd, Prophet of Progress – Selections from the Speeches of Charles F. Kettering, New York: E. P. Dutton and Co. Inc., 1961, p. 239). Kettering understood the importance of “thinking outside the box” long before it became part of the modern-day vernacular.

It is noteworthy that Google and other high-tech companies no longer require job candidates to hold four-year degrees. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs would no doubt approve. Neither completed their college degrees, but nonetheless went on to become the top industrialists of their generation. The innovations in information technology that they pioneered are responsible for dramatically increasing productivity around the globe. Companies are recognizing the tradeoffs between the trained mind and the gifted, untrained mind in solving complex problems. They are beginning to see the value of optimal ignorance.

Charles Kettering would have high praise for the ingenuity of Dr. Allan Goldman, an ICU pediatric chief, and Dr. Martin Elliot, a surgeon, on staff at the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children. The physicians, both racing enthusiasts, were deeply troubled over the number of “errors” at their hospital that was having a deleterious effect on patient care. One day, while watching a Formula One race, they noted similarities between patient handoffs in the hospital and the interaction of tasks during a racing pit stop. They subsequently contacted Ferrari’s Formula One pit crew to solicit their counsel on improving the efficacy of handoffs between medical units.

The Ferrari crew is renowned for avoiding communication errors and perfecting the transfer of responsibilities between team members. After the hospital implemented the changes recommended by Ferrari, the average number of technical errors per handover dropped by 42% and “information handover omissions” fell by 49%. This is a prime example of “Kettering Think” at work. Identify the root cause of the problem, explore an interdisciplinary approach to solving the problem, and then implement the solution expeditiously.

Optimal Ignorance in the Academy 

It is noteworthy that two of the twentieth century’s greatest mathematicians, John Nash and Srinivasa Ramanujan, were rebuked by their colleagues for a less-than-complete familiarity with classic works in their discipline. For Ramanujan this “ignorance” was a matter of circumstance; for Nash it was by design. Sylvia Nassar (A Beautiful Mind, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994, p. 112) describes the traits foundational to Nash’s creativity.  

No one was more obsessed with originality, more disdainful of authority, or more jealous of his independence.  As a young man he was surrounded by the high priests of twentieth-century science—Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, and Norbert Wiener—but he joined no school, became no one’s disciple, got along largely without guides or followers. In almost everything he did—from game theory to geometry—he thumbed his nose at the received wisdom, current fashions, established methods…  Nash acquired his knowledge of mathematics not mainly from studying what other mathematicians had discovered, but by rediscovering their truths for himself... When he focused on some new puzzle, he saw dimensions that people who really knew the subject (he never did) initially dismissed as naive or wrong-headed. 

Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920) was born into abject poverty in India and developed his mathematical skills in almost complete isolation. When the English number theorist G.H. Hardy received a letter from Ramanujan containing a plethora of pathbreaking results, he sponsored his travels to Cambridge where the self-taught mathematician’s true genius was revealed and he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. While his talents were discovered relatively late and he died at the age of only 32, the value of Ramanujan’s scientific contributions is incalculable; his theorems are being used today in the study of black holes.  

It is common to observe individuals engaged in deep thought close their eyes and cover their ears. This occurs because extraneous visual and auditory information can be a distraction to the thinking process. In a similar fashion, the existing literature was a distraction for Nash and Ramanujan. The paradox is that other mathematicians who knew far more, saw far less. Such is the confounding nature of optimal ignorance.      

The observation that “life is a blank slate on which experience writes” is attributed to the philosopher John Locke. The interesting question is whether this “experience” provides a basis for solving the problem of interest, or merely clouds the “slate” making it more difficult to see the solution? The notion of optimal ignorance derives from the basic idea that some knowledge is productive, but too much may be unproductive or worse. The conjecture is that there may not only be decreasing returns to knowledge of the discipline after a certain point, but quite possibly negative returns. As the economist John Maynard Keynes (The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1935, p. viii) observed, “The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones…” The more entrenched the knowledge the more difficult the escape. This suggests that “it is hard to teach an old dog new tricks” because there is too much written on his slate.

Was the creativity that so distinguished Nash and Ramanujan the product of optimal ignorance in which an incomplete knowledge of the discipline proved beneficial? This idea is related to Kettering’s belief that “experts” could be held hostage by their own knowledge in a manner that made it difficult for them to think in dimensions different from those in which they were trained. It is also conceivable that select ignorance of works in the field mitigates the problem of path-dependency that can foreclose promising avenues of inquiry.  

A final case in point is that of Milton Babbitt, a renowned musical composer whose pathbreaking dissertation at Princeton in the 1940s used advanced mathematics (Fourier Analysis) to analyze the 12-tone system. His dissertation was rejected, in large part, because no one on Princeton’s music faculty could understand it -- the all-knowing were not the all-seeing. His innovation lay in combining two disparate fields of study that had never been integrated before. Almost a half-century would pass before this injustice was corrected when Babbitt’s dissertation was resurrected from Princeton’s Archives and he was finally awarded the Ph.D. (Princeton University Press Release, “Famed U.S. Composer Finally Awarded Doctorate: Dissertation Was 46 Years Ahead of Its Time,” January 30, 1992.)                       

Conclusions

In a certain sense, the concept of optimal ignorance is illogical. And yet, there are simply too many examples throughout history of pioneering breakthroughs by nonspecialists to dismiss it out of hand. None of this would have surprised Charles Kettering, who leveraged optimal ignorance and intelligent failure to devise innovative solutions to complex problems. Similar phenomena are witnessed across diverse fields of scientific inquiry. These observations engender the final proposition that “ignorance” may not be bliss, but neither is it unequivocally counterproductive.

Dennis L. Weisman is a Professor of Economics Emeritus at Kansas State University. I thank Melanie Weisman for helpful discussions.

 “Optimal ignorance” is the idea that “experts” can be so constrained by their own knowledge that it hinders their ability to innovate. That in fact, a somewhat incomplete knowledge of the discipline may enhance rather than inhibit creativity. If optimal ignorance is a valid concept, it has far-reaching implications for the specific types of resources that are likely to be most effective in solving complex problems.

The Innovator Charles Kettering     

Charles Franklin Kettering (1876-1958) was born in the year the telephone was invented and died at the peak of America’s industrial supremacy. He ranks second only to Thomas Edison in the number of patents to his credit (200). Among his inventions are the electric cash register, the individual ringing function for party line telephone service, and the electric starter for the automobile engine.

Kettering began his career with National Cash Register, cofounded Delco Corporation and served as the research chief at General Motors (GM) for over twenty-five years. While at GM, he brought life to a struggling division known as Frigidaire by encouraging the development of Freon gas. A strong supporter of medical research, in 1945 he cofounded the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Institute. The quintessential American success story, his life was one of genius, innovation, and vision, of turning handicap into advantage.  

Kettering recognized that experts could be so constrained by their own knowledge that they were less likely to find solutions to complex problems. As a result, he regularly assigned such problems to “nonspecialists.” In 1940, at the Sesquicentennial of U.S. Patent Law, Kettering observed that nonspecialists were responsible for some of the greatest inventions in history.

It is very difficult to tell just who is going to originate a new thing. A Schoolteacher, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin. Goodyear was a store clerk. Fulton and Morse were artists. The Wright brothers ran a bicycle shop and George Eastman was a bookkeeper. The developments that made these men famous had practically no relationship to their occupations. But, of first importance each of them had an idea. And, with these men, the perfection of the idea became the controlling influence.

In the early 1920s, one of the most serious problems facing the automotive industry was fuel knock, which robbed engines of power and severely limited automobile performance. It was not known whether the knock was a problem with the engine or the fuel. And while fuel was not the primary business of GM, it had a vested interest in finding a solution to the problem, since it adversely affected the demand for automobiles.

Kettering was already the head of a large research team at GM when the fuel knock problem surfaced. He assigned the problem to Thomas Midgely, a mechanical engineer. Neither Midgely nor Kettering were experts in fuel chemistry, but this may have been providential. Thomas Midgely possessed something much more valuable than formal training in fuel chemistry; he possessed the ability to fail intelligently -- that is, in a manner that brought him one step closer to finding the solution. Midgely’s research team performed a multitude of experiments and discovered that the knock was caused by pre-ignition of the fuel. Various formulations of the fuel chemistry, first with kerosene and then iodine, ultimately led to the discovery of tetraethyl lead. This ingredient precipitated the development of high-octane gasoline which led to the introduction of high-compression engines with significantly improved performance.

Perhaps due to his own educational difficulties, or his significant accomplishments in spite of these difficulties, Kettering developed an inherent distrust for so-called experts and highly educated individuals. [Poor eyesight caused Kettering to drop out of the engineering curriculum at Ohio University. He finally completed his degree at the age of twenty-seven, but only after enlisting his college roommates to read the textbooks to him.] He believed that experts could be so caught up in what they already knew that they frequently encountered difficulties in learning anything else. As a result, they may be less likely to find an innovative solution to a difficult problem. As Kettering liked to point out, “The Wright brothers flew right through that smoke screen of impossibility” (T.A, Boyd, Prophet of Progress – Selections from the Speeches of Charles F. Kettering, New York: E. P. Dutton and Co. Inc., 1961, p. 239). Kettering understood the importance of “thinking outside the box” long before it became part of the modern-day vernacular.

It is noteworthy that Google and other high-tech companies no longer require job candidates to hold four-year degrees. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs would no doubt approve. Neither completed their college degrees, but nonetheless went on to become the top industrialists of their generation. The innovations in information technology that they pioneered are responsible for dramatically increasing productivity around the globe. Companies are recognizing the tradeoffs between the trained mind and the gifted, untrained mind in solving complex problems. They are beginning to see the value of optimal ignorance.

Charles Kettering would have high praise for the ingenuity of Dr. Allan Goldman, an ICU pediatric chief, and Dr. Martin Elliot, a surgeon, on staff at the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children. The physicians, both racing enthusiasts, were deeply troubled over the number of “errors” at their hospital that was having a deleterious effect on patient care. One day, while watching a Formula One race, they noted similarities between patient handoffs in the hospital and the interaction of tasks during a racing pit stop. They subsequently contacted Ferrari’s Formula One pit crew to solicit their counsel on improving the efficacy of handoffs between medical units.

The Ferrari crew is renowned for avoiding communication errors and perfecting the transfer of responsibilities between team members. After the hospital implemented the changes recommended by Ferrari, the average number of technical errors per handover dropped by 42% and “information handover omissions” fell by 49%. This is a prime example of “Kettering Think” at work. Identify the root cause of the problem, explore an interdisciplinary approach to solving the problem, and then implement the solution expeditiously.

Optimal Ignorance in the Academy 

It is noteworthy that two of the twentieth century’s greatest mathematicians, John Nash and Srinivasa Ramanujan, were rebuked by their colleagues for a less-than-complete familiarity with classic works in their discipline. For Ramanujan this “ignorance” was a matter of circumstance; for Nash it was by design. Sylvia Nassar (A Beautiful Mind, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994, p. 112) describes the traits foundational to Nash’s creativity.  

No one was more obsessed with originality, more disdainful of authority, or more jealous of his independence.  As a young man he was surrounded by the high priests of twentieth-century science—Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, and Norbert Wiener—but he joined no school, became no one’s disciple, got along largely without guides or followers. In almost everything he did—from game theory to geometry—he thumbed his nose at the received wisdom, current fashions, established methods…  Nash acquired his knowledge of mathematics not mainly from studying what other mathematicians had discovered, but by rediscovering their truths for himself... When he focused on some new puzzle, he saw dimensions that people who really knew the subject (he never did) initially dismissed as naive or wrong-headed. 

Srinivasa Ramanujan (1887-1920) was born into abject poverty in India and developed his mathematical skills in almost complete isolation. When the English number theorist G.H. Hardy received a letter from Ramanujan containing a plethora of pathbreaking results, he sponsored his travels to Cambridge where the self-taught mathematician’s true genius was revealed and he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. While his talents were discovered relatively late and he died at the age of only 32, the value of Ramanujan’s scientific contributions is incalculable; his theorems are being used today in the study of black holes.  

It is common to observe individuals engaged in deep thought close their eyes and cover their ears. This occurs because extraneous visual and auditory information can be a distraction to the thinking process. In a similar fashion, the existing literature was a distraction for Nash and Ramanujan. The paradox is that other mathematicians who knew far more, saw far less. Such is the confounding nature of optimal ignorance.      

The observation that “life is a blank slate on which experience writes” is attributed to the philosopher John Locke. The interesting question is whether this “experience” provides a basis for solving the problem of interest, or merely clouds the “slate” making it more difficult to see the solution? The notion of optimal ignorance derives from the basic idea that some knowledge is productive, but too much may be unproductive or worse. The conjecture is that there may not only be decreasing returns to knowledge of the discipline after a certain point, but quite possibly negative returns. As the economist John Maynard Keynes (The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1935, p. viii) observed, “The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones…” The more entrenched the knowledge the more difficult the escape. This suggests that “it is hard to teach an old dog new tricks” because there is too much written on his slate.

Was the creativity that so distinguished Nash and Ramanujan the product of optimal ignorance in which an incomplete knowledge of the discipline proved beneficial? This idea is related to Kettering’s belief that “experts” could be held hostage by their own knowledge in a manner that made it difficult for them to think in dimensions different from those in which they were trained. It is also conceivable that select ignorance of works in the field mitigates the problem of path-dependency that can foreclose promising avenues of inquiry.  

A final case in point is that of Milton Babbitt, a renowned musical composer whose pathbreaking dissertation at Princeton in the 1940s used advanced mathematics (Fourier Analysis) to analyze the 12-tone system. His dissertation was rejected, in large part, because no one on Princeton’s music faculty could understand it -- the all-knowing were not the all-seeing. His innovation lay in combining two disparate fields of study that had never been integrated before. Almost a half-century would pass before this injustice was corrected when Babbitt’s dissertation was resurrected from Princeton’s Archives and he was finally awarded the Ph.D. (Princeton University Press Release, “Famed U.S. Composer Finally Awarded Doctorate: Dissertation Was 46 Years Ahead of Its Time,” January 30, 1992.)                       

Conclusions

In a certain sense, the concept of optimal ignorance is illogical. And yet, there are simply too many examples throughout history of pioneering breakthroughs by nonspecialists to dismiss it out of hand. None of this would have surprised Charles Kettering, who leveraged optimal ignorance and intelligent failure to devise innovative solutions to complex problems. Similar phenomena are witnessed across diverse fields of scientific inquiry. These observations engender the final proposition that “ignorance” may not be bliss, but neither is it unequivocally counterproductive.

Dennis L. Weisman is a Professor of Economics Emeritus at Kansas State University. I thank Melanie Weisman for helpful discussions.