Ignorance is not stupidity

You’re ignorant. About lots of things. Yes, you are.

Feel offended? We’re all ignorant about lots and lots of things.

Last week I wrote a non-technical blog post The Golden Rule – maybe just optional now? about the growing lack of civility in the world at large. That elicited almost 40 responses (thanks!) so I’m going to intersperse more non-technical posts in with the technical ones – as I have a lot of views to express :-)

This one is about ignorance. In my opinion many people don’t understand ignorance and take offense if you say they are ignorant about such and such. In fact being ignorant just means that you don’t know something – it’s not derogatory or a statement of blame.

And it definitely does not mean that someone is stupid. However, time and again I see ignorance equated with stupidity. This is very common to see on internet forums where question posters can be heavily railed on by more experienced people for not knowing X or Y about SQL Server. And do you think that’s going to make them come back to ask more questions to learn about SQL Server? No.

[Edit: I’m not saying that people use the word ‘ignorant’ all the time, but the implication is there.]

An example: yesterday on a distribution list I’m on, someone asked what to tell a DBA who insists on rebooting SQL Server regularly. The first knee-jerk reply to the alias was unfortunately “You’re fired!”

Wrong answer.

So often I see knee-jerk responses to problems and questions – and they’re usually wrong – as in this case. Jumping to conclusions quickly can be damaging – something I used to do a long time ago when I first started my career and I was slowly trained out of it (thankfully).

The correct response to the original question would be to ask the DBA *why* the server is being rebooted and the rationale behind rebooting being the preferred fix for the problem. And then educate.

Here’s something you may not have thought about: every single person in the world starts out with absolutely zero knowledge about SQL Server.

When I joined the SQL Server team on February 1st 1999, I knew zip about SQL Server. Now I know lots about many aspects of it, and still zip about many other aspects of it. The same goes for Kimberly. And Kalen. And Itzik. And many others that the community considers an expert in SQL Server. Nobody knows everything about everything, and everyone starts from scratch at some point in their careers.

Today there is a growing proliferation of involuntary DBAs who have to deal with the big, complex beast we know of as SQL Server. You can’t expect people to know everything straight away. You can’t expect people to necessarily know what they *should* know, that comes with experience. And even experienced DBAs who’ve learned that SQL Server does X sometimes don’t know that the behavior changed and now it does Y instead. Sometimes people aren’t given time to learn by their employers, and non-work commitments stop them spending hours of their own time learning.

So next time you see someone asking a question that you think is so simple that they should know the answer, or that *everyone* knows you shouldn’t do X or Y, cut them some slack and educate them nicely. Empathize. Don’t belittle them. Don’t rail on them.

And don’t equate ignorance with stupidity.

36 thoughts on “Ignorance is not stupidity

  1. Fantastic post! Another thing to think of, is when many people do try and educate someone, remember there are MANY ways to do "x" in SQL Server, and most are valid, it depends on how your mind works logically. If you think your approach is better, educate and explain why you belive so in a civil tone. Do not get into pissing matches with other people who are trying to help becuae you believe you have "THE" answer.

    It always "Depends"

    If ignornace is bliss, then I must be ecstatic!

  2. Well, its never polite and good, shoot others when asking simple questions or very weird SQL practices, agree. But the meaning and the usage of some words varies among countries and cultures. In my country, calling someone ignorant is really offensive. Of course, I live in USA now and I do have a strong personality, besides I understand why or who an ignorant is, but depending of the context and audience that can generate a very weird and uncomfortable situation.

  3. Also, responses in the “Let me Google that for you” and “RTFM” area are pretty condescending and I’m pretty sure the recipients of such sentiments are not appreciative of this kind of advice. It’s depressing to see adults behave like that. However, things like, “Here’s an answer and I found it in my favorite place to look that stuff up which is <favorite SQL resource>” can be constructive and not-at-all insulting. Working with people, whether it be in the office or the SQL community, is a big part of this line of work and I look forward to more posts like this. Who am I kidding? I look forward to every post!

  4. I think the meaning of the word ignorant has morphed from its standard meaning, and now implies that one lacks knowledge and chooses not to try to acquire that knowledge, thus "ignoring" a subject. The difference is subtle but I think it explains the negative connotation of the word ignorant, the way it’s used today.

    So if I’m ignorant about rebooting a server, for example, it could be taken that I have my own uneducated opinion about what the best practice is, and also that I’m not interested in learning about actual best practices. Paints me in a bit of a crappy light.

  5. I appreciate Thomas’s emphasis on "daring to hold an opinion" and encouraging a battle of ideas. An unfortunate side-effect of a society that prizes political correctness is that we start cultivating a kind of moral relativism. All well and good in the realm of art or religion, but in some fields we do have simple right vs wrong scenarios.

    Funny thing is, Paul, it’s extremely hard to disagree with you, because you tend to deal in hard facts, and you’re pretty much always right ;-)

  6. I’m a big believer in the "Be Nice Philosophy." Otherwise you get a time out. At least that’s what I tell my 6 year old. If you haven’t learned how to be nice, then I don’t want to be around you, and most likely, other people won’t either.

    Great posts Paul.



  7. I strongly disagree with the "it always depends" stands. When people say: "It depends", my first question is: "On what, and how can we quantify it?". Knowledge is best discovered through a dialogue, but actionable knowledge cannot be obtained without participants taking a stand, stating a hypothesis and daring to hold an opinion. This is how science advances. Of course, the dark side is that you have to be willing to be wrong and to admit it when it happens :) I think we need to get better at acknowledging that while there are many ways to achieve a goal – not all of them are equal. Sometimes, there is only one RIGHT way. Sometimes there are many right ways, but several WRONG ways. Challenging the wrong ways makes this world a better place.

    Depending on who that DBA is, I might I agree with the "you’re fired" comment. If you happen to find yourself in an IT company and forced into a role you are not qualified to staff – you are excused. But if you have applied for the position of DBA – you need a proper scolding for taking an such an action in response to a problem. What would you say to a car mechanic that tried to fix your broken car by stopping and restarting your engine?

    Ignorance is no sin and circumstances might force you into situation you are ignorant about, but not being proactive and curious about your predicament is unforgiveable. If you get hired to be a DBA for a major company that runs SQL Server – you owe it to yourself and to the people you work with to learn something in advance about general troubleshooting techniques, BEFORE asking questions. Time is one of the most precious resources we have in this world, and education is not free. I think we would do well to waste less of everyone’s time by demanding more from our peers in the IT-world.

    Great post Paul, will probably spark a long and interesting discussion.

  8. @Thomas Interesting – I have a blog post about that – I think it always depends, but the onus is on the person explaing to explain the how and why. I don’t like hard and fast rules that say that such and such is *always* the answer. We’re basically saying the same thing though.

  9. @Ewald Indeed – battle of ideas is good. I abhor political correctness – many times it’s the enemy of common sense.

  10. I think that in these Days of "I can just Goggle it", taking time to learn any subject and then be able to @ some level understand it, is crucial for those aspects we have close proximity to or Responsibility of
    For example is it neccessary that if I’m say a SQL DBA, first to learn the fundamentals of that Job and the technology involved and then progress onto more advanced topics as I progress
    Same would go for a car mechanic, airline pilot, florist, gardener, police officer… you probably get my drift

    Do I need or even have the knowledge to fix my lawnmover when it breaks or do some plumbing, probably not, can I hire someone "Sure", I could also "Google the problem" to maybe get the answer from researching it, or firing off a quick forum Q, maybe even just to answer or even to validate my knowledge is correct and I’m not doing something just Stupid – I do this frequently with my team and I learn stuff constantly as a result

    Likely hood is that every hour of every day I’m going to be ignorant in one way or another, {especially in SQL} I’m hopefully not that stupid Or I’m I <don’t answer that we already know that is….. very likely>
    but I do know this , 100% of the time I’m ignorant on something, until I become <less> ignorant, when I learn something new about that subject or someone takes the TIME to teach me something I was ignorant about

  11. I’ve never been afraid to tell someone (even my boss) "I don’t know", but then I follow that up with "but I will find out." I’ve seen my fair share of the types of snarky responses you are talking about. Unfortunately, you have to learn to tune them out. (Years of reading Usenet groups back in the day helped me learn that trick!) Separating the wheat from the chaff is a vital skill when using the internet.

  12. But surely there are people asking what most reasonable among us would consider "lazy" or "wanting a free ride" questions. Some of those reasonable ones would simply ignore the question, not buying the "ignorance". Others would reply with RTFM’s. It’s a matter of judgment.

  13. I contend every single one of us is not just ignorant, but plain stupid in at least one aspect of life. Many more than one, in fact. Most people consciously (or instinctively) recognize it and avoid situations where that might show. Unfortunately, one cannot be perfect and at least one of those areas gets unrecognized and slips through. That’s where we make fools of ourselves.

    So the question is, are some of those people trying to do, in this case SQL Server, and asking the "ignorant" questions missing that fact about themselves? :)

  14. I make sure to assuage the staff at new performance review clients (where I inevitably find a slew of suboptimal/worst practices) that they shouldn’t feel bad. The things they did incorrectly or wrong or didn’t do that they should have were things they were not TAUGHT about – ever. I also make them aware that EVERY SINGLE CLIENT I go to makes essentially all the same mistakes! I have well over 30000 manhours of work and personal study invested in just the SQL Server relational engine. I can find and solve problems while I am asleep that most SQL Server users out there couldn’t even dream of. And yet, as Paul stated, SQL Server is now a beast and despite my very deep knowledge of the SQL Server relational engine there are many out there who know WAY more about it than I do.

    Oh, and I couldn’t SSAS my way out of a paper bag – that had both ends open!! :-)

  15. I’m happy you’ve blogged about this. One time I told an fellow employee who had made a mistake "Don’t worry about it, you were ignorant on the topic"…. You would have thought I just called his mohter a whore.

    Now when I use the term ignorant, I start out by asking the room if they know the difference between ignorant and stupid.
    I then follow that up with a quote from Ron White: "you can’t fix Stupid".

    :-) SQL Scott Gleason.

  16. This blog reminds me of a former renter of a room in my house about 15 years ago… he had (has?) zero technical knowledge. We were talking about something that was somewhat technical, and I ended up telling him "It’s okay Jeff, you’re just ignorant about this". His response: "I’M NOT IGNORANT! – I just don’t know what you’re talking about." Had to bite my tongue to not laugh… and to this day, whenever I hear the word "ignorant" being used, I almost always break out in a big smile in remembrance.

    So Paul… thanks for bringing a smile to my night!

  17. I’ve never been afraid to tell someone that "I’am fool". It is motivation to dig for information.

  18. i strongly agree with this statement.
    Sometimes people aren’t given time to learn by their employers, and non-work commitments stop them spending hours of their own time learning.

    Great non-technical post paul.

  19. Food for thought: Pleading ignorance of the law is not going to help you in a court of law. I always presume that people have a reason (good or bad) for doing things in a certain way so yes always ask, help and explain. If you’re not a DBA and you’re willing to learn that’s great but until you have learned the basics you’re simply not a DBA. I guess you would not want a pilot (even a very skilled one) to operate on your disk herniation, what you want is the best doctor you can afford. On the other hand too many companies don’t think they need a DBA. Its Microsoft the windows administrator can do it (who can blame the windows administrator if they don’t know).

  20. 2 things:

    1st. People learn from their mistakes…so one should make mistakes (make sure they don’t cost much), ask silly questions and do everything get more knowledge.

    2nd. Paul – you are an amazing writer, a story teller and above all "a great human being". There’s so much to learn from you in all life spheres….glad you are here

    – Varun

  21. Thought 1: After reading this post it would be stupid for us to react to ignorant and stupid people in the same manner.

    Thought 2: Ignorance becomes stupidity when one fails to admit their ignorance.

    Thought 3: An accumulation of knowledge does not overcome ignorance, but an application of wisdom averts stupidity.

  22. Nice post Paul. Totally agree about the zero starting point being a critical thing to remember.

  23. "But surely there are people asking what most reasonable among us would consider "lazy" or "wanting a free ride" questions."

    Totally agree with this statement.

    Another approach that’s sometimes useful is to suggest the person look for the answer, and if they don’t understand something, then come back with questions.

  24. As I’ve posted multiple times: Everyone is dumb as a stump in some aspect. The trick is to figure out what you’re ignorant about and fix it.

  25. Very well said. Technology is changing at a very fast pace in today’s world and no one can claim that they know everything about a particular technology area or product. They might have a lot of experience and be knowledgeable in that area but still that doesn’t mean that they know everything. The "great ones" are the ones who take time to share their knowledge! Even after spending a lot of time troubleshooting SQL related issues, I still learn something new almost everyday!

  26. Paul,
    Great Article !! Nice reading about something different from you. One thing I would like to point is: People (mostly who think they are experienced in a field) do cover up their ignorance a lot mostly because of their Job Position in the company and sometimes because of Ego. Identifying a mistake (because of ignorance) and learn to tackle it and more importantly not repeating it again is Wisdom, which when one lacks, becomes Stupid.


  27. I need to find a way to send this anonymously to one of my former bosses. I was scheduled for a closed door meeting with him because I stated my coworkers were ignorant of a policy. In retrospect, the only explanation was I hit some sort of nerve with him because people confuse ignorance with stupidity or willful ignorance.

    Thanks for writing this Paul. I do hope it gets read by a few people who need to read it.

    Regarding your self described Luddite tendencies, I think you’re far from alone in the matter amongst technophiles. I was always very conservative about changes to the windows start menu. It wasn’t until around 2008 that I would use the dual panel mode of the start menu in windows XP. I also find that the areas where I take a "it works great why change" approach, but something forces me to change, I actually make more informed decisions about what to change to.

    Out of curosity, why iPhone and not Android?

  28. Great post! More people need to understand this. I’m always amazed when I’m reading responses to questions and there are usually a few rude ones mixed among the helpful, instructive ones. I really can’t believe that the world has come to this point where courtesy and respect is thrown out the window because you are just typing words on a page. Would you talk like that to the person’s face?

    I would like to see people respect everyone, everywhere and realize that everyone starts at the bottom. It comes more natural to some and they pick up quickly and others take longer.

    I try to teach my children that there are no dumb questions. If you don’t ask, you may never learn or know the answer to the question. We should all be here to support one another and help others learn what we know – without judment.

  29. Thank you Paul for an excellent article. I hope your advice is well heeded. What you wrote about has been one of my pet peeves for years. In an environment as complex (and sometimes confusing) as software technology, patience is a requirement. Because someone is asking questions does not mean that they are stupid. In fact asking questions shows a level of integrity; because the questioner is admitting to herself/himself and the world, that she/he does not have all the answers. There are too many people posting articles in forums who are more interested in being called "smart" than they are in helping to educate others.

    One thing that makes the field of computing unique is that we have forums where people are willing to share knowledge without expecting anything in return, other than the satisfaction of helping a total stranger.

    Thank you.

  30. I studied SQL and Oracle for close to 2 years before landing my first dba gig in a SQL Sever environment. I do my best, but I feel so clueless sometimes it can be incredibly discouraging. But the belittling responses I have gotten at times to some questions just compounds the feeling enormously, I wish I could forward your article out to the whole department (or at the least a few select individuals). There were a few moments where I wanted to just go back to my old job where I felt like a rock star every day.

    I appreciate your message though and it helps me. I know as long as I work hard and stay hungry for growth and improvement it will get better. Everyone has gotta be the “FNG” at some point in their career, this is it for me. But if there were more people in the field with your mentality I could say without a doubt this early development would be much more enjoyable experience.

  31. I clearly acknowledge what the word igonorant means and i dont easily get offended because I do lack on some areas of knowledge and still got a whole lot to learn yet knowledge to me is a forever thing you learn something new everyday even if you have the highest degrees yet but when someone who is suppose to love you and tells you in a harsh way “You are the most lowest ignorant person I ever met” in an argument this is the man I’m supposed to married because I didn’t agree with his opinion…… Yes it hurts. So I agree with it all depends, how it comes out of the mouth

  32. Love this. Feel like sharing to my social media circles under the caption “what you can learn about life from a DBA”, hahaha :)

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