Here are some statements from a noted information scientist, which even he admits leads to “a pessimistic and even rather cynical conclusion“. Have a look and see if any of this is behavior that you have encountered yourself:
In many work environments, the penalties for not being diligent in the finding and use of information are minor, if they exist at all. In fact, such lack of diligence tends often to be rewarded. The man who does not fuss with information is seen at his bench, plainly at work, getting the job done. Approval goes to projects where things are happening. One must be courageous or imprudent, or both, to point out from the literature that a current laboratory project which has had an extensive history and full backing of the management was futile from the outset.
At a desk, an author of a technical report, by not making a prior literature search, and by omitting citations to earlier work, can prepare his reports so much faster, with the additional advantage that people will think the ideas presented were new and were his own. . .
The author was Calvin Mooers, and get ready: he made these remarks in 1959. He was talking to his fellow information and data retrieval specialists about the problem – which was already apparent – that not all of their users were actually taking advantage of the cornucopia of data that was being presented to them as the hypermodern 1960s approached. As Mooers noted, the default assumption among database providers was that people were starved for good information and would gratefully jump at the chance to remedy that situation. But this wasn’t necessarily true in practice.
It’s a rather different world than it was in 1959, and it would be hard to find an aspect that’s more different than access to information. I remember showing my kids a web comic a few years ago to try to explain to them was it was like Back In The Old Days (the 1970s, in this case). The title line was “Before The Internet”, and two characters were sitting on a front porch, with one of them saying “You know, I came across something really interesting the other day, and I want to learn more about it.” “Gee,” says the other, “That’s too bad”. But the effect Mooers is talking about is still with us, and has been with us for a lot longer than that. Ask Thomas Gray about when ’tis folly to be wise, although it’s true that in that poem he’s sounding even more like A. E. Housman than usual.
But I think that the modern access to information has led to another behavior that accomplishes similar psychological goals. That’s the one where people do just enough searching through the literature to confirm their own point of view, and stop right there. And our sources are now so wide and varied that indulging this tendency is easier than it’s ever been, unfortunately. This can be even more pernicious than the hands-over-the-ears technique noted by Mooers, because now you can’t challenge these people with a “Did-you-even-look” question. They did look! And found out that they’re right!
Modern variations notwithstanding, though, Mooers is certainly correct in diagnosing the “I’d Rather Not Know” phenomenon. I expect that many experienced researchers have seen just the behavior he describes, in what may well be painful memories of projects (or whole organizations) past. We’re looking at human nature here – not one of its more attractive or useful aspects, but part of the crooked timber of humanity all the same. If you want to be a better scientist – a better person, actually – you should try to remember this tendency and take steps to mitigate it. Think of the reasons that you might be wrong, or the details that might complicate what you’re doing. Now, as is always the case, there’s an opposite error to be made: don’t just sit there and think think only about all those complications; that’s a recipe for never doing anything. There are plenty of reasons for things to fail, but things do work on occasion. Concentrating exclusively on those failure modes is not a good plan – but neither is pretending that they don’t exist. Is it hard to strike that balance? Oh yeah. But we have to try.