Friday, January 07, 2011

I Don't Know

In the search for honesty, the three most powerful words are "I don't know."

We teach children that "I don't know" is a failure to answer a question, not an accurate answer. Students are graded down for saying they don't know, thereby teaching them that aditting ignorance is punishable behavior. When in popular fiction we try to portray a genius, we always (foolishly) portray someone who knows all the answers.

This is a source of great folly in the modern world.

Open-minded, scientific or philosophical inquiry is impossible for anyone ashamed to say the words "I don't know," yet even in science classes we punish students who say that.

As we learn in childhood education, so we practice in the modern adult world.

One of the worst problems that afflicts both our democracy and our economy is the combination of willful ignorance - people who have no idea what they're talking about and yet are unwilling to admit it. Both a market economy and a democracy depend upon people being able to act in their own best interests, but the majority of people act against their long-term interests - and frequently even against their short-term interests. Modern adults are surprisingly ignorant of what is healthy or empowering for them and instead act according to how ideas have been marketed to them, that is, they act in ignorance.

Sadly, although it is de facto considered acceptable to be ignorant, it is not considered acceptable to admit to being ignorant.

In almost all of the adult world, to tell someone they're ignorant about a subject is considered an insult - but it shouldn't be, any more than telling someone they have brown eyes is. People should know when they're ignorant, and they should deal with it tactically, as a condition to be taken into consideration when planning.

After all, the best thing every human being can do for themselves most of the time on most subjects to get closer to the truth is to forthrightly admit that we don't know the subject. That recognition gives us the chance to learn, because until we admit our ignorance we aren't likely to recognize that we need to learn.

Montaigne, the inventor of the essay, wore a medallion around his neck that read Que sais-je? (What do I know?) to remind himself and his friends that acknowledging ignorance is the beginning ot any honest inquiry.

If we all did likewise, perhaps we would be better, more honest people, and the world would be a better place.


Jonathan said...


It turns out that the human brain evolved to decide what to do, not to be aware of its own ignorance. Deciding what to do requires thinking you know what to do, so that's how we evolved: to think we know. We didn't evolve to scrutinize our own knowledge or even really to question it. Left to our own devices, we're pretty sure we know. Learning to say "I don't know" is a hallmark of liberal, modern cultural progress. And a milestone in human personal development.

Delmar said...

The general point is solid and I support it. However, my beef with this is the argument that it is not ok to express your ignorance in Science classes and probably the rest of educational fields. And that this tracks to adulthood. This not the case in University and from my personal experience in education before hand. In fact, we reward proper inquisitive nature (as long as it does not demonstrate a lack of reading/homework).

The problem lies more with socialization that education, in my opinion (and as a scientist and educator).