Lately I’ve been thinking about how wrong people are. I’m only partly joking about that because what I really mean is that I have been thinking about how wrong I can be at times. Last year I recall my wife was listening to an audiobook in the car and I happened to spend five or ten minutes riding with her—just long enough to hear the narrator read a paragraph that included the phrase, “I don’t know.” What blew me away was the author’s assertion that it has become almost a crime in our society to say, “I don’t know” when asked a question. We demean or dismiss the individual who cannot definitively answer a question, but expresses doubt or uncertainty. Hearing just that snippet from this audiobook has given rise to hours of thought and self-examination.
The fact is, I don’t know much about a lot of things. And, as I’ve mentioned, my latest goal of “being less wrong” makes me aware of not wanting to guess at, or (as my wife would say) “bloviate about” various topics. This leaves me saying, “I don’t know” more often than before, and, I’ll admit, it can feel awkward. But uncertainty is something appreciated by those of us who work in evolving fields of scientific knowledge. As I’ve often tried to explain to students, my own field of psychology sits on shifting sands—as do so many other areas of study—because there is much to be known, but we do not know it all just now. The facts we have today may, if study continues, be overturned by new information gained in the future. The ancients believed that the Earth was flat, I suppose some still do, but today, most of us are quite sure that it is round. It was thought that the Sun revolved around the Earth, but that idea sank into obscurity when a more accurate theory of the solar system was developed, and now this new view can be directly observed through satellite images and telescopes. In view of this evolution of information, it is difficult to claim absolute certainty about the concepts and processes I teach or write about because new discoveries can and will come along to replace what I teach today, and that is what’s awkward about it.
Our culture loves absolute certainty. That firm-jawed decisiveness of the old-time Western movie hero comes to mind, and we tend to like that, especially in our leaders and authority figures. We decry and dismiss the “flip-flopper” politician who votes one way on an issue and then votes in the opposing way later. We don’t consider that she learned new information, was persuaded by facts not previously in evidence—no. We expect consistency and confidence, and (need I mention?) we expect it to conform to our own personally held beliefs, too! I have been thinking about this as I watch political opinion programs and am concerned with the willingness of our leaders to “defend to the death” one policy or party, rather than say, “I don’t know.” Or better yet, to say, “tell me what you are thinking…” or even more astoundingly, to say, “I could be wrong about this.”
Saying, “I don’t know” is not the same as saying, “Who knows?” in a cavalier dismissive way that suggests NOBODY knows. Admitting one’s ignorance is the beginning of considering, examining or researching, of listening more intently to a view or idea that is entirely outside one’s own perspective, and maybe finding out new information. Our culture has made us feel awkward about not knowing, or not having a firm opinion. But it is possible, with effort, to take that position.
I’m trying to be less wrong these days, and that means I say, “I don’t know” more often. It gives me an opportunity to follow up with interest: in the question, and the questioner. Maybe there is another level of inquiry to be explored or known, and maybe my aim should be a greater understanding of the question rather than a quick assertion of my own potential answer.
Thinking about that old-time Western movie hero, I am fully (and laughingly) aware his persona is nothing like mine. But if I’m remembering correctly, a character from films like “High Noon” —that man who appeared so self-directed and decisive—was said to be the “strong, silent type” too. In other words, those iconic characters said little compared to others, but when they did speak, it was because they had something of value to say. By recognizing that I don’t always know, and admitting it, I hope to be more persuasive and influential when I speak from authority on those things about which I am relatively sure, and by inference, have something of value to say.