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I don't know.

I'm rapidly reaching the conclusion that my three favourite words are, "I don't know."

I was the primary caregiver for my nephew between the ages of approximately one to four and, as anyone with kids knows, they ask a lot of questions. They're learning. But they aren't just learning things-- they're learning how to think. And one thing I noticed a lot of caregivers doing was responding to questions with dismissals or outright misinformation. (That's not a judgement-- I've been there and I know that there are times you just don't have the energy. If there's one thing I learned it's that there are a million ways to be a good parent and absolutely no way to be a perfect one.)

But my big thing was to say, "I don't know... but I know how we can find out." Because I wanted him to know that information was something you could acquire. That there was nothing wrong with not having it as long as you were prepared to get it. I wanted him to know there was no shame in not knowing, and empower him to find answers.

I don't know if it's human nature or our society, or both, but it seems like saying, "I don't know" is a bad thing to people. It's insecurity and defensiveness and ego, I realize, but that comes into it because of the judgement we've attached to not knowing. As a teenager, I certainly pretended to know a lot that I didn't, and in retrospect I was a total dumbass-- not because of what I didn't know but because of what I said I did-- and what I subsequently went on to defend.

Here is a true story: when I was 14 a friend of mine was talking about apartheid in Africa. I didn't know what apartheid was. (This is way, way back in the early 80s, before the internet, so please be gentle.) My friend was experiencing the rush of developing a social conscience and could be a little preachy, so I was a bit sick of the topics he kept bringing up. (Yeah, I know-- irony, karma, etc.) Anyway, I was just feeling contrary and when we brought up apartheid in a way that suggested I couldn't possibly disagree with him (and he was right about that, no question) I just defaulted to the opposite position.

I know in retrospect this is fairly normal human behaviour. But it meant that I spent a portion of my life, however small, arguing in favour of apartheid. Obviously everything I said had to have been total bullshit because I had no idea what I was talking about; I can't even remember now. But I see this happening all the time-- I have to constantly check in with myself and ask, "why do you want to argue about this? Is it something you actually believe or are you just being contrary?" I have to ask myself, "Do you actually know what you're talking about or are you just finding flaws in the original argument?" (Which is not at all the same thing.) And so on-- a whole checklist of cognitive fallacies and verification of information and emotional reasoning I try to go through when I find myself tempted to argue.

And more and more I realize: I don't know. Could I make an argument about A or against B? Yes. But I don't actually know. Being able to construct an argument is not the same as having information. If you can construct an argument without information then you're likely fooling yourself about the information you think you have-- and that's a cognitive fallacy that I run into All. The. Time.

People think they know. There is nothing more frustrating or difficult. Now especially, with an election approaching, it's painfully apparent that the mechanisms of belief and opinion are self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing. To learn anything you have to have an open mind; one of my favourite quotes in the whole world is attributed to Aristotle: "It is the sign of an educated mind that one can entertain an idea without accepting it."

But we need to give ourselves permission to not know, because if we already know there is no room for anything more or different. It's almost as if people would rather be wrong but sure than unsure with the potential to be right.

I love people who say, "I don't know." And I love it when I can say that, and then go to Wikipedia, and four hours later realize I started reading about biochemical signatures and ended up reading about 12th century farming. Because ohmygod is there ever so much I don't know. There are a few things I do know and that's what people will see me actually talking about. But the best conversations, the best discussions, the best discoveries-- the best of people-- often starts with, "I don't know."

It's such a shame we find it so difficult and that our society seems to encourage the exact opposite.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Sep. 20th, 2015 10:27 pm (UTC)
I used to be afraid to say "I don't know". I felt like i was stupid for not knowing the thing. But now, I am mot scared of it. I think it comes with age.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )