Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Value of Saying "I do not know"

First Reading: On The Virtue of Admitting Ignorance
Young people, and especially young people of high ambition and learning, gain the mistaken impression as they go through school that the goal of life is to have an almost unlimited supply of secure knowledge which one can explain, defend and use in many contexts. This is a very good thing, to be sure. Not only is knowledge useful and enjoyable, but an ability to explain things precisely and lucidly is almost as important as learning to be gracious and loving towards others. I live for knowledge and I love putting it together in ways that have not yet been done.
But what I am learning as I mature is that you actually learn more and are more useful to yourself and others if you are constantly aware of what you don't know and if you are willing readily to admit to others the nature (and scope) of your ignorance. No one will ever tell you that a successful interview should consist of statements of your ignorance; but I will tell you that the most successful way to learn and develop your mind to its greatest potential is to live in your ignorance, readily admit it, and know how to use your ignorance to leverage knowledge at a deeper level.
Essayist and author, Bill Long

It’s OK to say “I don’t know”

If there were one thing I would change at MIT, it would be to be more accepting of the answer “I don’t know”. This is a suggestion that I heard from former President Bill Clinton just two weekends ago, when he came to Tufts University for the Issam M. Fares Lecture in Eastern Mediterranean Studies. I was offered tickets by a friend and eagerly agreed to go. My wife Deena was thrilled to go as well.

We had forgotten how brilliant this man is. The President talked on Middle East and world issues for an hour and a half – without notes. It was a tour de force and, at least for me, made me proud that this man was the leader of the Free World for 8 years. And what he has accomplished since leaving office! Besides being there for his incredible wife Hilary, he has devoted his talent to helping millions around the globe. Here is but one example: the Clinton Foundation was instrumental in forging a workable business model with drug companies on the AIDS epidemic. The result was drive down prices for AIDS medication worldwide and thus literally millions of lives.

After his talk, he enthusiastically addressed the many questions from the audience. He expertly dissecting some various world issues in a direct, insightful way. He has an incredible array of experience, insights, historical perspective, and friendships with people and leaders all over the globe.

Maybe it was the fourth question from the crowd that caught my attention. It was complex as all the others before it. The President easily could have snowed the hundreds in the audience with data and his own vast experience. But instead he said simply “I don’t know”. An unexpected laugh rippled through the crowd.

Then he followed that up by saying, “I try to say ‘I don’t know’ at least once each day”. And then he elaborated on how important this admission was to him.

If a proven world leader can say this, maybe I can, too. So this got to me to thinking how vital this simple admission can be. There are at least 3 ways we can use in our own lives:
First – as a check to intellectual arrogance.
Second – as a prelude to science and honest inquiry.
Third – as an antidote for ideology and extremism

First – as a check to intellectual arrogance
MIT Community has lots of smart people, and smart people can sometimes get ahead of themselves. The mastery of one discipline hardly means we know everything. Indeed, expertise in one field does not necessarily extend to another. As we age, the old saying of “the more we know, the more we realize we don’t know” really takes on meaning.

This is not a new or original observation. With some help from Google, I tried tracing this thought back in time. The search led as least as far back as the famed Greek Philosopher Socrates, who some 24 centuries ago observed that “the first step to wisdom was acknowledging how little one know”.

At its best, ability to admit that we don’t know, can add a measure of humility to our conduct, and enable us to be more open to listen and to dialogue with others. And it can set us for learning.

Second – as a prelude for real science and honest inquiry.
As Rabbi Fisher noted, science begins with “I don’t know”. We then can go on to ask “What is the why, the how, the when” and all the other questions that flow from this basic admission. People at MIT and other scholars around the globe are very good at devising research to delve into such questions. We are blessed to be in a time in history and in a community that has the will, the talent, and the resources to do so. There are something like 2,200 labs at MIT, and a large number are doing basic, leading edge research. They are not seeking the known. I think it was Einstein who put it so well when he said “If we knew what we were doing, it would not be research!”

By the way, it seems President Clinton has a really healthy interest in science. He likes to spice his remarks with some of the very latest scientific discoveries. Some of you will remember back in 1998 when he was MIT’s Commencement Speaker, and he mentioned the then new and startling experimental result that the neutrino has mass. This was the first mention I had heard of this momentous discovery – from the President!

At his recent talk at Tufts, Clinton prefaced his Tufts remarks with another profound scientific discovery, that we humans all have traces of Neanderthal genes in our DNA. But this time, I was not so surprised. Several months before, I attended one of the informative “Leading Jewish Minds” lunchtime lectures. Professor Bob Weinberg let us the audience in on this as-yet-unpublished revelation. This lecture series is yet another of those gems that we in the MIT community can enjoy. Every month or so, Joel Moses recruits an exceptional thinker and researcher, and you are guaranteed to hear something new!
Third – as an antidote for ideology and extremism
Ideologues and extremists are certain of truth. They don’t need to admit “I don’t know”, since they know the answers, and can readily fit any trend or event in their intellectual architecture. The rest of us, the people of faith, are not so sure. (That’s why our regions are called faiths).
With the increasing polarization of political discourse and fragmentation of information sources, we could use more “I don’t know”. At the least, maybe we can suspend judgment long enough to understand what the other side is really concerned about.
And we can never too smug. As social scientists have discovered, however, most of us are not immune to fitting an observation into our particular world view. We tend to selectively search and gather “facts” which support our point of view. Again, some humility seems appropriate for all of us.
So it does seem that to gain knowledge and wisdom, it really does seem we need to often step back and concede that that we don’t know.

Robert Ferrara

Concluding Readings

From the Jewish Sages
"Seven things apply … to a wise person. A wise person does not speak before one who is greater than he in wisdom or years; she does not interrupt her fellow; he is not rushed to respond; she asks relevant questions; he answers accurately; she discusses first things first and last things last; on what he did not hear, he says 'I did not hear;' and she admits to the truth".
From the Mishna, Chapter 5, Verse 10: Pirkei Avot (sayings of the Fathers) compiled about 200CE
Amidah, a Jewish Prayer
You graciously bestow knowledge upon humankind and teach mortals understanding. Graciously bestow upon us from You, wisdom, understanding and knowledge. Blessed are You Lord, who graciously bestows knowledge.

From the Amidah, the central prayer of the Jewish liturgy.