Today’s Focal Point: Three words that many people find hard to say are “I don’t know.” This article explores why this is so, and the benefits of saying those three words.

The top level of knowledge is “known facts” that are provable by scientific methods. Much lower down on the knowledge scale are opinions, which are matters of personal judgment. These are essentially not provable except when they are predictions of the future. For example, if you assert the opinion that the stock market will go up by 2 points next week, and it doesn’t, you are proven wrong by the facts. Brokers and financial planners regularly assert such opinions, and they are correct only about 45% of the time. Sports and political pundits make predictions, and, as you know, they are often wrong. In fact, lots of media professionals earn their living by their willingness to make predictions, usually spinning them to conform with their political or religious biases. (They have sometimes been called “entrepreneurs of error.”)

I’ve been fascinated to observe that many great thinkers, like physicists, theologians and a few economists, are willing to say, “I don’t know.” Some examples are Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, theologian Paul Tillich, and economist Thomas Sargent, a Nobel Laureate.

But lesser minds tend to avoid the words “I don’t know.”

Why?

Dogmatism. They are wedded to certain fixed beliefs. They identify with them.

Going beyond one’s area of knowledge and competence. Example: I was in Berlin in August 1961 when the East Germans began erecting the wall between East and West Berlin. That was a harrowing time.

The next week, I returned on leave to the U.S. and visited some professor friends at the University of Minnesota. After I told them I just came back from Berlin, they began explaining to me what was happening there, even though I told them I was on the ground in West Berlin!

During three decades as a university professor, I often observed the willingness of professors of sciences opining how art classes should be taught, or a math professor finding fault with a proposal for a new course submitted by a sociology professor. (The course was not approved.)

Conversation Quotation:
“It is better to ask some of the questions than to know all the answers.”

Experts in many fields have opinions and give advice on matters beyond their field of knowledge, among them physicians, attorneys, religious, marketing professionals, and most politicians. They are not eager to say, “I don’t know.” The cost of saying, “I don’t know” is greater than the cost of being wrong. It’s a status issue. Many are trying to protect their reputations as smart and knowledgeable. I’d suggest that the common occurrence of men refusing to stop and ask for directions in an unfamiliar locale is an example of status, the men not wanting to appear dumb.

When having the courage to say, “I don’t know” has benefits:

  1. Your credibility increases such that when you do assert some knowledge with confidence, you are more likely to be believed.
  2. You avoid the possibility of being held responsible for giving bad advice.
  3. You are open to learning. The state just below knowing is, “not knowing.” Admitting this, you can now learn some new and more accurate information. But the dogmatists and know-it-alls can’t learn anything new.

There are “lay experts” like your friends and neighbors and “professional experts” and wine experts like sommeliers. Lay experts tend to rely on “conventional wisdom,” such as, “Don’t go swimming until one hour after eating.” (Wrong) The same goes for wine experts on their training and expertise. (But in double-blind tests, they couldn’t tell the difference between cheap wines and expensive fine wines, and they found differences between glasses of wine poured from the same bottle.

Here’s a helpful technique for saying “I don’t know.” Add these words:

“But I can find out” or “Let me ask the boss” or “Let me check my iPhone.” (That’s what an employee of Lowe’s did last week when I was looking for an unusual punch tool. In a few minutes, he had the right answer.)

Today’s takeaway: Be skeptical of those who claim to know everything, including the future. Be willing to say, “I don’t know,” when you really don’t know.

Until next issue,
Loren.