I Don't Know: In Praise of Admitting Ignorance by Leah Hager Cohen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Drawing on the insights of science and literature, this essay explores the power of admitting ignorance - and why it is so difficult to do so.
It's a short book, barely 72 pages long, and packed with the titles of other books to explore if you're fascinated by the topic of ignorance and the limits of human knowledge. There are intense social pressures to appear knowledgeable - pressures that even small children feel, though a failure to admit ignorance often spreads more darkness than light.
With anecdotes ranging from "The Emperor's New Clothes" to the recordings of a downed plane's little black box, Cohen illustrates the dangers of pretending to know when you don't. She brings together numerous sources in an interesting way, and it is clear that, with the recent insights of modern neuroscience and psychology, we seem to be getting a picture of exactly how little we know.
You should flip through Cohen's book with pen in hand to write down titles. But one she doesn't mention, Ignorance: How It Drives Science by Stuart Firestein, is another short book that looks at the subject from the perspective of a scientist. Opposing Cohen's willingness to admit ignorance is the clever book-length essay How to Talk About Books You Haven't Read by Pierre Bayard, which makes the argument that a little knowledge can go a long way. Finally, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson, explores our endless human tendency toward self-justification.
"Over time, he lamented, we lose our openness. [Ashley] Montagu attributed this in part to conventional schooling, which he blamed for squashing a love of knowledge. 'School, instead of being a magic casement which opens on unending vistas of excitement, has become a restrictive, linear, one-dimensional, only too often narrowing, experience and to many a dead loss.' By the time formal education stops, around early adulthood for most people, 'it is as though they believed that they had learned all they needed to know,' he wrote. 'At this time they begin to grow a shell around this pitiful store of knowledge and wisdom; from then on they vigorously resist all attempts to pierce that shell with anything new.' Montagu called this process psychoschlerosis, the hardening of the mind, and cited it as the reason most adults 'draw back from the unfamiliar, perhaps because they are reluctant to reveal ignorance.'" - 19
"That our intuition could lead us astray is troubling in direct proportion to the degree of trust we place in it. The solution would seem to be: Don't be overly trusting. Mix in a healthy dose of skepticism. But suppose we don't have a say in the matter? Suppose we're hardwired to trust - to believe in - our instincts, regardless of whether they're right? Suddenly the problem of not knowing becomes a lot more complicated." - 29