Have you ever stopped to notice how rare it is these days for people to admit that they don’t know something? Largely because of social media, people today are often fooled into thinking they have a much greater knowledge base than they actually possess, with increasingly more people quickly equating random internet searches as enough to make them an expert on something. Think about recent conversations that you have had where you have been in the company of someone doling out expertise on science, medicine, legal matters, and just about every other subject under the sun as though they have formally trained in those areas — though in reality they have not. The concept of simply saying I don’t know seems so foreign to them, in fact, it is viewed by some as the worst thing you could possibly do — to let your guard down and show others you are lacking knowledge in a particular area.
Reflecting on a recent conversation
Admittedly, the idea of blogging about the problem with people acknowledging they don’t know something originally came to me from talking to one of the smartest people I know who regularly said “I don’t know” as we discussed a variety of topics. This friend not only said “I don’t know,” but also “I’m not sure,” and “I am not familiar with that subject” and “I am not the best person to ask about that.” Furthermore, when admitting that he didn’t know much about specific topics, he didn’t shy and cower away, nor did he give any impression that he was embarrassed. In fact, he almost did the exact opposite by proudly and candidly admitting that while he considered himself an expert in his professional line of work (medicine), there were exponentially more topics that he had, at best, a very basic knowledge base. No shame. No guilt. No embarrassment.
This friend that I speak of, when told of my intrigue around people unwilling to admit they don’t know something, agreed that he has seen the same trend — and even went a step further with his observations. Not only is there a growing movement of pseudo-expertise, but real experts like himself are finding that if he doesn’t agree or support the medical position of a patient he treats, the patient may argue with him and actually suggest that he — the doctor — is wrong! Don’t get me wrong, doctors sometimes make mistakes, but it’s rare that a patient untrained in medicine knows more than the treating physician about medical conditions.
It’s OK to admit when we are wrong
Dale Carnegie, author of the popular book How to Win Friends and Influence People, specifically talks about how we should always own up to things we don’t know and admit when we get things wrong. None of us know everything, and we also know that all of us make mistakes with our thinking and judgement. Admitting that we got it wrong is not an admission of inadequacy, inferiority, or that we are some form of human damaged goods, but instead an admirable display of candor that is inviting to others to do the same. In fact, modern science is built upon the idea that as we learn more, we often go back and correct our previous erroneous judgements and opinions — and that this exercise is admired and expected, not frowned upon.
If you don’t know much about car engines, pharmaceutical drugs, concrete driveways, or astronomy, it’s perfectly OK to say “I don’t know.” To go on and ramble about subjects you know little about is not only intellectually dishonest, it can also lead to potentially dangerous consequences. Jeff Spicoli from the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High (pictured above) might have been on to something when he candidly admitted “I don’t know” why he was late for class, a response we might all want to use when asked about questions that we don’t know.