Friday, July 24, 2015



Cohen opens this dissertation on ignorance with a personal story from grad school. In her first week, a professor started a class with instructions that used a word Cohen didn’t know. From looking around she could see everyone else following along without any perceivable difficulty. This discouraged her from raising her hand to ask what that word meant, which then led to her spending most of that class, as well as a few subsequent ones, thoroughly confused. 

Our society discourages honest admission of what we don’t know. It makes us look weak, we’re taught. It makes us look dumb. Cohen lists a few of the many books on faking knowledge, books that usually provide just enough information on common topics of conversation that one can pass as informed and credible. In actuality, we miss out on opportunities when we refuse to say, “I don’t know.” Most obviously, the opportunity to genuinely gain new knowledge - but the message here is that perception of intelligence is valued higher than actual intelligence. A lot of people would rather everyone think them smart than actually be smart. Centuries of experience and evidence have demonstrated that people who recognize how little they know are often wiser than those who think they know everything.

We aren’t born with this fear of admitting ignorance; we’re taught it. Young children usually have no difficulty conceding gaps in knowledge. Then they almost inevitably experience some form of ridicule for not knowing something. In some cases, the teasing is mild or friendly and doesn’t really affect the lucky individual’s confidence. However, for others the experience feels shameful or humiliating and socially trains the child to feign understanding to avoid further embarrassment. To emphasize this point, Cohen shares another personal story, this one of her niece answering a teacher’s question with “I don’t know” only to be called into the hall where the teacher yelled at her for her stupidity. Even classic children’s stories send a clear message that “I don’t know” can be embarrassing or even dangerous. In “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” the subtext acknowledges that most people will go foolish lengths to hide what they don’t know. In “Rumpelstiltskin,” the miller boasts to the king that his daughter can spin straw into gold leading the king to demand the daughter perform this feat or else. Admitting “I don’t know” would mean her death.

Cohen quotes a teacher who repeatedly said, “If you don’t know, I’m certainly not going to tell you” and I instantly flashed back to my similar experience in high school with an English teacher. He would grade our papers, but refuse to explain why students received the grades they did. “If you can’t figure out why you got a C on your essay, I can’t help you,” he would say. This infuriated me. What are you doing here then? I wanted to scream at him. What’s the point of a teacher if not to draw attention to the student’s possible gaps in knowledge or technical weaknesses? If I knew all my own shortcomings, I wouldn’t need peers or mentors.

I personally don’t have much trouble admitting ignorance, though I did more so in the past. The shift came about (big surprise coming) because of books. I read a lot, 1-2 books a week, 50-100 books a year. I can’t read everything, though. No matter how much I read, I’m acutely aware of how much I still haven’t read. When people ask if I’ve read a book, I always admit when I haven’t. I understand why some people find admission difficult, though. The truth is that, yes, sometimes people are rude or condescending because I haven’t read such and such classic or bestseller. Over time, though, I decided that’s their problem, not mine. There are tons of books in the world, not to mention tons of other interests, hobbies, and things to know outside of reading. How shortsighted to judge someone for knowing less than you in one small area of all there is to know in the world.

Certain jobs reinforce this discomfort with the phrase “I don’t know” even more. Medical professionals, for example, make diagnoses, recommend courses of action, and estimate probability of success. In many cases, they don’t know things with absolute certainty. Unfortunately, the majority of patients expect utter confidence from their doctors. They want medical advice to feel absolute, like it’s God’s word and not that of a flawed human working within the limits of our (and his or her) medical understanding as well as our technological capabilities. Cohen also discusses how in work environments many employees would rather make a mistake than admit uncertainty from the start by asking a question.

The book skims the topic of death, but raises interesting points. Death is a big “I don’t know.” Some people struggle with that uncertainty more than others. Some look for explanations or ideologies that they can wholeheartedly embrace so they can replace “I don’t know” with confident conviction, a more comfortable emotional state.

As the title implies, the book also touches on when “I don’t know” can be harmful. There’s a chilling example of children feigning ignorance rather than speak up about abuse. Not to mention far too many worldwide examples of countries, groups, and individuals alike using “I don’t know” as an excuse not to take action, the look-the-other-way mentality.

Despite my lengthy review, this is an extremely short book at only 114 pages. I finished it in a single hour-long sitting. While I enjoyed it thoroughly, it does feel like it’s skimming the surface, more a discussion starter than an in-depth exploration.

Occasionally, some of the various points and stories feel a little disjointed. I found this further proof that the book might benefit from being longer. Many short points feel like they could be whole chapters.

If you’re at all interested in this book, you really have no excuse not to read it since it’s such a minimal time investment, especially proportional to the value of the subject matter. I for one hope to see “I don’t know” more frequently embraced as, rather than a moment of avoidable weakness, an integral stepping-stone to obtaining priceless knowledge.

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