Ignorance as a virtue: the three most important words in the English language



No, it isn’t “I love you.” Love is universal, and voicing it is not always how we express it.

It also isn’t “I am sorry” or “I was wrong.” These are admissions of human error. We all know humans make mistakes.

No, the three most important words are: I don’t know.

These three simple words convey much more than just an acceptance of human error. They express an important epistemological position. We live our lives with partial and conditional knowledge. In a world saturated in information, this is even more true. In the vast catalog of human knowledge, I know almost nothing.

Most of what I claim to know is the result of inferences gleaned from partial knowledge from other sources – books, classes I have taken, experts whom I have reason to trust – and some very limited direct experience. Let’s visit both of these categories.

Indirect knowledge from a trusted source

I recently read a book about Gödel’s theorem, a mathematical concept that is important to the development of computers. At the time I was reading it, I felt I had a good understanding of what Gödel’s theorem was all about, why it was important, and how he arrived at it. But if I am more honest with myself, I was taking a lot of it at the author’s word. I studied a bit of mathematics but I am not an expert and I don’t have the training to properly understand Gödel. And now that it has been a few months since I read it, I can’t remember more than a few details that I picked up from the book. Instead, I have a general sense of what Gödel’s theorem is about, and a few anecdotal details I could use in conversation to reconstruct it for a friend.

I read a bunch of Nietzche books, but most of that reading was done in college, when I had severely limited life experience. I revisit Nietzche every once in a while, like stopping in to visit an old friend, and I always find that my prior impression was badly misinformed. I will forget details or confuse books. If I had to precisely define what Nietzche means by his “last man” analogy, for example, I will reach for my own definition, but I could not quote Nietzche or cite exactly what concept among his contemporaries he was criticizing. Rather, I have a general understanding of Nietzche bolted together over the years.

This is the case with almost everything I know. My knowledge is a patchwork of potentially misremembered information gleaned from trusted sources – books, teachers, documentaries, and so on. The concrete conclusions that I reach from all that partial information is arrived at through pragmatic abductive reasoning.

Why are these sources trusted? If we are honest, we realize that they are trusted because they are trusted. A teacher’s authority on a subject is conditional upon other authorities vouching for them.

Direct experience

I can claim some direct experience with a few subjects. I have knowledge of software development, having done it for my job, and thus accumulated many hours of experience. I have direct experience with boxing and jiu jitsu. I have direct experience writing.

This knowledge doesn’t rely on any external sources. It is arrived at through practice. Sure, I have taken classes on these subjects, but the class is supplemental to the real, lived experience. Though it may often seem that our society overemphasizes credentials, we value direct experience. It’s why we want medical practitioners to get so many hours of on the job experience before they are given a medical license. Whenever you go in for a job interview and the interviewer asks you pointed questions about what you worked on in your previous jobs, they are assessing your direct experience – they are not interested in what books you have read or what classes you took.

But direct experience is problematic as a basis for our knowledge. Lived experience alone is not often sufficient for the challenges we face. Someone may have a lot of lived experience in a subject area, but they may lack an understanding of broader concepts that allow them to make inferences outside of their direct experience. I have seen this in many self-taught programmers who become very adept at working with a particular framework but make severe design mistakes that could be avoided with a broader view.

There is another problem with direct experience. It is very limited. We only have so many hours in the day, and only so many days on this earth. We cannot hope to get much direct experience in more than a few areas during that time. If we only knew what we had directly experienced, our capabilities would be severely limited.

Ignorance as virtue

In short, we need both direct lived experience and broader indirect knowledge to be effective in our modern information-saturated world. In practice, 90% of what we experience day to day are novel situations, variations on what we have seen before, that we must somehow adapt to. Our success in the modern world is determined by how well we are able to adapt.

To be adaptive in this way, we must first acknowledge the situation we find ourselves in. We have severely limited direct experience in a complex world. We have access to a vast trove of information that is easily accessible to us now, between public libraries, eBooks, online courses, and so on. But even with all this information, the key component for success lies not in what we know, but our attitude.

If we believe that we know everything, we will be proven wrong. So when faced with an unknown, I encourage you to say: “I don’t know.” It is an admission of ignorance, yes, but more so, it is a starting point for expanding our knowledge. When you find yourself staring at a problem and thinking, “I don’t know what to do,” that isn’t incompetence. It means you have correctly identified the condition of your understanding, and now you can begin looking for a way to adapt to the new problem.

Pay careful attention to how often the people you interact with express their lack of knowledge. I find that the people who are the most overconfident are those that rarely express ignorance. By contrast, those who openly say “I don’t know” or put a lot of conditionals on statements (“We have to look into that”, for example) are the most effective. When someone says “I don’t know,” I am more likely to trust their judgment.

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