Tuesday, May 9, 2017

I Don't Know

I've been trying to write this for weeks, and I've been relatively unable to accurately articulate my thoughts, so bear with some scatter brain!

What happens if you mix uranium and helium? Is that even possible? I don't know.

How much weight can the Golden Gate Bridge bear? I don't know.

Are my mind and body separate, or are my personality and disposition merely the chemical reactions going on in my brain? I don't know.

I think all too often in our society, we look down on people who admit not knowing. We sell certainty! "Invest with us, and watch your money grow!" "Act this way, and you'll go to heaven!"

We live in constant fear of not knowing. Whether it's not knowing what the future holds or not knowing when asked a simple question, not having an answer sends us into anxious fits, myself included a lot of the time.

Sometimes, "I don't know" isn't an acceptable answer, and I get that. If you ask the doctor how to listen for a heartbeat, they should be able to tell you. Sometimes though, admitting you don't know something and then working to know the answer is the most noble course of action. The amount of people trying to bullshit their way through life is astounding. It's not embarrassing to not know; it's embarrassing to act like you know with certainty when you really don't.

The more that I critically think about my life, the more I realize just how often I've been guilty of being unable to admit uncertainty and embarrassing myself. It's something I've worked on in the last few years. It's something I really respect in other people. Admitting to being unsure is so much better than messing something up because you thought you were sure. In the office and in my personal life, I've tried to become more comfortable with not knowing, asking for help, or simply taking more time to do the research I need to in order to be certain.

"I preach the gospel of 'I don't know.'" I love that phrase. Relative degrees of certainty are so important in today's world, and being able to distinguish between what you know for sure and what you don't is a valuable skill.

I think it's an important time to rely upon evidence. We talk about fake news, alternative facts, and we calculate the percentage that politicians are truthful in their debates. As I encounter students at work, I waiver between hopelessness and hopefulness as I wonder if they're learning to think critically and analyze the information in front of them then make a decision. If there's not enough evidence, it's okay to not know. I wonder where we'll be in twenty years though if hyper-dependency on parents and inability to use Google without guidance become the norm.

I don't think that's a digression. I think critical thinking, self-sufficiency, and the ability to admit when you don't know something are all intwined. It takes intelligence, work, and practice to admit to not knowing. That sounds silly, but I think as humans, when we don't know something, our instinct is to grasp at straws, to try to put together a satisfactory answer even if it's not the right one. I think we gravitate towards simpler explanations, even if they're incorrect, because it's more comfortable than not knowing.

Sometimes, an explanation begins by conceding lack of an answer. How was the earth formed? I don't know, but there's a lot of relevant theories with evidence and research to back them up. The older and perhaps more cynical I get, the more that complete certainty scares me. Donald Trump is certain all the time, and he rarely gets anything right. I think taking someone's certainty based on their word requires trust and extensive background. As they say, you can't believe everything you hear.

As I said, I'm often guilty of the fear of uncertainty, and sometimes, I bullshit an answer as much as the next guy. I do think it's important to work yourself away from that, though. The world doesn't need certainty right now; it needs healthy and productive skepticism. Ask questions. Do research.