What We Don’t Know

by Rebecca Baumgartner

We prefer not to think about our own ignorance. We hope it sorts itself out as we get older and presumably wiser. We especially resent having it pointed out to us – which of course is very counterproductive if the goal is to get rid of it. The better approach is to cultivate an appreciation for our ignorance, get comfortable with it and look at it very closely, disentangling it as much as possible from our ego to see what’s really there (or not there). 

* * *

This is the moral lesson in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which isn’t really about Christmas, of course, despite the yuletide trappings; the emotional heart of the story is a man discarding his attachment to pride and expanding the definition of himself to make room for new knowledge about the world. In other words, it’s about the importance of learning, and the courage it takes to learn and change.

The Ghost of Christmas Present makes this explicit when he shows Scrooge two filthy urchins crouching at his feet, a boy symbolizing Ignorance and a girl symbolizing Want. The Spirit makes it clear that Ignorance is the greater threat of the two: “On his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”

We’re very good at ignoring our ignorance. It took several supernatural interventions just for Scrooge to start to admit that his conception of the world was flawed. We might give him a hard time about this, but in reality all of us are bad about seeing what we don’t want to see. That’s why the Spirits had to be so heavy-handed – it required a series of guilt-trips bordering on psychological warfare for Scrooge (and the audience) to see the extent of the problem. 

“Deny it!” the Spirit says sarcastically. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end!” In other words, go ahead and stay in denial about your ignorance and impugn those who point it out – go on, he says, I dare you to brush this aside and see where it gets you.

* * *

Being insecure about your ignorance only makes it harder to eradicate and more noticeable to others, so it’s best to just settle in and get comfortable with dealing with it. The process starts with something very simple and very hard: asking questions. When we asked questions as children, there was no embarrassment about not knowing the answers already. Our job was to learn, and we mostly didn’t care if we occasionally looked silly doing it.

At a certain point in adolescence, however, asking questions became risky. Many continue to feel this way all through adulthood, in fact, preferring to let others ask clarifying questions during meetings or lectures and then saying privately afterwards, “Thanks for asking that question; I was confused about that too.” It’s pointless to respond, “Then why didn’t you ask?” We know why. They weren’t willing to look stupid.

Some are so concerned about not appearing ignorant, or have such a deep need to appear nonchalant and in control, that they will find a way to ask questions without grammatically forming a question at all: “I was wondering if you could tell me…” “I’d be curious to know about…” When used in this way, the declarative sentence is a syntactic euphemism meant to preserve the speaker’s dignity. This avoidance of directness hints that there’s something humiliating about asking a question outright. It requires vulnerability to admit there’s something you would like to know, but don’t. You’re willing, at some personal cost, to exchange your pride for knowledge. 

* * *

In Ursula K. Le Guin’s iconic 1969 sci-fi novel The Left Hand of Darkness, the civilization at the center of the story has a cultural concept they call shifgrethor, which is more or less a person’s sense of prestige or status. There are various internalized social rules for preserving or waiving one’s shifgrethor, and one of the things that damages shifgrethor is admitting ignorance about something – asking questions.

At one point in the book, a character named Estraven is telling another character, Obsle, about an envoy who has come to their planet on a mission from another world. It’s a lot to take in, and Obsle is trying to find out what he can about this mysterious envoy without coming right out and asking. But eventually he gets so fed up that he decides to take the hit to his ego and ask a question outright: “None of your damned shadowy Karhidish metaphors, now, Estraven. I waive shifgrethor; I discard it. Will you answer me?” Oh, the indignity!

The esoteric politics of shifgrethor seem theatrical to us, but they shouldn’t. We have shifgrethor too, although in Western societies we don’t talk about it or understand it as thoroughly as the characters in The Left Hand of Darkness do: the sociolinguistic concept of face, which is partially about how in control of our image we feel ourselves to be.

We want to believe we have mastery of the information at our disposal; the fear of looking ignorant is the fear of losing control of the way others see us. Relinquishing that control – letting the Spirits show you what you would rather turn away from – is disorienting and ego-depleting. But it’s necessary if we want to learn anything.

* * *

It always catches me off-guard when someone sees my extensive (and frankly, a bit out-of-control) book collection and asks, “How many of those have you read?” 

I understand why they’re asking. I think they’re trying to make conversation and learn more about me, or maybe they think they’re humoring me and giving me an opening to brag. Or maybe they’re passive-aggressively commenting on the disarray, though I don’t think that’s often the case. 

I find the question borderline nonsensical, though. The point of having books around is not to keep score or show off how smart you are, although people who are insecure about their own intelligence might interpret it that way. It’s quite the opposite. An unread book is not impressive in itself, but each one represents (for me, at least) a galvanizing force, a thrown gauntlet, almost a rebuke. My piles of books are tangible reminders of how extensive my ignorance is, and I think being surrounded by those reminders day after day gives me a healthy respect for everything I don’t know, and may never know. 

Duke Humfrey Library, Bodleian Library, Oxford” by diliff is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

This feeling is writ large whenever I walk into a particularly majestic library, but it’s impossible to walk into even a modestly-sized library and feel smug about how much you know, provided you have a modicum of self-awareness. Libraries intimidate me in the uplifting way that Gothic cathedrals were meant to be intimidating to medieval believers. I felt this way when I visited the august halls of the British Library and Oxford’s Bodleian Library, but I also feel this way in the small indie bookstores I seek out any time I’m in a large city – the crammed basements and overflowing shelves of Chicago, Toronto, Memphis, Edinburgh, London, Austin. The store of human knowledge is overwhelming and worthy of reverence. 

It would be better for my vanity if I kept and proudly displayed only the books I’d read (preferably only the most impressive, critically acclaimed ones), showing every visitor just how much information I have consumed, like a bower bird showing off his nest of feathers, bottle caps, and plastic forks to a potential mate. Gaze upon the edifice of order I have imposed upon the chaos of ignorance, and be amazed!

But my crammed bookshelves are less like an ostentatious bower nest and more like a memento mori. At this point, it’s very likely I’ll die before reading everything I own, never mind the new books I accumulate between now and then. My books are like the slaves in ancient Rome who were tasked with following triumphant military generals around the city and whispering in their ears, “Remember: you’re just a mortal.”

* * *

We need external reminders of our own ignorance (such as piles of unread books, or good teachers, or friends willing to give it to us straight, or supernatural spirits visiting on Christmas Eve) to prod us out of complacency, because recognizing our deficiencies on our own is famously difficult. The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a handy concept that explains why some people know so little that they think they know everything, and why you have to know a lot about something before you can truly understand just how little you know.

Anyone who has ever undertaken the personal journey from “How hard can it be?” to “I am completely in over my head” to “I think I sort of get it” to “Believe me, it’s not that straightforward” intuitively understands this relationship between knowledge and confidence. The more knowledge we gain in a certain area, the more clearly we see the gaps in our knowledge. (If someone does use their book collection in an attempt to show off how smart they are, you can be pretty certain they’re a walking example of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.)

The truth of this is revealed bit by bit as we get older and gain experience: Mark Twain is attributed as saying, “When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.” 

The remedy that counteracts the pitfalls of the Dunning-Kruger Effect is reminding yourself how much you still don’t know, without taking that fact personally and letting it discourage you. You hold your ignorance lightly, the way you did as a kid when it was OK not to know everything.

Zen Buddhism recognizes that we tend to narrow our scope and forget to ask questions the more expert we become in something, and that we need to be called back to the openness and flexibility of a novice if we are to achieve unexpected insights. This is the concept of shoshin, beginner’s mind. Kids, being literal beginners in everything, are masters of shoshin. 

The opposite of shoshin is what psychologists call the Einstellung Effect, from the German word for “attitude” or “approach.” This refers to the way in which experts let their expertise blind them to better options. Someone operating under the Einstellung Effect will mechanistically use the solutions they’ve become accustomed to using, even when faced with a novel problem for which there is a better or simpler solution. 

It’s not that the expert’s solution will be wrong; it might still work. It’s just that they don’t stop to consider if there are better or faster ways of solving it. In experiments studying this idea, non-experts were able to outperform the experts, because they were actually thinking about the problem, not just applying a heuristic in a rote fashion. The experts’ own knowledge made them dumber. 

The meta-cognition required to know how much you know is hard to do for yourself, just like you can’t grab your own hand to pull yourself out of a hole. Institutions like schools, universities, and libraries can give you a useful benchmark for how little you really know in light of what humanity has figured out so far, and give you some of the tools for narrowing that gap. But all of these supports are worthless if you’re too ashamed to use them, or are too arrogant to think you need them. 

It’s precisely when we think we have risen above the beginner’s mind that we need to cultivate it the most – otherwise our thinking becomes rote and closed off. Remember: you’re just a mortal.

* * *

There are few areas in our lifelong education that reveal this principle more viscerally than learning a foreign language. The embarrassment of realizing that you never learned the word for something basic like monkey or elevator! The demoralizing reality that you will never sound as convincing as a four-year-old native speaker! 

Perhaps more than any other body of knowledge, learning a foreign language requires us to adopt a beginner’s mind, whether we are actually a beginner or not. One of the greatest challenges to learning a foreign language is not a matter of intelligence or memory – it’s a matter of how willing someone is to take emotional risks and, essentially, how comfortable they are looking stupid, perhaps for a very long time. The ego-threat presented by not understanding a single word said to you is not for the faint of heart.

* * *

At the very end of A Christmas Carol, the narrator tells us that “Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them.” 

This line contains a philosophy of life. It indicates that understanding the world requires a willingness to admit your ignorance and appear – at least sometimes, to some people – ridiculous, foolish, or child-like. And that you can survive such indignities just fine.

How much easier it would have been for Scrooge to remain an aloof, intimidating miser, rather than a goofy old man hanging out of his window shouting about turkeys in his dressing gown! But he did it anyway. He undertook the ridiculous, humbling transformation from ignorance to the beginnings of knowledge, and that’s what makes his story so compelling.

Scrooge’s outcome, the fact that he learned anything at all, is actually a best-case scenario, if we’re being completely honest with ourselves. If Dickens’ story adhered more closely to average human behavior, the tale would have ended with Scrooge living out the rest of his days doing his best to forget what the Spirits had shown him, maybe occasionally feeling a pang of guilt or a flash of self-recrimination, which he would have quickly rationalized away. He probably would have thrown himself back into his work with a vengeance, focusing entirely on what he was already good at.

He would be so choked with his own fear of looking stupid that he would choose to save face rather than save his soul.

* * *

It takes honesty and integrity to admit what you don’t know. It takes an unflinching willingness to look stupid in order to make progress. Without those, we’d fall into the only thing worse than being unaware of our ignorance: becoming aware of it and not doing anything about it.

Of course we don’t want to look foolish. There’s something brutal about facing up to the utter smallness of what you know compared to the infinity of all there is to know. And there’s something terrifying about displaying your paltry store of knowledge out on the table for all to see by asking a question.

But on the other hand, what we already know isn’t nearly as fascinating or as important as what we don’t know yet. Feeling in control and saving face is a poor exchange for joining the human conversation. Once you aren’t wasting time keeping up with your dignity, you can expand your very self to make room for greater understanding. And that trumps dignity any day.