On acknowledging ignorance

In an earlier post, I mentioned how I had the completely wrong idea about what in America is referred to as ‘pickles’. In a comment on that post, Crip Dyke made an interesting point that made me reflect on the question of ignorance.

[W]hen one has a reputation amongst one’s friends for being knowledgeable, one has more to lose by revealing that one has been making such an error … and thus the fear of this may very well be heightened for people who have a reputation amongst their circle as knowledgeable. Thus I sometimes wonder if my fear of making a clueless error is just my vanity in disguise. (though, of course, there do exist independent reasons to want to avoid error)

As a young man (a long time ago!) I expect that I was as concerned about hiding my ignorance and showing others that I was knowledgeable as anyone else. But I do recall that when I got my PhD in physics, that fear of revealing ignorance largely went away, because having a doctorate in theoretical nuclear physics resulted in people giving me the presumption of being knowledgeable. I no longer felt that I had to persuade people that I was not a clueless idiot. This feeling was of course totally unjustified. One can have advanced degrees and honors in any field (even Nobel prizes) and still be an idiot and ignorant about many things. But I definitely felt that the burden had lifted and became quite comfortable acknowledging ignorance about things.

This feeling of confidence was accentuated by my returning to Sri Lanka immediately after getting my degree because there were few people there with physics PhDs and they were treated with considerable respect. Without any effort on my part to appear smart, it was assumed by others that I was really clever and an expert on many things. For example, at that time there was debate as to whether the country should build a nuclear reactor for energy purposes and there were many people who were pretending to know more about this than they really did, in order to advance personal and political agendas. People kept asking me to give my opinion on whether the project was a good idea or not but I would decline, saying that while I understood the basic physics behind the process, that was not really relevant because that field was now the domain of nuclear engineering and I had no expertise there. I discovered that my willingness to confess ignorance actually added to my credibility because then when I did offer an opinion on something, people felt that I must actually know something, unlike the charlatans who were pretending to understand all the ramifications of nuclear power.

But I discovered that this willingness to admit that one did not know something was not common. Back in the US again and teaching at my university, I recall a time when a student in an introductory physics class asked me a question and I replied that I did not know the answer and would have to look into it and get back to him. Later after class, he asked me whether I really had not known the answer or was just pretending to for some reason. He said he found it hard to believe that a professor of physics could be stumped by a first year undergraduate’s question. I told him that this was not at all unusual since there were vast areas of knowledge even within physics that I was unaware of. But his question revealed to me that his prior teachers had been unwilling to admit ignorance, which was why my reaction had seemed so novel to him.

When I became director of the university teaching center, I found quite a few colleagues in academia who seemed to think that confessing ignorance to students weakened their authority. I tried to persuade them that this was not the case. Freely confessing when one did not know something actually increased one’s credibility because people knew that you would not try to bluff your way through and thus lead them astray and that when you did say something, that meant that you actually knew what you were talking about. Students can sense when teachers are bluffing (I know I usually could when I was a student) and pretending to know when you do not know reduces your credibility rather than enhances it. What our advanced degrees in whatever field had given us was not encyclopedic knowledge but certain skills that enabled us to systematically investigate questions. Those skills, not nuggets of knowledge, were what we should share with our students.

Another problem with pretending to know when you do not is that it hinders you learning new things. Learning something new is a multi-step, multi-layered process that benefits from increased discussion and refining. When a student asks a question and you start investigating it, that often requires further discussions and clarifications with the student. That is an important part of the process. Giving a pat answer in order to deflect attention away from your ignorance just shuts that process down and you end up going down the path of trying to hide your ignorance, which is of no benefit whatsoever to anyone.


  1. says

    Admitting your ignorance -- you’re not letting your ego get the best of you.

    Not admitting your ignorance -- you get membership into the Intellectual Dark Web.

  2. says

    I completely agree.

    I say this a lot, and I think it is worth repeating -- it is important to know when to shut up.

    I have at work a reputation of a very knowledgeable person so I am ofthen asked about various stuff. Inevitably I have to say sometimes “this is outside of my area of expertise, I do not know”, or even admit “I made a mistake”. My credibility does not seem to suffer from that in the least over the years.

  3. blf says

    Like Charly@2, I also seemed to have a reputation as a knowledgeable person — particularly in certain areas — and would quite happily answer, truthfully, “I haven’t the faintest idea.” My natural tendency is then to suggest possible lines of investigation or other individuals, and (especially, perhaps, when the question seemed to involve my areas of expertise) do some checking myself.

    And yes, I wasn’t always correct.

    A rule-of-thumb (taught to me by someone else) which seemed useful is “If you can’t explain it, you don’t understand it.” (This was in a technical context; that may not be as applicable in other contexts.) This was a useful quick-check on my own answers, and could be useful in checking the plausibility of other people’s answers. It must be used with some caution — some people aren’t very “coherent” (not quite the best word, sorry!) but still know what the feck they are talking about.

    None of the above seemed to harm my credibility.

  4. jrkrideau says

    I am rather reassured when the “expert” says something like “It beats me”.

    I was in my doctor’s clinic (teaching clinic so one sees a rotating set of residents more than one’s titular “doctor”.

    I was in for a shoulder problem when the resident noticed something on my left elbow. He diagnosed it, mentioned that he had not seen many, did some quick on-line reference checknig, swiped an ultrasound for a quick scan, held a 2 consult with someone and returned saying something the the effect “As I thought, no worries at the moment, if it does not go away in 5 day come back”.

    When I mentioned it to my physiotherapists the next day, they seemed shocked that a) a doctor would do an ultra-scan and b) that he would have looked up some where the patient could see him doing it.

    The encounter rather reassured me.

  5. machintelligence says

    When I am asked my opinion or to give advice about something, I usually preface it with the warning that I only give “good advice.” Good advice costs you nothing and it is worth every penny.

  6. Steve Cameron says

    I have taught myself to be pretty frank about admitting when I do not know something, and I consider that kind of honesty to be a virtue. However, I am pretty sure that it cost me a couple of promotions in my job when I was working under one particular manager. It was during the interview the second time that he asked me why I couldn’t come up with a better answer than “I don’t know, but I can do some research on it” to what was a pretty technical question. When I told him that I thought being honest was better than bullshitting, he made it pretty clear that he thought otherwise. It was better to lie rather that admit ignorance even when it was obvious to everyone that that’s what you were doing. Apparently it had worked for him, so that’s what he wanted to see in others. Needless to say, his approach to the truth started to catch up with him and he didn’t last long as my manager.

  7. Johnny Vector says

    I noticed long ago that when I listen to a favorite song on a very different sound system (e.g. in the car vs my stereo at home), I often hear tracks I had never noticed. Even when both are very good systems, and don’t sound “different” to me, the slight differences in frequency response accentuate different parts of the mix.

    In a similar vein, when MP3 first became available as a viable encoding, I spent some effort trying to see if I could hear any of the artifacts that various audiophile types claimed made it utterly unlistenable. I recall a certain Phish song (don’t recall which one) I knew well from the CD, that while I was listening to my MP3 encoding I heard a distinctive swishing sound on the cymbals. “Aha!” I thought; just what people complain about. I’ll try a higher bit rate and see if it goes away. But first I re-listened to the CD, and (you know where this is going) it was there all along. The “MP3 artifact” was a deliberate production choice that was being accurately reproduced. But I had never noticed until I was listening “carefully”.

    As for Yanni/Laurel, I don’t hear either, because I couldn’t be bothered to listen to it.

  8. says

    Saying that something is out of my experience zone means that I avoid doing some really crappy jobs. And someone else gets the privilege to charge heaps for getting covered in crap.

  9. Johnny Vector says

    Well, I see my comment ended up in entirely the wrong thread. But I’m happy to admit that I know almost nothing about how your login system works.

  10. says

    I am fond of telling my students that they’re not stupid, they’re ignorant and that I celebrate my own ignorance each morning because that means I get to learn something.

    Stupidity is incurable, ignorance is not.

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