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.