The Right Answer Is “Sorry, I Don’t Know”

socratesWe live in a crazily complex world, but for some reason, I’m surrounded by people full of certainties. I miss people who don’t know.

Luckily, I’m not British. If I were asked to vote on whether England should stay or not in the European Union, I’d answer “Sure, but give me a couple of years so I can earn a master on international relations; then, you’ll have my opinion.”

It’s not fake Socratic modesty like “I know that I know nothing (but I’m much clever than you).” It’s a sincere felling of overwhelming smallness before reality.

A matter like Brexit, with all its political complexity and technical implications, is much beyond my capacity of analysis. I don’t dare make a prognostic on what would be the best option. Of course, I have some opinions, but I wouldn’t bet the future of a country on a low-level prior.

I’m in Brazil now for a couple of weeks. I found the country immersed in a horrible political and economic crisis. This week, the new government approved in the parliament a constitutional amendment limiting the public expenses for the next two decades, aiming at controlling the public deficit.

I was amazed to find out that, around me, everyone had an opinion about this awfully technical issue. Lost between friends in favor and against the amendment, I felt quite dumb. Again, I have no idea whether it is the right thing to do or not. These are deep waters much beyond my education.

Being a responsible citizen in a democracy, I’m supposed at least to vote on several issues affecting civil life. It’s good that it works like that. I don’t think the world would be any better if a cast of wise men made decisions for me. History shows that in no time, they would start to make decisions for themselves.

Even worse, looking closely, wise men aren’t even so good with their predictions. As Philip Tetlock made famous, predictions in social sciences aren’t better than flipping a coin.

At the same time that I’m happy to play in the democracy game, I’m pretty sure that I’m not competent to opine on most of public issues I’m called for. And since I guess I’m no dumber than the average person, this  also means that my fellow people aren’t competent either.

Much on the contrary, even when things are water clear, people may choose to dive into the mud. Just check the current dispute for the US presidency: an exceptionally good candidate against an obvious crook (guess who is who), and they are basically tied!

Do you know another thing I don’t know? I don’t have the slightest clue on how to deal with such a paradox.

It’s funny, but all this complexity doesn’t seem to raise many eyebrows. Two minutes on Facebook, and I’m drowning among people who know. They just know, with all the power from an intransitive verb. They are all so sure. Sure about politics, about religion, about economy.

I deeply miss people who don’t know. People who, when asked about something, just answer: “I’m not sure. I have to think about it.”

I’m not making an eulogy of ignorance. Far from that. I’m a scientist, whose curiosity and wish of knowing more and more aren’t limited to my little professional pond.

But, maybe exactly for being a scientist, I expect rigor. It wouldn’t cost much to follow few basic heuristic rules to guarantee that we don’t contribute to the flood of bullshit where we swim. Simple things like:

  1. Avoid being partisan.
  2. Check all available empirical data.
  3. Think statistically.
  4. If you see a simple solution for a hard problem, be sure it’s wrong.
  5. Think twice before sharing your opinion.

If by some miracle people just started to follow such rules, do you know what would happen? Silence. A beautiful, comforting silence would suddenly embrace us.

I don’t have much hopes that silence will come. But I’m sure that the poor in spirit like me are somewhere. Maybe they are hidden, shy of their ignorance; maybe they are just quiet, studying.

In any case, I hope this post will let them know they aren’t alone; that they can speak up: “Sorry, I just don’t know.”


Categories: Culture

Tags: , , ,

3 replies

  1. The democracy now has given people right to vote for everything, but still need to lead them to know the fact in details and make decisions seriously.

  2. For me the controversy is: For many of these topics there are people who devoted their whole lives to studying them (academic, politicians,…) . And they disagree! So, how should anyone care about my opinion?

  3. This article seems just a snippet, but I feel it is underrated. The culture of unbased opinions is the bane of democracy, science and even human relationships. Unfortunately, human psyche tends to favour those who talk a lot over those who provide content. As such, sometimes it supports your cause when you simply talk about an issue without providing any solution.

    Just like what I wrote above.

    Hence I will provide my take on a solution: Education of mental defenses. Being able to identify purely rhetorical speeches/texts, and actively expressing your discontent with them. It adds unpleasantness to your life, as you show people that you can see through their tactics or make them aware of the fact that they just gave the rhetorical equivalent of a very long burp. In the long run, however, it is your only way to deal with this problem. But this is just my opinion 🙂

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