Character and the Confidence to Not Know

Q A imageOf course experts are paid to know their stuff.  We want them to have answers. But sometimes they need to allow complexity to have its way.

There are many ways to take the measure of another person’s character. One simple way is to look for how a person treats a server in a restaurant.  It’s a useful test of an individual’s temperament to notice their behavior with a total stranger who happens to be in a subordinate position. And it’s always a pleasant experience to discover that a new lunch companion is considerate of a staffer’s efforts. When a patron has no interest in the other, it suggests that they may be so locked into their own world that they can’t bother with even basic forms of human acknowledgement.

But there’s an even better marker of character, one that is especially useful for judging a person’s professional credibility. The test involves noticing how a person handles questions that draw them to the outer borders of their knowledge. What happens when someone is invited to give an opinion on a topic that is beyond their understanding?  My theory is that the more secure a person is, the more comfortable they are not answering every question.  These are folks who can say “I don’t know” with no loss of self-respect. And there’s an irony here:  It’s sometimes the case that the person who admits to not having a ready answer actually may still have more to tell us than the one who is a bit too eager to comment.

Here’s what I mean. Watch talk shows, or a typical panel of experts brought in after a “breaking news” story to speculate on possible causes. This was the case after the March 2014 disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines airliner after departing from Kuala Lumpur’s airport.  It disappeared somewhere in the Southern Ocean, even at this date without a clear reason. It’s rare to see a news show guest with the confidence to make the observation that they–and probably everyone else–cannot know why it disappeared. It’s the same for a psychologist being queried about the motives of a mass murderer, or a professor like myself teaching a course (“Theories of Persuasion”) that attempts to predict human behavior. We too rarely use the  option to acknowledge the limits of our understanding.

A person’s willingness to exercise this choice affirms their basic credibility. Like good diagnosticians, the most reliable experts don’t need to feign perfect knowledge to feel comfortable about their professional standing. An unjustifiable compulsion to respond to all queries can become a fraudulent kind of performed competence.  Faking a response is not the same as having something worthwhile to say.

The presence of false certainty should make us suspect. In my area one local radio program on gardening tips features a host who is never at a loss for an answer to a listener’s query. The subjects range broadly from trees to grass, flowers to invasive fauna, soil chemistry to hydrology. To be sure, he’s knowledgeable. But why is he never stumped?  For this person, apparently, all of the natural world is an open book.

This willingness to acknowledge the unknown is especially important for teachers and mentors.  It’s a useful lesson to show people new to a field that there is not an answer for every condition. Our love of science and its promise of ironclad certainty makes us look for apparent causality. Indeed, the rhetoric of causality has embedded itself within the rhetoric of answering. But sometimes asking good questions is the best we can do. The trick is to learn to value the individual who is comfortable enough in their own expertise to accept the limits of human understanding.