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.

Communication is about trust in a source.  That trust is typically revealed in how individuals address common situations.  Consider two tests. The responses to both reveal how comfortable a person is in their own skin.

The simplest measure is how a person addresses servers in a restaurant.  Odd, I know.  But think about it.  It’s a useful test of an individual’s character to observe how they treat a total stranger in a subordinate position. It can be pleasant to discover that a new lunch companion shows a basic regard for a staffer’s personal feelings.  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 persons handle questions that draw them to the outer borders of their knowledge. My theory is that the more secure a person is, the more they will not feel compelled to answer every question.  There’s irony here:  It’s sometimes the case that the person who doesn’t have an answer actually has more to tell us than the one who does.

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, still without a clear reason.  It’s rare to see a guest with the confidence to make the observation that they–and probably everyone else–cannot yet know why it disappeared.  And there’s positive value in withholding an answer.  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 says a lot about the quality of their personal confidence. 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.

Using this measure, the presence of false certainty seems to especially infect experts who host call-in talks shows. Topics may range from gardening to child-rearing.  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 knowledgable. But why is he never stumped?  For this person, apparently, all of the natural world is an open book. Perhaps the toughest questions never make it to air.  But why can’t he have the confidence of Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the two auto mechanics on public radio’s popular program, Car Talk?  Both mengraduates of M.I.T.had a follow-up feature in their show to find out how often they gave a car owner bogus repair advice. Quite often, it turns out. That’s intellectual honesty.

Of 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.

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. 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.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu