Uncommon Common Sense – June 2015

Uncommon Common Sense

By Bill Frayer

Intellectual Humility


Bill Frayer 2010“The trouble with the world,” Bertrand Russell once quipped, “is that the stupid are cock sure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”  We live in a world where almost everyone is connected to the Internet, people have a choice of so many television outlets and other media that they can select those which tend to agree with their own biases. As a result, many are rarely exposed to intelligent arguments of topics about which they are ignorant or with which they are inclined to disagree. As we can see, the problem is not those who do not know, and are aware of that fact.  The danger is from those who do not know or understand but think they do. 

I remember attending an international critical thinking conference where a group of professors from a medical school in California presented a workshop entitled Creative Ignorance.  Their first instruction to the audience was, “Write a list of ten things you do not know.”  We looked around at each other for a minute and had a difficult time beginning the task. It was difficult to think of what we didn’t know because we are not used to focusing on our ignorance. Of course, once we started, it was easy to make such a list, for we realized there are many more things we do not know than things we do know. 

These physicians understood the value of understanding one’s ignorance in medicine. It is the doctor who thinks she knows more than she does who is most dangerous. A doctor who immediately recognizes when she does not have an answer is inclined to seek help from colleagues, often a good move! 

We suffer from a lack of intellectual humility.  Many have a very difficult time saying, “I don’t know.” to a question. To be ignorant has become to be seen as a weakness. Worse, many people have great difficulty saying, “I was wrong.”  To understand and admit that we are ignorant or just plain wrong is an important cognitive trait: intellectual humility. 

Sometimes education, ironically, works against intellectual humility. The higher degree we attain, the greater the tendency to believe that we know more than the average Joe.  Most people who achieve advanced degrees have studied a narrow specialty which leaves great room for ignorance in other areas. Yet many of these people like to pontificate on a variety of subjects about which they may, in fact, be just as ignorant as the rest of us. As a result, some MBA’s think they can time the stock market; some psychologists think their analysis of behavior is always correct; and lawyer-politicians begin to think they have a corner on wisdom about just about every topic.   

 My wife used to say that critical thinking creates a kind of paralysis. And in a way, she’s right. If you are intellectually humble, you realize that you know very little about most things, so you need to carefully listen to many arguments and points of view before you make a decision. People who do not suffer from such humility often jump in with an opinion immediately; they have no doubt about the correctness of their opinions. We are all, unfortunately, very familiar with these people. 

How does an intellectually humble person behave? She enjoys reading opinions form a variety of sources.  She listens more than she talks. She asks questions more than she argues.  And, perhaps most importantly, she recognizes when she is ignorant about something and resists the tendency to pretend that she knows more than she does. As a result, she is always learning and developing a more complex understanding of reality.  Yet, she remains more humble about her knowledge than the ignorant person who is confident he knows just about everything. 

Isaac Asimov recognized the pervasive anti-intellectualism in our society when he observed the common false notion that “My ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” 

And so, we continue to struggle.


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Ojo Del Lago
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