If we are familiar with a topic, it’s often easy to recognize how little novices know or understand about it, and it’s easy to recognize their misconceptions and limitations.
And the more we are familiar with any topic, the more we tend to realize how little we know. And we tend to realize that this goes for any area of life or knowledge. We tend to find intellectual humility. (Of course, there are exceptions.)
None of us know what we don’t know. But we can know generally how little we know. We can find some intellectual humility and curiosity and even appreciation for the beauty of knowing little, no matter how much we know about something in a conventional sense.
The more mature and experienced we are, the more we tend to viscerally know how little we know.
As usual, there is a lot more to say about this.
For instance, what do I mean by knowing little? Don’t some know a lot about certain things? Yes, of course. We can have a lot of experience in certain fields and areas of life. And even then, what we think we know may not be entirely accurate. There is always more to be familiar with and learn. Our understanding will change with new insights and experiences, sometimes incrementally and sometimes dramatically. There may be other contexts to understand it within that makes as much or more sense, that will put everything in a new light, and may even turn everything upside-down and inside-out. In the bigger picture, what we are familiar with and think we know – as individuals and collectively – is a drop in the ocean compared to what there is to experience and understand. And we always think we know, we don’t actually know.
Where do I think I know a lot? Perhaps about this particular topic since it’s been of interest to me since my early teens. (Philosophy and methods of science.) Also, perhaps about the essence of awakening. (Although I am very aware that here, there is infinitely further to go and my sense of who and what I am can and likely will change dramatically as life continues to explore this through and as me.) And certainly any time I stress myself by holding any thought as true. (Stress is a sign my system holds certain thoughts and assumptions as true, and that these may not be consciously identified and certainly are not thoroughly investigated so I can find what’s already more true for me.)
What are some examples of where I tend to notice how little folks know about a topic, even if they may assume they know a lot? I sometimes notice it in news stories on topics I am relatively familiar with. I sometimes notice it in articles summarizing a field I am more familiar with than the author. I sometimes notice it in people who are exploring spirituality and awakening and have simplistic notions that betray a lack of experience or go into wishful or fearful thinking that reflects unexamined projections. I see it in some who reject the insights and expertise of professionals in a field and think they know more than them based on having read a few articles on the internet or listened to some podcasts.
Why is this important? It’s of vital importance since we need to be well informed to make good choices, both at an individual and collective level. If we are to deal with the huge challenges we are faced with these days – ecological crisis, mass migrations, pandemics, hunger, poverty – we need to be well informed and make good collective decisions. And we cannot do that if we are misled and assume we know more than people who have spent their life studying certain fields, or if a significant portion of the population misleads themselves in that way.
How do we balance knowing and knowing we don’t know? It’s not necessarily that difficult since they are two different things. We know more or less about certain topics and areas of life in a conventional sense, and this is based on data and logic that’s more or less solid and our assumptions work more or less well when tested out in practice. And no matter what, there is always more to know, our context for understanding may and probably will change, and we always think we know even when our assumptions are based on solid data and logic and work well in practice.
Are there not cases where experts are mistaken? Or intentionally mislead people? Yes, of course. Experts are human and make mistakes. Whole fields change over time and what’s taken as gospel truth today will be seen as old misconceptions a decade or century from now. And that doesn’t mean we need to wholesale reject the current content of science or mainstream views or assume we know more than experts just because we read or heard something. We need to know how little we know. In most cases, mainstream science is the best we have right now, even as we know the content of science changes with time.
Why do we sometimes like to think we know more than we do? It’s partly from a lack of experience and maturity. And there are likely also psychological dynamics at play. For instance, we may go into those ideas to compensate for a sense of lack or inferiority. The more at peace we are with ourselves, and the more psychologically healthy we are, the easier is for us to find peace with, genuinely appreciate, and live from the receptivity of not-knowing and knowing how little we know.
- when we don’t know how little we know
- if we are familiar with a topic, it’s often easy to see how little novices know or understand about it, it’s easy to recognize their misconceptions and limitations
- the more familiar we are with any topic, the more we tend to realize how little we know, we tend to find intellectual humility (of course, there are exceptions)
- and for all of us, we don’t know what we don’t know, but we can know how little we know, we can find some intellectual humility and curiosity and even appreciation for the beauty in knowing little, no matter how much we know about something in a conventional sense
WHEN WE DON’T KNOW HOW LITTLE WE KNOW
When I have been reading the views of people who hold anti-science and anti-vaccine views, and are into conspiracy theories in general, it often seems clear how little they know.
They don’t seem to understand how to read and analyze scientific papers. They don’t seem to know much about epidemiology, the history of pandemics, and what history shows us works and doesn’t work. They seem naive about how the science and medical worlds work. (Often in an overly cynical direction.) They don’t seem to get the basic difference between scientific methods (which make a lot of sense in general) and the content of science (which is always up for revision, influenced by culture, money and politics, and so on.) They don’t seem to recognize that in all pandemics harebrained conspiracy theories flourished, and they are repeating history with their own. They often throw the baby out with the bathwater.
In general, they don’t seem to realize how little they know. They have some pieces of information, think it’s the whole picture, and don’t know how to analyze it in the bigger picture and from a more informed position.
The essence of this is the same for all of us. We don’t know exactly what we don’t know since we don’t know it. Sometimes, we assume our knowledge is of higher quality than it is. And if we are honest, we all know that we cannot know for certain. All our views are provisional. They are questions about the world. They are a drop in the ocean compared to what there is to know. And it makes sense to hold it all very lightly.
I see it in some who hold anti-science views (anti-vaxxers, anti-masks) who seem to not know how to analyze scientific articles or how to use valid logical arguments (bad data and bad logic).