I don’t know

September 5, 2007 | By | 4 Replies More

“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.” 

Ludwig Wittgenstein

We are suffering greatly because too many people are incapable of saying “I don’t know.” 

Why can’t people simply say “I don’t know” when they don’t know?  Is it because so many of us were chastised in school when we didn’t know an answer?  Back in school, there wasn’t any penalty for guessing when you were not certain of your answer—maybe this training to engage in penalty-free guessing taught too many of us that we should continue to guess out in the real world, when we don’t really know.

Or could this unwillingness to say “I don’t know” be yet another manifestation of cognitive dissonance (or see here)?  Perhaps many people feel exposed and belittled when it is revealed that they don’t actually know something.   Therefore, they strive to present themselves in a good light (by confidently saying something rather than admitting that they don’t know) to reduce their inner dissonance.

Ironically, the people who are worst able to perform are often the most confident in their abilities. This has been repeatedly shown by psychologists.  For example, it was shown by Justin Kruger and David Dunning in an article entitled:  “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.”

We argue that when people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it. 

This unwillingness to say “I don’t know” can sometimes be dangerous.  Let’s assume that an President announces his plan to needlessly invade a country with the world’s largest military.  Let’s assume that this President, when asked to explain his intentions to invade, is incapable of saying “I don’t know.”  Instead, he struts around acting like everything is under control even though he has no idea whether his plan will succeed or at what the invasion will cost. 

Then again, imagine this exchange involving a President who puts the truth first:

Mr. President, does the enemy really have WMD?

A:  I don’t know.

Mr. President, will the citizens throw flowers to greet our troops?

A:  I don’t know.

Those honest answers would compel this answer to whether we should invade: “I don’t know.”  But this is not the world in which we live, of course.

What could be more dangerous than a President who can’t admit that he doesn’t know things he doesn’t know?  Here’s something that would be more dangerous: Assume that the citizens mistake the Leader’s obstinate unwillingness to say that “I don’t know” for fortitude.  Assume further that the citizens themselves begin acting certain that their President is correct when they actually have no idea.  Such citizens would thus be afflicted too.  They would be too embarrassed to say these magic words in front of their friend: “I don’t know whether our President knows.”

Or imagine this exchange:

Is their a God or an afterlife?

A:  I don’t know

Imagine how much this would eliminate most debates regarding religion! 

When challenged, many people who don’t really know (but who claim they know) put up vicious fights.  Often, the less they know, the harder they fight for their unsupported positions.  This anomaly is understandable.  People give more respect to people who know.  People who claim to know are cheaters.   They are pulling a bait and switch.  The world is full of cheaters (all of us some of the time), and people who refuse to say “I don’t know” are simply one type of cheater.

If they had been questioned about something discernable, e.g., whether they tied their shoes that day, everyone could look down and see for themselves.   There would be no emotional fight in such a circumstance (where the facts could actually be determined) But when the issue is a complex issue such as education, how to invest one’s money, how to raise a child, religion, nutrition or running the country, there is no way to determine any long-term “correct” (or, often, short term) answers.  Therefore, to disagree with a person who can’t say “I don’t know” on one of these complex issues is not to have a disagreement at all, but it will seem like you’re having a disagreement.  The consequent displays of anger and frustration are inversely proportional to the paucity of information available.  I’ve seen it hundreds of times.  Again, if the answer were actually clear, people would exchange information without emotional distress.  Because no clear answers are available (and because so many people can’t say they don’t know), however, heated arguments can be heard late into the night.  Intelligent people don’t often argue to support things they don’t know, however.  Intelligent people know enough be able to say “I don’t know.”  This is one of the things that makes intelligent people intelligent.

Where facts aren’t really available (and where arguments thus become more personal) people are being rejected, not information.  Where people argue in ignorance, people are being dissed and they’re feeling it. That’s what too many “arguments” are about today: people blasting hot air at each other in full ignorance in a vain attempt to increase their social status.  All too many arguments today are for the sake of social status or defending one’s social group rather than for the sake of exchanging information.  In fact, if two people are arguing, it’s most likely that they’re not exchanging information.  

We would all be better off if more of us felt at ease uttering those three magic little words: “I don’t know.”   Will we ever have a world where most of the people who don’t know say they don’t know?  I’d love to live in such a world, but I’m not holding my breath that it will happen soon.


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Category: Education, Politics, Psychology Cognition, War

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (4)

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  1. Edgar Montrose says:

    Not quite the same as, "I don't know," but related …

    My brother-in-law is a simple man. He's not stupid, but he's no genius. He doesn't have a powerful, important job; he's a truck driver. He doesn't drive a fancy car; he drives a pickup truck. And he's the only person I've ever met who could say, without any hint of embarrassment or self-consciousness, "I don't understand."

    Rarely do misunderstandings occur with him, because when he doesn't understand something that is said to him or asked of him, he just says, "I don't understand." And he keeps saying it until he does understand.

  2. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    "I don't know" is an Agnostic idea…

  3. bhujjy says:


    I think he is saying: There are things known which cannot be communicated, so don't even try.

  4. Erich Vieth says:

    The Dunning-Kruger cognitive bias is relevant to this inability to admit that one does not know yet nonetheless pontificates. http://dangerousintersection.org/2010/11/06/more-

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