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The virtue of ‘I don’t know’

Published in The Malaysian Insider

Text of an original TEDxKL speech


“Why is the sky blue?”

“Where do people go when they die?”

“Where do I come from?”

Kids are born as natural scientists. They love to ask these sorts of questions ― something you would realise from spending some time with them.

They are inquisitive, and they love to find out how things work. Most importantly, they are not afraid to bombard you with questions constantly.

The same cannot be said for us adults. We are too lazy to ask, or rather, we just can’t be bothered. We are no longer those naturals, as we were when younger.

I believe kids are natural scientists because they are not afraid to confess, to say these three words: “I DON’T KNOW.” This is not the case with most adults. It is ingrained in our minds that saying “I don’t know” is a weakness.

So here’s the thing I would like to propose, as a way to keep this inquisitive nature as we grow up: Let us say “I don’t know” more often.

The words “I don’t know” become a negative thing quite early in our lives. When young kids ask a lot of questions, we find them cute. We encourage them, we entertain them. The moment they reach school-going age though, that’s when it stops being cute.

People do not take to questioners kindly, especially some teachers. An education system (like the one we currently have in Malaysia) that puts emphasis on rote learning, repetitions to drive home points, and memorising ― do not do well with questions.

Questions are disruptive. They are distractions. Questions waste time. So we expect our students to just know their stuff, preferably by themselves.

This attitude, I believe, has its roots in religion, or to be exact, in religious teachings. This is especially true of the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

When was the last time one was expected, or allowed to question religion? Pity the inquisitive student who wanted to know how Muhammad ever cleaved the moon, or how it was possible for Jesus to be born of a virgin, or what sorcery Moses used to part the Red Sea.

Religion favours simple, authoritative answers. Questions like “how did the universe start?” and “what happened to the dinosaurs?” are more likely to be swiped aside with definitive answers such as “only God knows,” “Wallahu’alam.”

This method might work well to teach religion, but not for topics that require independent thought, and critical reasoning. It certainly does not work well in breeding curiosity.

Some people will find these simple, authoritative answers to be very comforting. As for me, I think it’s an easy way out. It’s a lazy way of avoiding questions that we find too challenging for ourselves.

If I were to ask myself, “How did the universe start?”, well I’ll be damned… I know somewhat about the Big Bang, but what happened before? I, frankly, don’t know.

And that’s the truth.

Herein lies the virtue of saying “I don’t know”, because the opposite, at most times — is to bullshit, a dangerous act which can be worse than simply lying.

In his book, the appropriately-named “On Bullshit”, philosopher Harry Frankfurt explained that liars know what they say is not true. Bullshitters, on the other hand, do not care about the truth.

At these times, saying “I don’t know” is the more honest step, and it might be the smarter way too.

Saying “I don’t know” means that you will never jump to conclusions, and you are always open to different explanations. It means your opinions are not set in stone. It’s a show of willingness to listen, and learn.

Saying “I don’t know” does not have to be a weakness. It is not an apology, and one does not have to be ashamed of saying it.

However, to make it work, “I don’t know” must not be accompanied by the bliss of being ignorant. To turn it into something positive, I suggest, every time we say “I don’t know”, we follow it up with “I will find out.”

“How did the universe start?”

“What happened to the dinosaurs?”

“Well, I don’t know, but I will find out.”

This way, you change an expression of defeat, into a drive to better yourself. This is certainly not easy work, but it will be very much worth it when one discovers that there are many things that one has yet to learn, and be humbled by it.

Try it at least once today. Over time, that kid in you, that natural scientist in you, will surface again.

Francis Bacon was one of the pioneers of the scientific method, it was even called Baconian method back then. Here is what he had to say, which I think sums this up perfectly:

“If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts, but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.”

Published inTMI column
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