Knowing what you know and knowing what you don’t know

Aug 23 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

One of the most valuable things in the world is knowing what you know and knowing what you don’t know. One of the most inadvertently self-destructive is making a mistake about what you know: Not knowing what you don’t know, and not realizing what you do know.

It is easy to think you know something. Sometimes it’s a big thing and sometimes a little thing. I remember, as a grad student, visiting Manhattan, with another grad student. We did it cheap – a bus ride crashing with a friend who was a postdoc at Columbia, a splurge for theater tix but walking and walking and taking the subway. On the last day, walking through Central Park, I had a feeling: I know New York. It felt good, and comfortable and exciting all at once. And my immediate next thought: idiot, of course not.

Sometimes when you are in a place, as a student, or a postdoc, or even a junior faculty you think you know it. Remember your undergrad institution? You thought you Really Knew It. Actually, US Universities try and promote that feeling, it encourages a sense of belonging and ultimately, donations. Of course, you did know things, about the major, about the classes, which bars were good for conversation, and which coffee houses were the most generous with real cream. Or quiet. Or glamorous.

You knew the profs. Who taught a good class, and who was an ass, at least the undergrads in their lab. You knew who had money, and who had power. Or at least you thought you did. Years later, you sometimes learned how superficial that knowledge was.

That’s the trouble with figuring out what you don’t know. You know a little bit and it’s easy to mistake that for knowing more. Sometimes you don’t have a clue about the neighborhood a block away from the subway stop. Or, you may have a sense that there was some place you only looked at, standing on the corner, glancing or studying, or even trying to memorize, down the block. But if you don’t get off the subway at the five stops between Here and There, you wouldn’t have a clue whether it’s one or 10 neighborhoods that you missed. You didn’t know if there were even stores, or restaurants, or dance studios in the neighborhoods you didn’t know existed.

In doing research, there are lots of places and things we’ve not seen. There are the content parts. In the olden days, one could major in biology, and taken a series of first or second year classes and get a sense of th breadth of biology. Now, I gather that half of the majors never had a botany class, or even evolution or ecology. Clinicians may have seen down the block to see the neighborhood called “research”. Smart ones say, ah, lots of buildings there. Irritating ones say, yup, big buildings of brick and I know what’s in them, because they’re just down the block from the place where I’ve been hanging. Good ones actually walk down the block.

[aside: yeah, yeah, Not All Clinicians, not all scientists, everyone knows an example or counter example. Folks, we are talking trends here].

My twenties-ish step-ish children think there is nowhere to live but New York. I admire them because they have built lives that they want to live. They work hard, and play hard and love life. And they think there is nowhere to live but New York City. When I pointed out that they had never lived, as adults, anywhere BUT New York, they said “yes, but I know”.

So take a moment and question what you know. It’s hard, but. I’ve written the concluding “but” here and erased about 16 things. But, you will have a richer life. But it will save your from being embarrassed. But you will make better decisions about the things you do know. What the heck. Yes those  "buts" are important, and justifications for trying to figure out what you don't know.

Me, I’d always rather know. Period.  Even if it’s ugly and embarrassing and points out my mistakes. Long held and long repeated mistakes. I’d always rather know.

4 responses so far

  • Ola says:

    Re: the subway thing, it's the same with cars - you simply miss too much by zooming on by. This is one of the reasons why I ride a bike whenever possible - you just see and experience so much more at the slower pace. This is a side issue to the topic at hand, but it's a much better way to introduce the topic of unknown unknowns than the usual Donald Rumsfeld trope.

    So yeah back on topic, the issue at hand is how to expose oneself to knowledge that one otherwise would not have thought worthy of pursuit? How to step outside the filter of obtaining news from facebook and other self-affirming sources? How to force oneself to read a paper one is not interested in reading?

    • potnia theron says:

      I think more critical is how to make the sorting/selection. Its one thing to know you are missing, but how to chose what to miss?

  • David says:

    I like this quote from Mark Twain. “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”

    In our modern age, one little corner of the earth includes our preferred news source. But I also think that physical travel is so fruitful because it is easier (at least to me) to be open minded about different philosophies when they are coming from someone from a different culture. When talking to a neighbor, it is so easy to fall into the trap of thinking 'we have the same life experience, how can you think differently from me'. When talking to someone from another country, it is expected that they'll view life differently; their experiences are so foreign to my own.

  • […] situation is a hard one. Dr. Ifix has a large ego. Dr. Ifix doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. He got a senior-ish K award, whilst faculty and now thinks he knows grantsmanship. He didn’t do […]

Leave a Reply