On not knowing (Mental Models VIII)

Is String theory true? Has Latin America seen a political polarization in the last ten years? Is a keto-oriented diet dangerous for your heart? The only reasonable answer to these questions – for the absolut majority of us – is that we do not know. If you are a physicist working in String theory, a deep political expert with years in studying Latin-American politics or a medical doctor focused on diets and their adverse effects you will naturally have something to say here – but most of us are not. Yet, it is not hard to find people who have views on all of the subjects above.

What we do when we answer questions like this is not that we disclose knowledge – we make stuff up. We confabulate. Confabulation is, the almighty Wikipedia tells us, “a memory error defined as the production of fabricated, distorted, or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world. People who confabulate present incorrect memories ranging from “subtle alterations to bizarre fabrications”,[1] and are generally very confident about their recollections, despite contradictory evidence”.

It is worth studying this more in detail. In her fascinating book Being Wrong, author Kathryn Schulz notes that:

Most of us, however, are noticeably better at generating theories than at registering our own ignorance. Hirstein says that once he began studying confabulation, he started seeing sub-clinical versions of it everywhere he looked, in the form of neurologically normal people “who seem unable to say the words, ‘I don’t know,’ and will quickly produce some sort of plausible-sounding response to whatever they are asked.” Such people, he says, “have a sort of mildly confabulatory personality.”*

Actually, all of us have mildly confabulatory personalities.

Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, p 83

So, why is it so hard to say that we do not know? One answer is of course that we want to be helpful, and be seen as insightful. And not knowing is generally perceived as a social flaw, but on the other hand confabulation often means that you end up being wrong, which is a worse social flaw. But the reality is that very few of our opinions are tested or submitted to more rigorous review, so we do get away with it.

There is significant power in not knowing, however. And what is more important: it may help others admit the same thing and then we can start making some real progress in finding things out. What we need then, is a mental model of what it means not to know. It is not that we “come up empty” and lack value and contribution – it is more that we have found a reason to search for the right answer, and in that search we engage others.

“I don’t know” really should translate into “We should find that out”.

Not knowing is agreeing to explore rather than giving up.

When we are on this subject we may also want to think about what some of the consequences of the tendency to confabulate is. A correlate to the observation that there is a lot of things we do not know is that there are a lot of things other people do not know either, and we tend to forget that. A case in point is what Michael Crichton called the Gell Mann effect:

Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved. You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect. (I refer to it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward — reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect.

See http://geer.tinho.net/crichton.why.speculate.txt

Once we realize that confabulation makes up a significant piece of what we read in the news, we may want to seek to change the things we read and seek out more substantive reading – read research and books instead of news, for example — but more importantly, constantly reminding us that many of the articles in the news probably should be translated to a quiet “I don’t know”.

There is a certain liberty in that! When we do not know we are free to start learning.

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