Note: This article is the final article of a six-part series on humility written by university faculty.
In a previous article, I wrote about the profound wisdom of the late astronomer and public educator Carl Sagan. In his final book published in the 1990s, “Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark,” Sagan prescribed three virtues essential to mankind’s prosperity in the 21st century and beyond — curiosity, skepticism, and humility.
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Curiosity speaks to the idea that we shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions. Skepticism addresses the need to question what we believe to be true and not assume validity where it has not been adequately established.
But the last component, humility, emphasizes the importance of remembering that we are fallible and could be wrong, that there is no shame in not knowing something. Sagan insisted that it’s far better to ask questions than to feign false understanding.
Is Our Capacity for Humility in Decline?
As I reflect on American society today, I can’t help but feel that our capacity for humility is in decline. The ostentation of spurious knowledge or wisdom seems ubiquitous in modern discourse.
Many people with whom I’ve spoken about this sense it, too. And some even have had the courage to admit that they themselves have been guilty of feigning knowledge about some topic or other.
For example, imagine a situation when you’re having a discussion with another person. It could be someone who really respects your opinion, like a mentee or an admirer. It could be someone over whom you have influence like a subordinate at work or a student in your class. Or it could simply be someone you’re meeting for the first time, with whom you’re just making small talk at a social event.
Now imagine you bring up a topic about which the other person, unbeknownst to you, is genuinely unfamiliar. Suppose, for example, you ask them about their thoughts on NASA’s new Mars Rover program. What do you think the chances are that they will acknowledge they are clueless on the subject rather than attempt to conjure up a response that creates the illusion of knowledge that they don’t actually possess?
The motive here is understandable — to save face and avoid embarrassment. Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City, is Sagan’s successor as host of the popular science education television series Cosmos. As Dr. Tyson has articulated, we humans are “uncomfortable steeped in ignorance.” And it’s worse when there is an audience.
It’s Often Hard to Admit Our Ignorance
We don’t like to put our lack of knowledge on display. It’s particularly painful when it’s displayed before someone who matters in our lives, like a supervisor or a mentor. But it’s powerfully unsettling even in the presence of total strangers. For the same reasons that people commonly fear speaking in front of an audience of strangers, we don’t like revealing our lack of enlightenment in public, either.
But we must take the time to reason through these emotions rationally. Why do we worry so much about this? And what is to be gained from pretending we know something we don’t?
Again, when you’re making casual conversation with someone you’ve never met before, and you bring up a topic about which you’re knowledgeable but you have no idea about the other person’s familiarity with it, do you ever have an expectation that he will know what you’re talking about? Of course not.
Now, to be fair, if you’re talking about space exploration with someone you know to be an employee of NASA, there might be some expectation that person can follow along and contribute to the dialogue. Or if you’re asking one of your employees about a report that the employee should know about by virtue of pre-defined job duties, then perhaps that employee has good reason to be nervous about admitting ignorance. But if there is no such pretext, there is likewise no expectation of prior knowledge.
Why Do We Care So Much about Admitting Ignorance?
So why then, when we are on the other side of a benign dialogue, do we assume such expectations of us in the minds of others? It’s a kind of odd paranoia, that we think other people believe we ought to know what they’re talking about. And so we try to jump through a hoop that we shouldn’t feel a pressure to jump through.
A sad irony exists in the fact that the ruse is often paper-thin, leading to a far greater embarrassment than the one the illusionist attempted to avoid with a ploy in the first place. Revealing that one doesn’t know something may feel mildly uncomfortable in the moment. But revealing one’s self to be deceptive and dishonest is far worse in my view.
So how do we correct course? It begins with allowing yourself the freedom to not know everything and to permit yourself to be human and imperfect. Instead of falsifying knowledge or wisdom for the sake of keeping up appearances, embrace the truth and ask questions.
People with genuine knowledge are often flattered by someone else’s interest. And they’re usually more than willing to share that knowledge with you if you only have the courage to ask.
We are all susceptible to the pressures of social dynamics, and I’d be lying if I said that I’ve never had encounters when I felt a sense of pressure to impress or establish legitimacy. But over the years, I’ve recognized the need for humility and honesty in human discourse.
And so these days, more often than not, I am eager to confess when I don’t know something. That way, I can set about learning something new rather than pretending to already know it. I remember that “a glass that is full can hold no more water.”
Incidentally, this is one reason why I host a podcast for the university. It allows me a unique and valuable opportunity to have long-form conversations with experts and luminaries from different fields, so I can learn and explore a topic through our dialogue. And the learning aspect of these conversations is so fulfilling that I often intentionally seek out guests whose areas of expertise are far removed from my own.
This is not a hard skill to learn, but it does take practice. Perhaps the most difficult aspect is the breaking of bad habits. It requires discipline and focus to remind one’s self as often as necessary that there is no value in pretending to know something.
But if we succeed, we maintain honesty in our relationships with others and we open new worlds of opportunity for our own learning and growth. We can embrace humility and eschew pretentiousness. As Dr. Tyson said, “There’s no shame in admitting what you don’t know. The only shame is pretending you know all the answers.”