It's been said that the problems you encounter in life stem not so much from what you don't know, but from what you know for sure that isn't so. Who said it? We don't know, although many people are certain that it was Mark Twain. More on that later. For now, why would it be less hazardous—to your health, to productivity, to happiness—to not know a whole bunch of things than to believe things that aren't true? Because if you're sure that you know something, you act on it with the strength of conviction and resolve.
If you're sure that an alternative treatment will help cure your cancer better than "Western medicine," you'll forego the traditional treatment. This is exactly what happened to Steve Jobs—after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he pursued a kind of new age, Northern-California alternative diet in lieu of medical treatment. By the time he realized it wasn't working, it was too late for medicine to help him.
If you're sure that your choice of political candidate is right if you know it for sure, you're not likely to be open-minded about any new evidence that might come in that could—or should—cause you to change your mind.
I am a college professor, and one of the things I do for a living is train PhD students in science. They come into my laboratory full of confidence. After all, they have been at the top of every class they've been in all throughout their school lives. If they hadn't been, they wouldn't have gotten into a first-rate college, and if they hadn't been at the top of their classes there, they wouldn't have gotten into the very competitive graduate programs at the universities where I've taught and those like them—the Stanfords, Berkeleys, Dartmouths, and McGills. But here's the problem: They come in thinking that they are hot stuff. They have learned massive amounts of information, and unfortunately, they are so sure that their knowledge is correct, they are wont to add new knowledge without questioning the foundations of the old. In their time under my tutelage, I spend most of my time trying to teach them that they don't know what they think they do. I don't teach graduate students so much as unteach them. This takes four to six years. In some cases, eight.
When a graduate student comes to me and says "I just realized I don't know anything about cognitive neuroscience" I congratulate them and tell them they're now ready to receive the PhD. The PhD is effectively a license for someone to become a lifelong learner, certifying the kind of open-mindedness and critical thinking skills necessary to become a creator of knowledge. Knowledge can't be created in an environment where everything is already known. It can only be created in an environment where we're open to the possibility that we're wrong. For those of you steeped in Eastern philosophy, you'll recognize the Zen connection. A book was written about this by the philosopher Alan Watts—The Wisdom of Insecurity.
I wrote A Field Guide to Lies because I think that all of us are capable of this kind of critical thinking, regardless of our educational background. The kind of inquisitiveness and curiosity I'm talking about is innate. Every four-year-old asks a series of incessant "why" questions: Why is there rain? Because of condensation. Why is there condensation? Because of changing temperature conditions. Why are there changing temperature conditions? Etcetera. We have this beaten out of us early on by worn-down parents and teachers. But this why mode is the key to all critical thinking. Think like a four-year-old. Ask "why" and "how." Ask them often.
Allowing ourselves to realize that we don't always know what we think we know opens our minds to new knowledge, and allows us to navigate the world more effectively, choosing among options (or political candidates) that are more likely to maximize our success and well-being. In the current election climate, many people decided early on which candidate they wanted to support, based either on a gut feeling or the information they had back then. If they're not open to new information as it becomes available, they may support someone who is unlikely to embody the principles they value.
Mark Twain is widely cited as stating some version of the phrase that opened this article, that it ain't what you don't know, but what you know for sure that ain't so that will get you in trouble. Many people believe he said it. A thorough search of sources reveals that he not only didn't say it but didn't say anything like it. The source of the quote is unknown. Sometimes you don't know what you think you do.
This article was originally written by Daniel J. Levitin, Ph.D., and full credit goes to Psychology Today, who published this article over a year ago. This article has been reprinted for the purpose of education.
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