01 Jan If I had the power to make one change that would leave the most profound and long-lasting impact on humankind, I would choose to eliminate arrogance. (MO GAWDAT)
If I had the power to make one change that would leave the most profound and long-lasting impact on humankind, I would choose to eliminate arrogance. Specifically, I would remove our obsession with being “right.” I would erase the Illusion of Knowledge.
Arrogance is all around us. Just look at all the arguments and debates in politics and popular culture. Everyone comes to the table with confidence and conviction. They take a stand and hold their positions firmly, confirming what they know. Their confidence seems convincing—but do they really know?
Our pursuit of knowledge has propelled our civilization forward.
It’s moved us from chipping stones by the light of a bonfire to rushing around city streets talking into our smartphones. Knowledge is the fuel of civilization. But at the same time, our conviction that we truly know causes us to suffer. It’s the ultimate ignorance. Before we discuss how this affects our happiness, let’s first assess the magnitude of the illusion.
If you were asked to interview someone who claims to be knowledgeable, you would ask questions with the aim of uncovering the depth and breadth of that knowledge. You would try to assess how accurate her answers are and how much she knows about the subject in comparison to all there is to know.
If she knows a lot and her information is accurate, she will be considered an expert. If, however, she knows very little and much of what she knows is wrong, you will dismiss her claim of knowledge—and politely ask her to leave. Well, let’s go ahead and interview humankind (including me and you). Let’s see how much of an expert it really is.
The Depth of Knowledge
What matters most isn’t what you know, but how accurate your knowledge is. To know the wrong thing is worse than not to know at all. Correct?
Shockingly, the accuracy of most knowledge—even scientific knowledge— suffers because we ignore unknown unknowns. Take physics, for example. Sir Isaac Newton discovered gravity and published his laws of motion in 1687, forming the foundation of what we now know as classical mechanics. Those laws were fiercely debated until they were undisputedly proven and accepted. Once proven, scientists embraced them as facts that govern everything from the falling of an apple to the orbiting of the moon and planets. Anyone who dared dispute their accuracy was considered ignorant. The arrogance of debate was replaced with the arrogance of absolute knowledge. This position, however, was totally unfounded because Newton’s laws ignored many unknowns that were later discovered.
In 1861 James Clerk Maxwell’s classical thermodynamics rendered Newton’s laws insufficient. In 1905 Albert Einstein declared Newton’s assumption about time to be false. In the mid-1920s, quantum physics showed that the world of small particles doesn’t behave as Newton expected. In the 1960s string theory exposed the incompleteness of quantum theories, which, in turn, was rendered incomplete in the 1990s by M-theory—and it seems just about time for some other new term to render that incomplete very soon.
Can you see how misled we can be? Something as basic as the elementary laws of physics that seemed to function properly and accurately for more than two hundred years was, at best, an approximation.
The reason we so arrogantly believe in our knowledge is that our observation often validates it. Our ability to navigate our immediate physical surroundings, for example, was never affected by our false assumption that the Earth was flat. It’s hard to imagine something new until new observations contradict our prior understanding—seeing the hull of a ship vanish before its mast in the horizon, for example. Only then do we revisit what we know and even start to wonder how we ever thought as we once did. How could we miss what now seems so indisputably obvious?
Solve for Happy