Knowing How to Not Know

April 25, 2010

What We Want To Know

What we want to know, I think, is everything. We humans have a passionate and innate desire to understand the world around us. We seek to know whatever we can find out, and if we can’t or don’t think we can find out, we make up patterns. Humans are amazing pattern seekers even when none exist.

If something is innate it means we are born with it. Children seem to prove this. The natural curiosity a child has as they learn language and begin to understand how the world around them works is self evident. Adults are drawn to children’s curiosity, almost mesmerized. We wish we could carry out the same interests with the same passion.

I’ve been discovering my views about education over the last several years and I’ve come to find out that I find the current education system deplorable and scary. I don’t want my kids in it. Aside from the one or two amazing teachers a kid might find in their entire K-12 career, and that’s if they are lucky, schools don’t cut it. There are many factors behind this opinion, but one particular reason really stands out.

Schools take what kids want to know and transform it into one of two things:

  1. What they don’t care about
  2. (and worse) What they ought to know.

What they don’t care about

I’m going to talk about my own experience with school, because it’s the most immediate experience available. But I think a similar case could be made for 98% of secondary education students out there. The proof is in their constantly bored faces and general teenage disinterest. Those characteristics are made, not bred.

During school, I didn’t care about a lot of things. I detested history class, hated most poetry, thought that “literature” was boring, and that the essay was an antiquated method of attempting to sound smart while repetitively saying nothing at all. I thought language classes were boring and the cultures they taught were uninteresting. Computer Science class was a joke. Chemistry class was droll. Biology class held only a minor interest, and that was probably only because it was cool that someone dropped a pig brain on the floor.

Yet in my free time I couldn’t get my head out of a book. I loved Poe. Marine biology was, I thought, my future profession. Like most kids, I loved dinosaurs. I read about Newton and his ridiculous, apocryphal apple. I tried to make up experiments to determine the amount of light required for the human eye to discern wavelengths of color.

I still can’t get my head out of a book. I write code in my free time, away from work. I love math problems and puzzles. Ancient Greek and Roman history fascinates me, as does the Renaissance. Poetry amazes me, art excites me, and classical music is the one genre I wouldn’t give up on a desert island.

I’ve read or studied the same things from school later on and found myself captivated. Why the difference? The subjects haven’t changed, although selections might appeal more or less to different people. So I can only conclude that the difference lies in the manner in which the subjects were approached.

This may or may not have to do directly with teachers. Variability exists, but teachers often don’t start with the source material they’re teaching. They start with a lesson plan. Barry Schwartz provides a great example of a horrible curricula in his TED Talk on the loss of wisdom. He describes a 75-point lesson plan for reading a 25 page kindergarten book: “All over Chicago, every teacher is saying the same words in the same way on the same day … Scripts like these are insurance policies against disaster. And they present disaster. But what they assure in its place is mediocrity.” To anyone above the median, mediocrity is slow. Worse than slow; mediocrity is a death knell. The damage of a moderate pace of learning to someone in the 90th or 99th percentile is a sort of smothering effect. They think, “is this it? Is this what I have to look forward to?” It’s from a history of this kind that Einstein said “It is in fact nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry.” Kids want to learn. More than anything else, learning requires a curious mind and a sense of wonder. By locking down the curriculum tightly or teaching without a sense of wonder, we are abandoning our children to a world of grey; colorless and seemingly absent of the subject of that innate passion they have felt all their lives.

What they ought to know

Somewhere along the line in school, like many people, I realized that this style of education was a sort of facade. I don’t think I really understood this directly, but there was an itch in my brain. Every teacher seemed to follow directly the textbook they had. If their interest in the subject was so keen and their knowledge so crisp that they could teach it to us, why such a direct association? Surely there was other material out there?

And there is. American history doesn’t boil down to 4 or 5 important dates and 7 or 8 important people. It’s a mosaic with many subplots, twists, and figures. The only place this facade didn’t exist was math class. My calculus teacher used to move on to each new subject by grandiosely introducing “the picture [in the book] that has nothing to do with the chapter”. Then we’d close our book and do his math. He seemed to keep the textbook only because he had to and we revered him for that. He used to say you needed to take calculus three times and teach it twice before you really understood it. Under his guidance, I think half the class understood it the first time. We all aced the AP test.

Of the lucky students that have a glimpse through the doldrums of American secondary education, I think a vast majority of them get it from math. Science is probably second. There’s a simple reason: you have to be able to do math. If you don’t understand Heathcliff’s symbolism in Wuthering Heights, you can look in the Cliff Notes whether you’re a student or a teacher. But if you’re trying to solve a math problem in front of a class and you can’t do it, you’re going to look like an idiot.

(Hopefully college lets more people get some real education. That’s the idea anyway, I have my doubts whether or not it works. But at least more professors seem to ask real questions and know the topics beyond a textbook understanding. They have to - they’re usually required to do research in their field.)

The interesting effect of this whole facade is that most kids go through school with the expectation that their teacher knows the answer and they don’t. The teachers try to uphold this; they are the authority after all. The student’s job is to learn the answer, sometimes simply by guessing “D” on a Scantron.

A method of learning that involves guessing, picking answers out of the air is frightening. Because of this system, most people consider an answer to be a sort of a priori Platonic ideal, floating out there in the aether. All they need to do is reach out and grab the right thing.

This is, of course, bullshit. Nobody, not a single person that has invented or discovered something has ever thought of the “right answer” like that. Think about Newton, Einstein, Edison, Austen, Shakespeare. They were ambitious, excited, and above all curious. They were having fun. Playing. Up until a certain age in school, maybe 8-10, that’s what kids do too. They play.

As Ken Robinson notes, we’re educating kids for a world that doesn’t exist yet, for jobs that don’t exist yet. They will be inventing the future. It’s scary to consider the decisions that today’s kids will make later on because they get into a situation where they are supposed to know the answer. They’ll be glib.

I love what Kathy Sierra notes in the above article: in most situations, the fast talkers win. Not because they’re right, but because they come up with a potential answer fastest. That’s an increasing trend. The push from pen and paper to email to texting and Twitter is evidence of the same kind of problem. The speed of communication, for us humans, seems to be a subconscious cue of intelligence.

Glibness often matches up with a certain lack of intuition. In math class, if you “got it”, if you understood the concept, you didn’t need to memorize all those chalkboard formulas. It wasn’t a definitions sheet you had to regurgitate on a test. If you really got it and you didn’t know the formula, you could always just re-derive it anyway. It was the concept that mattered.

That’s what made me realize that all the geniuses in the world aren’t all that amazing either. Biographers and other people in the field have a vested interest in garnering amazement. In some cases like Einstein, Newton, Euler, and Shakespeare it’s impossible not to be in awe, you can’t change that.

Yet… All proclaimed geniuses are very competent, but there’s lots of competent people out there. What set them apart was the combination of competence and intuition. It wasn’t that they could do the problems right, the difference maker was the ability to grok the concepts. And that allowed them to come up with new questions, and new answers.

At best, the amazing people of the world have maybe one skillful discriminator. Maybe they’re on the + side of the 5 + or - 2 items one can hold in one’s head (if there’s anything, this is probably my useful quirk that let’s me make up slightly for poor intuition). But no amount of skill alone will transform a lack of intuition. That’s the real key to the understanding that makes men into giants.

If I were a teacher, I think I’d be a miserable one for covering material. That’s how most teaching works, information gets nuggetized into little bits that we can memorize, and this set of memorizations becomes our patent knowledge of the subject. But a compound set of information about some thing is not the same as really understanding that thing.

Instead, I’d be more interested in the wall of understanding - the intuition breakthrough - that let’s someone really get it. Once you have that, a new subject comes and you learn it and grok it. The nuggets are still important, but they take on a new meaning when you get where they’re coming from. Plus they become easier to memorize, because you have the context that they apply to.

That nuggetization (God, what a word) is one of the biggest problems now. The pace of our information ingest keeps increasing, forcing us to nuggetize more and more. In school and at work, nuggetization is an attempt to be able to say “Yes! Person X comprehensively understands material Y.” What a load of crap. SATs, Scantrons, Process, Methodology - all those logical, rational things we teach in math and the sciences. It’s all the same thing: an attempt to provide a base level of understanding about a subject when a person lacks intuition for it.

Maybe instead we ought to focus on understanding how to cultivate that intuition. That will only start with a sense of wonder.

A Theory: Listen to People Who Listen

If most people tend towards being glib, and school tends toward nuggetization, what do we do? Outside of books, who do we learn from?

My theory is to listen to people who listen.

That means in the converse to ignore talkers. Often the people that talk the most seem to say the least. By this I don’t mean that extraverts say less than introverts. Rather, if you talk the fastest, necessarily you’re thinking less than the people who might talk slower. Our brains are more or less serial processes.

It’s true that extraverts often think by talking things out. I don’t have a problem with that. But because of our education teaching us that we ought to know the a priori answer, whether those fast talkers are right or not, the first proposed answer tends to stick.

The deeper problem is all of the learning that has led up to the fast talking. When you talk fast, you can’t really listen.

Consider a person as a function of input and output. As children, our rate of input is astronomically high, based on that passion and sense of wonder I mentioned before. Rate of meaningful output is low, and the quality of that output is low. This is expected, as the purpose of the output is practice and learning. As we grow older, input will decrease - it has to somewhat. Output will increase too, along with (hopefully) the quality.

The trick is to let this trend slowly. Someone who limits their input too much cannot possibly be maximizing their learning as much as someone who holds input as paramount. So by default their output is less informed. It has to be, they don’t have as much data - as much experience and learning - to base their output on.

If you were to graph this, I’d expect the typical input function of a person to trend downward rapidly and level out somewhere just above zero. Output would continue to increase. Quality of output would asymptote out somewhere too.

I’d rather see an input curve that stayed higher. There’s some imaginary line of input somewhere that allows the graph of quality of output to continue steadily increasing, rather than hit a wall.

You can see the difference in people. Most people allow their skill and ability at tasks (their output) to reach a certain point at which they’re happy. They feel sufficiently competent. They may even be sufficiently competent. Think of the adults around that are “stuck in their ways” and contrast them with those happy few that always seem to pick up some little nuance, some little extra that continues to transform the way they do things. These people are never satisfied and are always searching.

Those are the people I want to listen to - the ones who keep listening. They don’t stagnate, their conformity is negligible (meaning they care little about both conforming and not conforming), and their output, both quality and quantity, can be mindbending. That’s an important caveat: you should still produce output. Despite the precedence of input over output, the output of those types of folks is amazingly high.

Boring and Stupid

This path of reasoning began with a simple assumption: that we want to know everything we can. That’s a glaring error. I forgot to deal with the base case.

Not everyone wants to know everything. Most people are happy with their misconceptions. Through the joys of Dunning-Kruger, they think they are smart enough. Break them, let them know their error and they’ll get angry. Riotous.

Awhile ago, I was heading back to work from lunch, and I followed a remarkably slow van merging onto the highway. He did about 30 mph the whole time and barely made it into the slow lane. The several cars stacked behind him had a mess trying to merge, and I’m sure the problem percolated backwards on the highway to cause a general slowdown. As I passed him, finally going close to the speed of the flow of traffic, I looked over and thought, “how stupid can you get?”

I immediately felt guilty. It was an unfair assumption. We shouldn’t think of people as stupid, he was just making a mistake. Or having a bad hair day. Or something. Right?

There are lots of different kinds of stupid. It’s more of a vector than a scalar, just like intelligence. I think we can categorize them into a few types:

  • Unable to comprehend
  • Unable or unwilling to adapt to new ideas
  • False assumptions
  • Contentedly oblivious
  • Conformist to certain ideas
  • Intentionally non-conformist or contrarian

There may be others, but most examples of stupidity can be bucketed into these types.

There’s one really easy correlation for stupidity: boring. Stupid and boring go together an amazing amount of time. Think about the most boring possible scene in the family room of a house, the fruits of the owner’s boring hobbies spread around, sitting on their boring, average couch, with boring knickknacks sitting on boring doilies. I’ll bet you think they’re pretty stupid. Now think about spending an hour in a room with someone you consider awfully stupid. I’ll bet you’d be bored.

The correlation between stupid and boring has the feel of truth around it despite lacking hard evidence. If we consider knowledge as truths - facts, understanding of reality and perception, etc. - someone stupid has less of it than someone not stupid. Based on my list they either don’t care to know, don’t want to know, refuse to know, or can’t know. And because of the same natural curiosity that drives us as children but that we must actively work to retain as adults, less knowledge is boring.

Let’s go back to my friend driving slow in the van. A widely held perception is that “SPEED KILLS”. I’m sure you’ve seen the bumper stickers. They’re right next to the one that says “Troopers are your best protection”. (YOU, the driver, are your own best protection.)

Let’s dissect that, shall we? In an accident, regardless of your rate of speed or cause, you are absolutely fine until impact. Therefore, I posit that what actually kills is speed deltas. Changes in speed. A constant velocity, no matter how fast, is perfectly safe. Airliners travel at 590 mph all day long, their occupants napping and eating peanuts. That’s a much different truth than the simulated truth on the bumper sticker “SPEED KILLS”, which is both boring and very stupid.

Consider some situations. Going too fast on the highway, say 15 mph more than the general flow of traffic, is dangerous. An accident would cause considerable damage. Problems with reactions to changing situations also arise. Going too slow then is also dangerous. A constant flow of traffic traveling at 70 mph will have the same problems to a car going 50 mph: an accident would cause considerable damage and problems with reactions to changing situations arise.

We can conclude then that, despite seeming more innocuous than the maniac doing 90mph down a highway, the idiot van merging into 70 mph traffic at 40 mph is also extremely dangerous. In fact, most people would agree that slower drivers react more slowly and are less capable of accident avoidance. That maniac doing 90 mph is usually at least aware of the surroundings and capable of reacting quickly. I’ll take someone going too fast over someone going too slow in most situations.

The distinction that speed deltas kill would change lots of other circumstances on our highway. Rules about lane changes and overtaking on the right would be understood and enforced. Speed limits could often be far higher providing that all traffic followed them. On ramps would not be decreasing radius turns forcing cars to their slowest speed right before entering highway traffic. On ramps would consistently merge into the slowest, rightmost lane of traffic, rather than merging into the fast lane at the convenience of the construction plan.

Come to think of it, this sounds like German highways, well known for their autobahns and low incidence rate of fatal accidents. But most people just don’t get it.

When I thought about all of this, my guilt at thinking this guy was stupid lessened. (I thought he looked boring too.) I didn’t think he was simply making a mistake either. There’s a huge difference between being stupid and making mistakes. It wasn’t a mistake to him, he wasn’t distracted by talking on the phone. It was his standard order of vehicular travel. Because of something (stupidity), he wasn’t able to see a more extensive truth about his situation, or how his driving might be dangerous.

Pawn Stars

I don’t mean to imply that looking at stupidity in this way is insulting or condescending. The goal is to consider it as objectively as possible. Stupid is someone who, through some unhappy circumstance, has become veiled to the search for truth.

That’s the huge difference between making a mistake, not being an expert, not having enough knowledge, etc. and being stupid. There is someone that knows more than you in every subject there is. Stupid is someone who has a blindfold, who refuses to learn, who thinks they have or should have the right answer right now.

My new favorite show is Pawn Stars. A few episodes back a woman brought in a battle axe. When they interviewed her she said, “I’m coming into the Pawn Shop today to try and sell my 15th century battle axe. I believe this battle axe is authentic because I am intelligent enough to see that it is.” That’s a direct quote! And it’s enough to call this woman stupid.

Contrast that with the typical reaction of Rick Harrison, the proprietor. When confronted with something he’s not sure about, he says he has some questions and he would like to call in an expert to find out more.

Rick wasn’t too sure about that battle axe, he thought it was a reproduction, but he acknowledged he wasn’t sure and called in an expert. You can imagine the woman’s frustration when the expert agreed with Rick. Until she was told outright, her worldview insisted that the axe was authentic. At least she didn’t refuse the expert, as some on the show have done.

That poor woman is stupid because she has no idea what to do with her ignorance. Just as Bossuet said the greatest weakness is the fear of appearing weak, the greatest barrier to knowledge is the fear of appearing to not know. Rick Harrison knows how to not know. We’ll never know everything, so we should educate our kids towards the goal of knowing how to not know, and give them the tools to ask questions.


Greg Olsen
Hi I'm Greg. Occasionally, I do things.ArchiveTumble