The Limits of Our Knowledge

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“The more we know, the greater we find is our ignorance” – Gardiner G. Hubbard

The world is full of pundits sprouting off their expertise in one field or another. Everyone seems to know where the Malaysian Airlines plane crashed. But nobody can locate the aircraft.

In science there is the scientific method that is a valuable tool in the search for truth. But there is also scientific dogma where some “experts” hold to their views even in the face of contradictory data (an ego attachment to a position?)

In religion there are those who claim they have ultimate truth. I love what the Dalai Lama said that if science contradicted some of the tenets of Buddhism, he would give up those beliefs.

So what should this tell us?

  1. Be cautious of people claiming to be “experts” without a credible knowledge base. Retain a healthy skepticism even to a blog like this one.
  2.  Adopt an open mind: challenge your most cherished opinions and consider contrary points of view.
  3. Appreciate that with greater knowledge comes the realization that one still has so much to learn. The more we know, the more we come to understand how little we know.
  4. Recognize that people who hold themselves up as authorities may have hidden agendas such as the need for certainty, to be right, to be superior, or to have status in or respect from their social communities.

If we find ourselves with these impulses, how can we approach interpersonal communication in a healthier, more productive way?

1.  Humbly let go of the need to be right and listen carefully and engage people in dialog.

2.  Define yourself as a student rather than an expert; continually challenge your knowledge and remain open to learn, even from unlikely and/or opposing sources.

3.  Defer to those who are more knowledgeable in an area but at the same time question authority.

4. Boldly proclaim your convictions but have the intellectual humility to surrender them in the face of contradictory evidence.

This does not mean we should refrain from being assertive about expressing a position, decisive about an action, or confident about a knowledge base we have acquired.

However, we need to achieve balance by expressing a humility that recognizes the scope and/or limitations of our own knowledge and a self awareness that understands and monitors our underlying drives, such as the drive to be right.

Two excellent articles on this topic are,

“Beware the Everyday Expert” by Daniel Gulati in the HBR Blogs.

“The Folly of Thinking That We Know” by Pico Iyer; The New York Times, 3/21/2014

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About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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