The Cost of Not Knowing What You Don’t Know


I wrote an article that touched on some of the themes in this piece – how not knowing what we don’t know is destroying us. Not just individuals, but for us as a society.

There are very people who are willing to admit that they need better thinking skills. Think about it – everyone thinks. Everyone has his or her own, private stream of consciousness. Thinking is ubiquitous. And, anything that an individual doesn’t know about thinking isn’t worth learning.

This phenomenon is more pronounced the higher up the educational ladder that you reach. How dare anyone suggest that someone with thinking skills as sharp as I have isn’t at the pinnacle of thinking? I know, personally, that thinking is a skill. And like many skills, can be learned in a moment and take a lifetime to master. I will never finish increasing my ability to think, nor do I want to. Given the vistas that have opened to me in my journey thus far, I can’t even imagine what wonders are left for me to experience on my way.

I am amazed at the number of people that I talk to who, when I point out a few basic flaws in their thinking and then prod them to dig a little deeper slip into a mode I just don’t get. They will say to me, as they catch up to me to share some interesting thought that has occurred to them, “I feel sorry for others who just don’t have the ability to think just like you and me!”. Often, with no formal education, and with no more training to think that can take place in 10 minutes, they have mastered the art of real thinking.

I’m not naïve enough to think that I know all there is to know about thinking. However, as I have developed my thinking processes, I have worked to calibrate my metacognitive awareness – knowing what you know and knowing what you don’t know – with reality as well as I can. I know that I have years and years of learning to think ahead of me, but I also know that I have had the privilege of learning a great deal about how I can, and do, think. And, in that knowledge, I can see how far behind so many of my friends, family, and colleagues are.

I have spent a great deal of my life doing all that I can to help others learn to think, and I have found that there are two colossal barriers to really learning, understanding, and wielding abstract cognitive enablers. The first is simply apathy – I know what I know that that’s all I need to know. The second is much more dangerous and difficult to address – I already have all of these skills and any suggestion that I need more is ludicrous. Why is the second more dangerous? The arrogance of elitism is readily apparent to see all through society.

Elites have it made and have nothing left to strive for.

In either case, apathy or elitism, people have no idea what they are missing. Just asking for more would open up undreamed-of worlds. It is there for the taking, but they have no interest in trying.

So, what is the social cost?

As I wrote last year:

“Not knowing what we don’t know is destroying us.

In 1999, Kruger and Dunning published a paper called, “Unskilled and Unaware of it: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” Basically, they found that “…people of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is. The cognitive bias of illusory superiority comes from the inability of low-ability people to recognize their lack of ability. (Wikipedia)”.

As Darwin said, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”.

With a severe shortage of workers who have advanced cognitive enablers, AI implementation is being stalled in a number of areas. The automation of ports is being held up because of the severe shortage of highly skilled workers. Who knows how many other AI implementations are not happening because of the shortage of highly skilled workers.

There are those who will applaud the delay of progress without actually thinking it through. As AI progresses and the acquisition of advanced cognitive enablers languishes, ways will be found to work around the shortages. Don’t be fooled into thinking that AI will really ever develop true advanced cognitive enablers, but AI workarounds will work, and those opportunities available to people who might have filled the gaps will be gone.”

As far as being educated goes:

“…we have are hundreds of millions of educated people who went to college or university to learn to think. They memorized well and received good degrees. Tens of millions have gone on to obtain higher degrees and have continued to memorize well. Almost all of these graduates have graduated without the self-insight to even think about how much they don’t know.”

And, this lack of insight seems to increase with the amount of education. Because of the transferability problem in learning – not being able to move what has been learned into a different context – the very real abstract cognitive enablers obtained in one very narrow slice of study create a stumbling block for someone who has “ illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is. The cognitive bias of illusory superiority comes from the inability of low-ability people to recognize their lack of ability.” And, the low ability for the highly educated occurs because the vaunted thinking abilities that have been acquired within a narrow field of study don’t transfer to other aspects of life without concerted effort.

Knowing what we know and knowing what we don’t know is the foundation of metacognition. We must do all that we can to foster true metacognition in others and ourselves. As a start, the app I am developing can give everyone – including yourself – a very real measure of how well you have this basic foundation developed. And, this will do no more than give you a taste of what that means for knowledge only. This app will do nothing with your skills. All it can do is point out how we consistently overestimate our knowledge.

This kind of knowledge about us is difficult to swallow. When I first engaged in this exercise some years ago, I thought the idea was a flop. Why? Because I am so brilliant and I didn’t score well when I measured how well I know what I know. I could have gamed the measure – I know exactly how to increase my score without really developing myself. However, instead, I began that second part of my journey of learning how to think. Drop the arrogance, seek out, and learn thinking skills that I didn’t (and don’t yet) have. It is the journey of a lifetime and I only wish that I could have come to this realization 40 years ago. But, as the saying goes, today is the first day of the rest of your life.

Maybe if enough of us are really willing to embark, we can change the world.

My app won’t endow you with metacognition, but, if you are like me, it will make you aware that there is still much to learn.

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