The higher knowledge of ‘I don’t know’
The question came unexpectedly, as they often do between Kacey and me in moments of quiet relaxation.
It was the kind of inquiry inspired by lying on the grass, under the stars, on a warm summer night.
But since this was late on a drizzly winter evening, the warmth of our home would have to suffice.
“Do you think humans will ever live on another planet?”
I do not know what, if anything, inspired her to ask that, but it is the kind of big-picture, scientific question I cannot summarily dismiss. Immediately images from the movie “Interstellar,” which we saw on a big 70 mm screen at the Senator Theater in Baltimore a year ago, popped into my head. Answers began to take form in my mind, but none of them seemed adequate for the gravity of the topic.
“We may have to,” I offered, with a tone acknowledging that the answer was evasive.
She pressed on. “But do you think we will?”
Again responses began to spin in my mind. Global warming. Sea-level rise. Drought. Overpopulation. War. Famine. A Donald Trump presidency.
I felt like Cooper trying to send a message to his daughter, Murph, through the four-dimensional tesseract at the end of “Interstellar.”
“We haven’t even sent a manned mission to Mars,” I said. In my mind, that fact pressed hard against the instinctual romanticism inspired by the prospect of life on another celestial body.
Finally I hit on the only answer that, to me, seemed satisfactory. “I don’t know,” I said.
Kacey indicated she wasn’t nearly as happy with it as I was.
“I’m not qualified to answer that,” I replied. “I think that’s one of the problems with our society. Too many people have opinions on things about which they have no idea.” (I was proud of the craftsmanship of that statement, especially given the late hour at which I delivered it.)
Why is it that we as a society are so afraid of saying “I don’t know”? From an early age, we are taught that saying “I don’t know” is bad and should be avoided. In school, we are conditioned to believe that it equates to stupidity (a label which some do embrace; I recall a classmate named Damian in third grade who used “I don’t know” as his reply to every question until the teacher wrote his name on the board and added multiple check marks).
As we reach our careers, “I don’t know” retains a connotation of “duh” and adds to that an element of weakness. We are taught that saying “I don’t know” during a job interview would be a fatal error; instead we are advised to “make something up” or “BS your way through it.” Once we are hired, we are instructed, directly and indirectly, that “I don’t know” is one of the most vexatious things you could say to your boss.
Look at the presidential race in this country and you’ll see all the candidates regularly contorting themselves to avoid responding to a question with “I don’t know.” It is quite regular that politicians will lie, distort the truth or obfuscate to avoid saying they don’t know. And perhaps even more astoundingly, they are generally allowed to do so without repercussion.
Google “I don’t know the answer” and you’ll be presented with more than 691 million results, the most prominent offering vacuous advice on how to avoid saying the phrase.
But there are times when it is not only appropriate, it can help us make better decisions. Earlier this year, my oral surgeon, Dr. W. King Smith, had a decision to make on implants for my lower jaw. Because my jawbone is on the small side, he was leaning toward a plan to replace three teeth (two crowns) with just one implant. Ideally, the crowns would be mounted on two implants (with the two front teeth together as one crown, on one implant) but in my case Dr. Smith was concerned about a couple of factors: One, he wasn’t sure whether there was room for an implant in the jawbone; and even if there was room, he wasn’t sure that the implant would get integrated properly into the jawbone. This is vital because if an implant that doesn’t get integrated into the bone tissue, it is useless.
Instead of making a pronouncement either for or against drilling that second implant, Dr. Smith asked me what I thought.
I boiled it down to a simple question: If I get only one implant, will I be able to bite into an apple?
The answer was no. It would be too much pressure for the front crown to bear.
I wanted to be able to bite into an apple, which I had never done as an adult. Because of a rare condition, probably genetic, I never developed front permanent incisors, so I had always been making do with the primary (aka “baby”) versions of those teeth.
“If you think you can do it, I’d like to try for the implant in the front,” I said.
So he drilled for it. making the total number of implants five, counting top and bottom.
After a couple of months of healing, Dr. Smith tested the strength of the implants. The process essentially consists of the doctor sticking a wrench in your mouth, turning up the torque and twisting. One by one, the implants passed the test. The one on the bottom front came last, and as the doctor twisted the tool, the pain shot through my face like electricity. The implant was not ready.
Was the implant no good, or did it just need more time to heal? Dr. Smith leaned toward the former, but again he left open the possibility that might not be true. And as before, he asked me what I thought.
I was about to get married and go away on honeymoon and knew I wouldn’t be seeing him again for at least a couple of months. “Would it be reasonable to give it some more time and see what happens?” I asked. He said it would.
In the end the implant was not viable — but it wasn’t for lack of trying. (It also had to be removed because of a recurring infection that cropped up this summer.) The experience left a strong impression on me that a doctor, a man with so much power in his hands, was willing to acknowledge that either he did not know the answer and/or what he thought might be wrong. Dr. Smith’s circumspect manner led him to take a course of action that a surgeon who looked at the issue from a more inflexible point of view may not have taken.
When I was in elementary and high school, I believed that growing up was a process of constant learning, which would pile up so that once I was older I would have an incredible volume of knowledge about the world.
Instead I have found the opposite to be true — that getting older (experienced through the passage of time) is a process of finding out how much I don’t know, not of finding out how much I do know.
To me, that is the lasting lesson: to acknowledge that you don’t know is not to retreat to position of weakness, but to assume a position of strength. It is the strength of an open mind and a willingness to consider possibilities not visible from narrow perspectives.