Are we good at knowing how much we know?

Nobody likes coming across like they don’t know what they are talking about. Some people will avoid topics that they don’t know anything about to avoid showing their ignorance. Others will nod along with the conversation despite having no idea what is being talked about. I have found myself in this situation a few times and always find it entertaining to stop mid sentence and ask “do you know what it is that I am talking about?”. Most people will shake their heads, accepting they didn’t know. When asked why they didn’t say anything they usually have no answer. This could be because they were hoping what was said later would tie everything together and they would then understand, or maybe they just don’t want to look ignorant. But I think more likely is that they didn’t actually realise they didn’t know what was being talked about until it was brought to their attention. This could be because we think we know more than we do and we are bad at judging how much we actually know. In Psychology this is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. It is an unfortunate phenomenon because one of the best ways to get more information from someone who knows more about a particular subject than you is to show ignorance and let the person you are talking to feel like they know more. People will usually share more information when they are talking to someone who they think knows little compared to them.

This leads me to wonder three things:
How can I know how much I know?
How can I make sure what I think I know is right?
And how can I avoid being caught pretending to know things I don’t know?

How can I know how much I know?
There is probably no way to find out exactly how much we know about anything. But we can have a better idea of where we stand in comparison to others. Getting feedback from people may be one of the best ways to see where we stand in other’s opinions. This will take courage because not many people want to ask this, only to find out that person they ask places them in the bottom percentile. People who actively seek knowledge will generally come to realise their own ignorance. When I first started studying philosophy I would have placed myself at a low percentile for philosophical knowledge, maybe around 1-5%. Now I can tell you with certainty that number is significantly less. Perhaps more like 0.01%. And this number will probably decrease in relation to the increase of my reading and studying. This is because I didn’t know all there was to not know and exposure to the vastness of the subject showed me not only that there is so much to learn but also that one could spend a lifetime specialising in one area and never truly master it. We could say it follows that the more people learn the more likely they are to demonstrate the opposite of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, meaning that the more you learn about a topic the less qualified you feel to speak on it. This could hint at why we seldom have truly intelligent and educated people running our countries.

How can I make sure what I think I know is right?
This question is probably better phrased as “How can I measure how certain I should be about my ideas?” because almost all ideas have circumstances in which they could be shown to be wrong. The simple and rarely acted upon answer to this is to say to oneself “In what way could this idea/view/opinion be wrong?”. This is called falsification. It was originally a philosophical idea that is now one of the most fundamental aspects of science. The example often given when talking about falsifiability is the statement “all swans are white”. This statement happened to be true for anyone living in Europe prior to the discovery of Australia by Europeans. It wasn’t until they landed on Australian shores that they discovered black swans existed. This falsified the claim that “all swans are white”. They were not looking to prove that statement wrong but maybe we should try to prove our own ideas wrong because it makes room for some doubt. And if people who have fanatical ideas are more likely to act fanatically, then having some doubt in their ideas would mean they are less likely to act in fanatical ways.
If we can find few examples of how an idea can be wrong then perhaps we have a strong idea. And if we can find many examples of how our idea can be wrong then it might be best to review or discard that idea. But if we can think of no reason at all in which our idea could be wrong then we are either lying or dealing with pseudoscience and/or religion.

How can I avoid being caught pretending to know things I don’t know?
It is in our nature to overvalue our own opinions but if the first two questions have been asked then we should be in a really good position to be aware of our limitations. Throughout our lives we will be in many interactions in which we will be more knowledgeable than the person we are talking to, but also less. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging ones own ignorance. Better to admit we don’t know, ask what it all means and learn something new then pretend to know and leave the conversation having gained nothing. We should ask what something means when we don’t know. Not only will the person we are talking to tell us what that thing means but they are likely to tell us other related information we might not know. We don’t need to pretend to know things we don’t know.

 

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