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'Don't Know'? Just Admit It

Sep 18, 2013
Originally published on September 18, 2013 9:19 am

We've all faked our way through conversations before — whether about books we haven't read, movies we haven't seen or concepts we don't understand. In her new book, I Don't Know: In Praise of Admitting Ignorance (Except When You Shouldn't), Leah Hager Cohen explores moments in history and everyday life when "I don't know" can have a big impact.

"I think those words can be so incredibly liberating," she tells NPR's Steve Inkseep. "They can just make your shoulders drop with relief. Once you finally own up to what you don't know, then you can begin to have honest interactions with the people around you."


Interview Highlights

On a fatal 1982 plane crash, in which a Boeing 737 was cleared for takeoff on a freezing January afternoon, and then crashed into a bridge in Washington, D.C.

De-icing had gone on, but by the time the plane was actually given the thumbs-up to get in line to taxi to the runway, more ice had built up. The co-pilot could see on the aircraft in front of the one that they were in that there was build-up on the wings ...

It sounds as though the co-pilot did try to warn, but perhaps in a somewhat subservient way — cognizant of the fact that he was the co-pilot, but not the captain — that maybe they'd better go back and get the wings de-iced again. And the captain seems to brush off the warning. It seems to be an instance where he didn't want to know what the co-pilot was pointing out to him ...

The copilot was in a less powerful position than the pilot. He seems to have allowed the pilot's dismissal to, you know, also make him kind of drop this knowledge that he was trying to communicate.

On admitting ignorance — or keeping it hidden

I think most of us have at some point experienced a situation where we're with someone who assumes that we know something. You know, you're having a conversation. The other person mentions a name, the name of a book, the name of a person you ought to know the name of, the name of a theory you should have heard of — that's the implication. And there's that moment of decision: you could either speak up and say, 'Oh, I don't know who you're making reference to or what you're talking about,' ... or you could fake it.

On the No Child Left Behind generation

This year's graduating high school class will be the first generation to have grown up entirely under the No Child Left Behind Act, so this is an entire generation of kids that's been raised in an educational environment where there's a premium on knowing the right answer, being able to fill in the correct oval on a test. I worry that we may not be teaching enough the value of experimentation and failure and risk-taking and the process of inquiry.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You know, we live in a culture that prizes self-confidence. We are encouraged to believe in ourselves and act like we belong, even when we don't have the slightest idea what's going on. Probably nobody else knows what they're doing, either. It's good advice for life, as far as it goes, but it can also lead to disaster.

The writer Leah Hager Cohen argues that it takes a special kind of self-confidence to express doubt, to admit you have something to learn. She's written a book called "I Don't Know," and she gives the famous example of an airline pilot preparing to take off from Washington in 1982. The plane crashed, killing 78 people, because the pilot did not know the plane was in no shape to take off and did not want to admit it. He dismissed the warning of the co-pilot sitting beside him.

LEAH HAGER COHEN: Deicing had gone on, but by the time the plane was actually given the thumbs-up to get in line to taxi to the runway, more ice had built up. And the co-pilot could see on the aircraft in front of the one that they were in, that there was build-up on the wings.

INSKEEP: And we should tell people, this is National Airport in Washington, D.C., which means you have even less of a second chance than other airports. The runway's like an aircraft carrier. It's on the edge of the Potomac, and if you don't take off, you're in the water. So that's the situation these guys are facing.

COHEN: And so it sounds as though the co-pilot did try to warn - but perhaps in a somewhat subservient way, you know, cognizant of the fact that he was the co-pilot, not the captain - that maybe they'd better go back and get the wings deiced again. And the captain seems to brush off the warning. It seems to be an instance where he didn't want to know what the co-pilot was pointing out to him.

INSKEEP: There's a transcript reprinted in your book here that I'm now looking at, and the co-pilot actually says, as he's looking at the instruments: That doesn't seem right, does it? That's not right.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLIGHT RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CO-PILOT: No, that's not right.

INSKEEP: And the captain says, yeah, it's fine.

UNIDENTIFIED PILOT: Yes, it is (unintelligible).

INSKEEP: And the co-pilot actually allows himself to be convinced against his own warning. He says: I don't think that's right.

UNIDENTIFIED CO-PILOT: I don't think it's right.

INSKEEP: Then he thinks, and he says: Oh, maybe it is.

UNIDENTIFIED CO-PILOT: Maybe it is.

INSKEEP: And they go ahead and take off.

COHEN: The co-pilot was in a less-powerful position than the pilot. He seems to have allowed the pilot's dismissal to, you know, make him also kind of drop this knowledge that he was trying to communicate.

INSKEEP: When you talk about these dynamics - the pilot and the co-pilot, the person in the position of authority, the person who may know something more than the person in the position of authority - now, we have something that begins to apply to other walks of life, I suppose.

COHEN: Yes. And it also raises a really important element in this whole conversation - which is fear, fear of losing face. There's also fear of what might happen should you claim knowledge and then turn out to be wrong. It's a very uncomfortable, squirmy situation.

INSKEEP: Why did you define that squirmy situation by titling your book "I Don't Know"?

COHEN: (Laughter) Because I think those words can be so incredibly liberating. They can just make your shoulders drop with relief. You know, once you finally own up to what you don't know, then you can begin to have honest interactions with the people around you.

INSKEEP: Have you had to learn this lesson the hard way in your own life?

COHEN: (Laughter) Yeah. I mean, I think most of us have, at some point, experienced a situation where we're with someone who assumes that we know something. You know, you're having a conversation; the other person mentions a name - or the name of a book, the name of a person you ought to know, the name of a theory, you know, you should have heard of - that's the implication. And there's that moment of decision. You could either speak up and say, oh, I don't know who you're making reference to, or what you're talking about...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

COHEN: ...or you just kind of - you could fake it.

INSKEEP: You know, I am thinking of a fellow journalist who years ago covered - of all things - plane crashes; who would begin conversations with technical officials about plane crashes by saying, talk to me like I'm 4 years old - and consequently, would end up learning a great deal.

COHEN: That's a position of power, to be able to say honestly to someone: I don't know. Teach me.

INSKEEP: How would this notion affect the way that people learn?

COHEN: Well, this year's graduating high school class will be the first generation to have grown up entirely under the No Child Left Behind Act. And so this is an entire generation of kids that's been raised in an educational environment where there's a premium on knowing the right answer - right? - being able to fill in the correct oval on a test. And I worry that we may not be teaching enough the value of experimentation and failure and risk-taking, and the process of inquiry.

INSKEEP: Leah Hager Cohen is the author of "I Don't Know" - or, I mean, there are different ways to say that. "I don't know!"

COHEN: (Laughter)

INSKEEP: You tell me. You tell me the way I should say it. Go ahead.

COHEN: I just - I say it with a big shrug. "I Don't Know."

INSKEEP: That's the book. Thank you very much.

COHEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.