The Freakonomics guys just released a new book: Think Like a Freak. Employing the basic rules of cross-channel marketing, the podcast features topics lifted from the book. Last week I listened to the podcast based on chapter two titled: The Three Hardest Words in the English Language. They are: I Don’t Know.
The podcast (and chapter 2 in the book, of course) provides wonderful examples that make it clear how we often go to great lengths to avoid those three hardest words. They would set up experiments in which the subjects could not possibly know the answer to a question, yet they would answer with certainty or at least make what they thought was a pretty good guess… anything but say “I don’t know.” Then there were cases in which subjects were asked ridiculous questions like “which is heavier, yellow or red?” or “which is more angry, my sweater or my pants?” and subjects would answer, often with an associated rationale. We’ll go to great lengths to avoid admitting that we don’t know.
For the purposes of their book, the point the Freakonomics guys make is that if we are going to think like a freak, we have to start from a place where presuppositions, dogmas, prejudices, and such are set aside. Then the productive work of discovery and problem solving can commence.
I’ve worked in cultures where the words “I don’t know” have apparently been stricken from the lexicon. The corollary phrase is “fake it ‘til you make it.” I’ve been in sales organizations, corporate environments, and institutions of higher education where it seemed that saying “I don’t know” was a sign of weakness or even incompetence.
I’ll admit it… the words “I don’t know” have not easily rolled off my tongue for most of my professional life.
I suppose some of this springs from a modernist way of thinking that asserts that everything can be known; it is just a matter of effort. And everything important should be known.
It seems that some of the most insufferable people are those who will not say “I don’t know.” It is hard to like a know-it-all. Of all know-it-alls, Christian know-it-alls can be the worst. How is it that we mortals who worship omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience insist that we know it all? It seems to me that our proximity to omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience should reveal how little we know.
For the past several days, since listening to the podcast and reading the first chapters of the book, I’ve been listening to Christians talk. It seems to me that we routinely say “I know” when what we really mean is “I believe.” I think it reveals that we’ve bought the modernists’ lie, that knowing is more powerful than believing. In the modern age, I suppose it was effective to position Christianity as the place where we have all the answers.
But we don’t live in the modern age anymore.
In this post-modern age, I wonder if we are repelling pre-believers with our insistence that we know all the answers. I wonder if we are building walls instead of bridges with our answers to questions that nobody is asking. I wonder if we are missing an opportunity to invite other to believe.
I don’t know.