Three honest words: “I don’t know”

Three honest words:
“I don’t know”

By John Silveira

Issue #63 • May/June, 2000

As we enter another political campaign season I’m reminded of my three favorite words: “I don’t know.”

Some years back, when I lived in southern California, I met the best general practitioner I’m ever likely to know: Doctor Jon Overholt. What made him so different from the other physicians I have known? He had capably administered the health of both me and my family, but there are thousands of other MDs who do the same for their patients. Still, there was something that set him apart, and I can best illustrate it with a conversation I had with him one day in his office. It went something like this:

Doctor: “We discovered excess scar tissue that had to be removed before we could take your gall bladder out. You had had appendicitis at some time in your life, it had burst, and your body walled the area off with scar tissue.”

Me: “I thought you died when your appendix burst and you went untreated.”

Doctor: “Not necessarily. You probably didn’t even know it happened.”

Me (after some thought): “Then am I a candidate for appendicitis again.”

Doctor (after more thought): “I don’t know, but I can find out, if you’d like.”

And those were the words that made me realize I could trust him—I don’t know. I’d never known a doctor to say them before, and frankly I was surprised. By admitting ignorance, he put whatever else he told me into clearer perspective. I knew now I could trust anything else he said. I later found that he never pretended to know something when he didn’t, and that he was always willing to qualify his judgements when it was appropriate.

Here, at the dawn of the Information Age, almost no one will admit to ignorance in their “field of expertise.” It is perceived as a sign of weakness. For many, men in particular, admitting ignorance is like confessing athletic weakness or saying you’re lousy in bed. So today, when information is making millionaires of many and changing our civilization completely, we not only pretend to be knowledgeable, we do it with certainty.

But certainty has always made me uncomfortable. From first grade to high school I recall teachers who asked questions, then reprimanded students for the way they answered.

Teacher: “What’s the capital of New Mexico?”

Student: “Santa Fe?”

Teacher: “Are you asking me or telling me?”

Student: “I’m telling you.”

Teacher: “Then tell me. Don’t ask me if that’s the answer.”

Student (with conviction in her voice): “It’s Santa Fe.”

Teacher: “When you give an answer, state it as a fact, not as a question. Do you all understand?”

We’d nod. I don’t know what the purpose was. Stating an answer with a tone of certainty, when you are, in fact, unsure, borders on dishonesty. Giving an answer when you really don’t know is patently dishonest.

Today, those on the frontiers of this new age, i.e., the computer geeks, are among the worst at having to supply an answer to every question. I’m not saying they don’t have a fair share of computer expertise, or that they aren’t well informed and knowledgeable. But there is a compulsion among them to act as if they know everything about computers, software, and the Internet, to always provide an answer, and to deliver it with conviction. But sometimes they really don’t know the right answer and the problem is that I cannot tell from the tones of their voices when they’re blowing it out their hats.

On the other hand, the very best computer person I know is another southern Californian, the fellow who builds the BHM computers and wrote our first subscriber database, Tim Green. But do I think he knows more about computers than everyone else? No. What I do know is that not only is he competent, but when I ask him a question and he doesn’t know the answer, he says, “I don’t know.” He often offers to find out, if it’s important to me. But when he tells me something with assurance, I can safely assume that he knows what he’s talking about. It’s a precious confidence I have in him.

We are now coming onto the campaign season. Politicians, of course, are different from doctors, computer geeks, and almost everyone else. They not only feel compelled to have an answer for every question, but for fear of appearing stupid they often avoid answering a question altogether and answer a question that sounds something like it instead.

Reporter: “Do you advocate censoring the Internet?”

Politician: “I believe we should all act responsibly. Next question?”

Well, that’s nice. Everyone will agree that we should act responsibly, whatever ‘acting responsibly’ means, but what happened to the the question about the First Amendment? It was a yes or no question. Does he even know what the First Amendment is? I can’t tell.

So I’m listening to the candidates this year and I’m not voting for anyone who has all the answers. I’m not going to vote for anyone who cannot give a straight answer to a straight question, or who cannot say those three magic words, “I don’t know,” if they don’t know. Instead, I’ll write in Dr. Jon Overholt or Tim Green on my ballot. At least then I’ll know what I’m getting.

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