The Taboo Against Admitting Ignorance and the Benefits of Doubt

Image credit goes to Johannes Ahlmann

Doubt: a feeling of being uncertain or unsure about something, an inclination not to believe or accept.

Imagine you’re watching a presidential debate, and the candidates are asked a complex question related to foreign policy.

Candidate ‘A’ thinks hard, stammers nervously for a bit, and proceeds to rattle off an answer that sounds coherent and intelligent, yet completely dodges the core of the question (needless to say, this is common in formal debates).

Candidate ‘B’ thinks equally as hard about the question, but instead of fabricating an answer in order to appear competent to those “judging” the debate, says, “I don’t know. I would have to know the specifics of the situation, so I’m not in a position to give an intelligent answer at this moment.”

When laid out in this way, it seems obvious which answer should be preferred, assuming we agree that telling the truth and admitting ignorance is better than equivocating.

But as you know if you’ve ever endured watched a presidential debate, the debaters rarely, if ever, admit to the limitations of their knowledge. There is too much on the line, so honesty be damned.

Personally, I would love to come across a presidential candidate who, rather than lying or dodging, would admit his/her ignorance when necessary, and admit that he or she is not an expert on the topic and would rather not say anything that is false or potentially misleading.

But after all, we are all egotistical in some sense, and we enjoy knowing (or, at least, appearing to know) the answers to difficult questions.

This is true for politics just as it is for nutrition and fitness. We all want to believe that we have the optimal formula for success; that we are correct about what works and what doesn’t, that our methods of eating and training are good and all methods that contradict our own are misguided.

In this post, I’m going to make a case for why it is preferable and beneficial to admit your own ignorance, to concede that you don’t know when you don’t know, and to embrace doubt and uncertainty when it comes to beliefs about the proper ways to diet, exercise, and improve health and performance.

Doubt Encourages Progress, Certainty Derails It

“I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong. If we will only allow that, as we progress, we remain unsure, we will leave opportunities for alternatives. We will not become enthusiastic for the fact, the knowledge, the absolute truth of the day, but remain always uncertain … In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar.” – Richard Feynman

Certainty is comforting.

It provides you with something to fall back on, somewhat of a safety net. Doubt, on the other hand, yanks away this safety net, leaving you without anything to cling to, on your own to find the answers and to fend for yourself.

But the important question is: who makes more progress, the person who is left to find the answers for his or her self, or the person who is sheltered and spoon-fed comfortable beliefs and never burdened by the weight of uncertainty or questioning?

The answer is clear. One who doubts, questions, and is honest when they don’t know the answer is invariably more likely to progress and come to rational conclusions, on any topic, than those who credulously believe authority or attach themselves to certainties.

The objective should be to believe as many true things as possible and as few false things as possible; and absolute, blind certainty is the barrier to achieving this objective.

Doubting and questioning allow you to shed your preconceived notions regarding what a “proper” diet, exercise program, or lifestyle is and they encourage you to expand your knowledge base and to apply the information to your unique goals.

If no one doubted the idea that saturated fat was directly responsible for heart disease, we would still be avoiding butter and savoring margarine. Now, if no one doubts the novel ideas that carbohydrates and sugar are the “real” causes of the obesity epidemic, we run the risk of helplessly watching history repeat itself.

These certainties may seem trivial, but giving seemingly harmless bad ideas a pass often leads to the development of more dangerous beliefs, such as blind faith in detoxing and other methods of “alternative medicine” that take the place of demonstrably effective, evidence-based practice.

Follow the evidence where it leads, and always be willing to change your mind. It works.

Doubt and a commitment to research led Evidence Magazine’s Armi Legge away from his obsessions with training and dieting and toward a balanced and evidence-based approach.

Doubt, critical thinking, and the desire to set a positive example for her daughter allowed Amber “Go Kaleo” Rogers to escape fad diet and exercise programs and led her to an enjoyable, sustainable approach to both eating and training, which she now promotes through her blog and her outstanding group Eating the Food.

Doubt and the willingness to experiment led Dr. Spencer Nadolsky to try a high carb diet in the place of his typical lower carb, higher fat diet (and he’s seeing great results).

Doubt led me away from dogma and gullibility and toward evidence and rationality.

Cultivate doubt and use it to question, learn, and experiment; don’t run from it in an effort to remain comfortable.

Doubt Eliminates Confirmation Bias

Those who attempt to rationalize unreasonable beliefs tend to go about it ass-backwards.

Instead of starting from a neutral position and following the evidence, many start from the position of already knowing the answer, then proceed to pick and choose the evidence that confirms their beliefs.

So while their ego is kept strong by digging up evidence that supports their preconceived conclusion, they also tend to ignore all contrary evidence. And, because they have never fully explored dissenting points of view, they feel their belief is justified, rational, and empirically supported.

If you begin with the assumption that fructose is poison, you can find evidence that appears to support your position. If you are confident that low carb diets are the panacea of health and fat loss, there is research that offers seemingly valid support for this conclusion.

But this is the definition of confirmation bias, and it is an approach that often leads to black and white thinking; absolute views almost invariable ignore the middle ground. If you are certain that your beliefs are true, the evidence will always appear to be on your side. Certainty muddies the water.

It is crucial to remove these self-limiting blinders, to objectively analyze the reasoning behind your own beliefs, and to consider all points of view and all sides of the evidence before coming to a decision.

If you are certain from the get-go, you’re working backwards.

Herman Hesse illustrates this point very well in his novel Siddhartha:

“When someone is seeking, it happens quite easily that he only sees the thing he is seeking; that he is unable to find anything, unable to absorb anything, because he is only thinking of the thing he is seeking…because he is obsessed with his goal. Seeking means: to have a goal; but finding means: to be free, to be receptive, to have no goal. You…for ins striving for your goal, you don’t not see many things that are under your nose.”

When researching, asking questions, and pondering ideas, don’t have a goal or an objective. Don’t set out to confirm your current beliefs; approach learning with an open mind and from a neutral position. This is extremely difficult (I’m tempted to say impossible), but simply being cognizant of our inherent tendency to lean heavily towards our current position is often enough to explore the other sides of a given argument.

With the Right Mindset, Doubt is Exciting

“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.” – Voltaire

The word doubt often carries a negative connotation; it is associated with anxiety, fear, and hesitation.

However, when channeled, doubt is the key to intellectual progress, and it is responsible for far more good than harm.

Yes, doubt tells you that you don’t know all the answers, and that you are fallible and vulnerable to deception. If you stop there, doubt can be very discouraging.

But if you use doubt as a motivating force, as the drive that pushes you to search for answers, to do sufficient research, to ask questions, and to better your knowledge on a daily basis, then doubt is supremely positive and limitless in its capacity to build upon your understanding of any topic.

Scientists doubt every new concept or hypothesis that attempts to rise to the level of acceptance and credibility. Peer-review is simply a collective effort to doubt the conclusions reached by other experts.

And, just as scientists do, we should make it our priority to doubt every new idea, every fad, every “revolutionary program,” and every unsubstantiated claim made by so-called experts.

It is far better to doubt and to be skeptical than to run the risk of being deceived.

Embrace doubt, ask questions, and don’t succumb to the allure of blind certainty.

I’ll end this post with a thought-provoking and humbling quote from the late Carl Sagan’s excellent book, The Demon-Haunted World:

“I find many adults are put off when young children pose scientific questions. Why is the Moon round? the children ask. Why is grass green? What is a dream? How deep can you dig a hole? When is the world’s birthday? Why do we have toes? Too many teachers and parents answer with irritation or ridicule, or quickly move on to something else: ‘What did you expect the Moon to be, square?’ Children soon recognize that somehow this kind of question annoys the grown-ups. A few more experiences like it, and another child has been lost to science. Why adults should pretend to omniscience before 6-year-olds, I can’t for the life of me understand. What’s wrong with admitting that we don’t know something? Is our self-esteem so fragile?”

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