If You Don’t Know, You Don’t Know

Today’s topic is on talking out of your ass.

That’s a bit of a sudden strike sentence (and straight for the ass), but this is another common issue that happens, especially online, where people will discuss at length about a certain topic without really knowing much about it, and consequently saying nothing much at all.

Humans are smart, and they’re very capable of being really smart. The problem is many humans tend to assume that they’re really, really smart without putting the work in to verify that they are indeed quite smart.

They’re good at using their minds, but not good at taking all the knowledge in, basically. How many times have you had a conversation with someone in your life to ask a question, only to be given an answer that starts with “Well I’m not an expert, but–” and out comes a rather lengthy ramble session about said topic which…tends to not make much sense or understand much? I know I have, and I know I’ve done it before, too. Younger years are good years to make mistakes in.

I’ve had it a fair bunch, and I think it really has to do with the fact that the topics I invest my time into are in philosophy and psychology, which really encourage thinking, writing, integrating and so on.

The thing is though, I know my limits. I know where I am very much in my element, and I know where I am totally out of it, too. I don’t know everything, but I can know many things.

This is really important to understand, because for the upteenth father fucking time I will probably be misunderstood or some dimwit in some dusty corner of the weird side of the internet will misread what I write. When I talk about not knowing, I don’t mean you can’t know or need to relinquish your capability to some other authority – no, misreading dumb reader bad. This isn’t a skepticism blog.

What I mean is that when you don’t know, you don’t know, and just be honest about it. There is absolutely nothing wrong with not knowing something, and bullshitting yourself with clever brain gymnastics will not make you know more – study and experiences will.

This doesn’t mean don’t comment, either. If you have some understanding, or if you have very strong principles that relate to the topic, sure comment away – but know your limits and subsequently extend those limits if you want to. Principled positions can extend into a lot of new knowledge and insights (and, consequently, this is why principles are awesome).

Let’s take for example my principle that people should be able to do pretty much whatever the hell they want barring touching others involuntarily, whether it be with their far too aggressive backhand over rusty spoons at home, or with very sturdy objects that can be propelled at you with significant force, like a cannonball. Note I said cannonball, and not propelled with a cannon. These people are very strong and frightening. Anyway…

This principle can extend into topics like abortion – I’m pro choice, but the nuance of abortion, like late term abortion, when it’s safe, unsafe, medical complications, etc – completely out of my element, and I actually don’t know. It’s not something that I’ve thought about. But I can give a good argument as to why people should be able to make a choice about whether to have an abortion or not.

That’s the difference. I don’t know the details, but on principle, I know that a choice should be available. Can I know more about the details? Sure, but I can’t be bothered – it’s not my element and honestly not really in my interests. There are 400,000,000 other people who are into that discussion.

Another, concrete example, is from a few days ago. I’m a language teacher, and during class I was asked why we use “started” in “Let’s get started” as a phrase, and why not “start” – because started is the past tense and the phrase refers to the present.

I looked at them, then back at the board, then back at them and said “I have no idea. English has weird stuff like this and I don’t know”. They laughed, I laughed, said OK, and the lesson went on swimmingly.

I didn’t try to bullshit my students as if I am some English sage. I really don’t know. It’s a hard question and language is extremely complicated – that I know, because I’ve been teaching it for almost a decade.

So if you don’t know, just say you don’t know. Don’t try to rationalize an answer – you look stupider than you think, trust me – and saying you don’t know commands a lot of respect, because you’re being honest and not closing yourself off to new info and learning. You’re not trying to be a smartass, and that is actually smart.

Just careful not to self-deprecate. If you don’t know, that doesn’t mean you’re dumb and you should never say so. You can learn, always.

A final note on evaluating people, too – because this one is also important.

If you don’t know a person’s position on something, ask for clarity and examples, and don’t try to evaluate them like some armchair psychologist chimp without it.

This is intellectually dishonest and basically just an asshole move. Judge, but judge carefully and accordingly. If you don’t know, you don’t know. And if you want to know, then aim to learn.

As for how to learn – I don’t know. Depends on you, what you value, and your goals. But I totally think you can do it. And sure, you can ask me for tips if you want. Teacher after all.


Fund my mercenary outfit so we can “pacify” Capellans.


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