Response to Tom Monahan’s “If I Were 22: Embrace Your Ignorance”

While differing widely in the little bits we know, or rather guess, in our infinite ignorance we are all equal. (Karl Popper).

Tom Monahan (Chairman and CEO at CEB) published an interesting article on LinkedIn yesterday: “If I Were 22: Embrace Your Ignorance”. He admitted that he graduated from Harvard feeling that he was “master of not only my own nascent trade, but pretty much anything else under the sun”. I.e., overconfident about his knowledge and abilities. Looking back, he would embrace his own ignorance, be a curator of good questions, and ask questions of more people. Good advice!

Here are ways in which an undergraduate degree can instill epistemic humility and help students learn to develop questions.

  • Require that students take a course in epistemology that cover Karl Popper’s philosophy of science, which is based on the idea that our understanding is, and scientific theories are, conjectural. (Plato also instills humility!).
  • Require that all students (not just in science) take a couple of research methods courses; but change how these courses are taught. These courses tend to teach people how to answer questions with empirical tests; but as I argued in Cognitive Productivity, they rarely teach people how to develop theories. Theory development is an engine of questions and problems. It can be taught.
  • Don’t teach courses in a topic-centric way. Don’t provide all the questions. Emphasize developing problems of understanding: In other words, have students proceed as knowledge builders. (Compare Bereiter’s Education and Mind in the Knowledge Age.)
  • Take a much broader view of Science. (Many scientists and academics themselves have a narrow view of science, so it’s no surprise that business people do!) Science is not all about prediction. Even Popper’s epistemology is too narrow. Have students demonstrate a working understanding of Imre Lakatos’ The methodology of scientific research programmes (Chapter 1), and Chapters 2 and 4 of The Computer Revolution in Philosophy. Teach the designer-based approach/the design stance. (See for example, Cognitive Productivity).

It’s not the specific texts referenced above that matter, but the ideas about science (the engine of knowledge) that they convey.

Epistemic humility, however, should not be inculcated to the point of instilling epistemic paralysis — fear of answering questions (with new theory). For it is by attempting to answer questions, by posing and trying to resolve problems of understanding, that one develops new questions. And some of these need to address hard problems. And that calls for cognitive zest!

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Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity . Cognitive productivity consultant and public speaker. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. See About Me for more information.

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