Have you ever felt like the more you know, the less you know you know?
When I was younger, I wrote for very different reasons. Free from financial responsibility, I wrote to find answers to difficult questions I had. I wrote to explain concepts that I didn’t quite understand, and express how I felt about the world.
I wrote to learn.
This all changed when I left university, as I became infatuated with the ‘millennial dream’ to turn my passion into my career. “Do what you love and you will never work a day in your life,” they said.
Unfortunately, connecting my passion for writing with my career did not deliver what was promised.
In fact, it shifted my perspective on why I wrote at all. Crafting sentences to articulate someone else’s thoughts, investigating the answers to someone else’s questions, and developing specific brand language for every company I worked with meant I was always writing in the voice of others. Soon this became second nature to me.
I began writing only when there was an opportunity to make money.
This removed the unconditional enjoyment I got from putting pen to paper. My professional career was about finding the right words for others, not for myself. I saw writing as an economic tool, rather than a form of self education, or a way to start conversations about meaningful topics.
It did not stop me from asking questions per se, but it did stop me from sharing the answers I found.
For the first time in decades I am writing to learn more about the world I live in, rather than for financial gain.
Taking time for self-education
COVID19 has flipped my world on its head. The local Australian owned businesses I usually consult for can no longer afford to keep me on, and although many say I should be out there pitching for new business, I don’t feel comfortable capitalising on the pandemic, when business owners are struggling.
As such, for the first time in my life, I am now 100% dependant upon the government to support me financially. Whilst a little depressing, being ‘on the dole’ has given me a newfound sense of freedom, which has in turn reignited my passion for writing.
I feel like a kid again.
Each day is spent dancing, exercising, reading, and writing. For the first time in decades I am writing to learn more about the world I live in, rather than for financial gain.
I am writing for self-education.
With time to spare, I am able to spend my days to investigating why things are the way they are, and what is going on in the world. I am even spending time researching opposing world views I have always ignored due to cognitive biases I didn’t even know I had until I started daily self-education.
The more you know, the less you know
Educating myself on a daily basis however is not all sunshine and lollipops.
As an adult, I know a lot more than my ten year old self. The questions I ask are much more complex, which means that the ‘answers’ I arrive at are not clear cut. In fact, every ‘answer’ I find only leads to another question. The more I learn, the less I realise I know.
Our economic and political systems are bound in policy and legislation, written in complicated jargon that feel as though they were written for the purpose of confusing me. Yet when I go to social media or forums for answers, each site feels so fundamentally “left” or “right” that I don’t know what is fact and what is propaganda.
The internet was meant to democratise information, however I feel the proliferation of information and publishers has only made finding factual information more difficult.
A case in point is the most recent question I am trying to answer; Are pro vaxxers or anti vaxxers right in their view?
This is a deep rabbit hole that I have fallen into, and whilst I would like a simple black and white answer as to who is right and who is wrong I am seriously struggling. Both have valid points, and the sheer amount of information available is overwhelming.
“The more you know, the more you realise you don’t know” ~ Aristotle
The Dunning Kruger Effect
Every video I watch, academic article I read or ‘fact’ I check does not give me an answer, it provokes another ten questions. It seems that the ‘smarter’ I become by researching the issue, the dumber and more forlorn I feel.
Interestingly enough, the less you know about a particular area, the more likely you are to think you know it all. On the opposite end of the spectrum, those who are quite knowledgeable believe they know very little, as they are aware of how much there still is to learn. This is what is known as the Dunning Kruger effect.
The Dunning Kruger effect in science terms is a cognitive bias, that describes the phenomenon where people wrongly overestimate their skills in a certain area, due to their limited knowledge. Coined by David Dunning and Justin Kruger in a 1999 academic paper, they explain it as follows.
“Those with limited knowledge in a domain suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach mistaken conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realise it.”
“Paradoxically, improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognise the limitations of their abilities.”
It is a difficult reality to face, that the more we learn, the more we realise we do not know. It can bring with it feelings of helplessness, low self-esteem and anxiety. I regularly feel these things, in particular when it comes to investigating the truth behind contentious issues like the vaxxers debate, where each side has a flurry of support from people suffering the Dunning Kruger effect.
Yet if we do not seek the truth, if we do not ask questions, if we do not try and continue to expand our knowledge on topics no one else dare touch, we shall only be able to rely on the opinion of others. And who knows, the other opinion you rely on could in fact be suffering from the Dunning Kruger effect themselves.
Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of personality and social psychology, 77 6, 1121-34 .