The Benefits of Not Knowing

Despite the huge amounts of uncertainty surrounding almost every aspect of climate change (from the effects to the appropriate response), it seems to me that there are very few “I don’t know” s being muttered. This seems to be the case among political leaders, top researchers, and even bloggers like me. Whoever you turn to for advice on climate change, the chance is that they won’t be explaining how very little they know—on the contrary they will be more than happy to explain at length exactly what they do know. The only chance you have of hearing “I dunno”s will be if you turn to the least competent and most ignorant people like George Bush, who embrace ignorance enthusiastically.

Of course, it’s only natural to turn to smart people for answers, and they’re naturally expected to give them. But if there’s anything we’ve learned in the recent years, it’s that thinking we know something is far more dangerous and destructive than thinking and talking about exactly how much we don’t know. Think, for example, of the banking crisis. Until the point of utter collapse, everyone confidently acted and talked like they knew everything. If you were to ask questions to the bankers, the regulators, or the politicians they would respond with some confident answer void of any hint of not knowing. Should this not have been the case, we probably would have never let the banking sector get so big and unwieldy, perhaps saving us from the collapse we are experiencing now. Think also of the terrorists attacks of September 11 2001. What American defense experts thought they knew, that a terrorist airline attack would come in the form of a bomb, proved useless, while what they didn’t know or didn’t admit that they didn’t know (that all the other types of attacks that could equally happen) was ultimately their greatest risk.

What these examples show is that there’s a real danger in talking too much abut what we know and huge benefits in admitting not just what we don’t know but also what we don’t know we don’t know. That’s not a type-o.

I would argue that these examples share many of the same features as climate change. There’s a whole lot of uncertainty and don’t knows out there and there’s also a whole lot of pressures to pretend like these don’t exist (at least in public). Perhaps because of this uncertainty we all feel the pressure to assert how much we know. Think how much harder it will be for Obama to get a cap and trade system passed if he begins by explaining just how uncertain and unknown its effects will be. And think how unlikely it would have been for me to get this job if my application explained how little I understood. Yet, these types of admissions would be beyond doubt the most sensible approach of them all and would help ensure that we don’t end up with a cap and trade financial crisis or another September 11th.

This isn’t to say that I think that uncertainty should be a reason not to press for radical and potentially risky steps to addressing climate change. I am a huge supporter of early action and also a believer in cap and trade as part of a global solution. But, I ask, how can we do this in a way that fully acknowledges the unknown? This I do not know.