Each one of us has a relationship with our own ignorance, a dishonest, complicated relationship, and that dishonesty keeps us sane, happy, and willing to get out of bed in the morning. By David McRaney
Here’s a fun word to add to your vocabulary: nescience. I ran across it a few months back and kind of fell in love with it.
It’s related to the word prescience, which is a kind of knowing. Prescience is a state of mind, an awareness, that grants you knowledge of the future – about something that has yet to happen or is not yet in existence. It’s a strange idea isn’t it, that knowledge is a thing, a possession, that it stands alone and in proxy for something else out there in reality that has yet to actually…be? Then, the time comes, and the knowledge is no longer alone. Foreknowledge becomes knowledge and now corresponds to a real thing that is true. It is no longer pre-science but just science.
I first learned the word nescience from the book Ignorance and Surprise by Matthias Gross. That book revealed to me that, philosophically speaking, ignorance is a complicated matter. You can describe it in many ways. In that book Gross talks about the difficulties of translating a sociologist named Georg Simmel who often used the word “nichtwissen” in his writing. Gross says that some translations changed that word to nescience and some just replaced it with “not knowing.” It’s a difficult to term to translate, he explains, because it can mean a few different things. If you stick to the Latin ins and outs of the word, nescience means non-knowledge, or what we would probably just call ignorance. But Gross writes that in some circles it has a special meaning. He says it can mean something you can’t know in advance, or an unknown unknown, or something that no human being can ever hope to know, something a theologian might express as a thought in the mind of God. For some people, as Gross points out, everything is in the mind of God, so therefore nothing is actually knowable. To those people nescience is the natural state of all creatures and nothing can ever truly be known, not for sure. Like I said, ignorance is a complex concept.
It’s that last meaning of nescience that I think is most fun. Take away the religious aspect and nescience is prescience in negative. It is the state of not knowing, but stronger than that. It’s not knowing something that can’t be known. It’s not even knowing that you can’t know it. For instance, your cat can never read or understand the latest terms and conditions for iTunes, thus if she clicked on “I Agree,” we wouldn’t consider that binding. There are vast expanses of ignorance that your cat can’t even imagine, much less gain the knowledge about those things required to rid herself of that ignorance. That’s the definition of nescience I prefer.
I love this word, because once you accept this definition you start to wonder about a few things. Are there some things that, just like my cat, I can never know that I can never know? Are there things that maybe no one can ever know that no one can ever know? It’s a fun, frustrating, dorm-room-bong-hit-whoa-dude loop of weirdness that real philosophers and sociologists seriously ponder and continue to write about in books you can buy on Amazon.
I think I like this idea because I often look back at my former self and imagine what sort of advice I would offer that person. It seems like I’m always in a position to do that, no matter how old I am or how old the former me is in my imagination. I was always more ignorant than I am now, even though I didn’t feel all that ignorant then. That means that it’s probably also true that right now I’m sitting here in a state of total ignorance concerning things that my future self wishes he could shout back at me through time. Yet here I sit, unaware. Nescient.
The evidence gathered so far by psychologists and neuroscientists seems to suggest that each one of us has a relationship with our own ignorance, a dishonest, complicated relationship, and that dishonesty keeps us sane, happy, and willing to get out of bed in the morning. Part of that ignorance is a blind spot we each possess that obscures both our competence and incompetence.
Psychologists David Dunning and Joyce Ehrlinger once conducted an experiment investigating how bad people are at judging their own competence. Specifically, they were interested in people’s self-assessment of a single performance. They wrote in the study that they already knew from previous research that people seemed to be especially prone to making mistakes when they judged the accuracy of their own perceptions if those perceptions were of themselves and not others. To investigate why, they created a ruse.
In the study, Dunning and Ehrlinger describe how they gathered college students together who agreed to take a test. All the participants took the exact same test – same font, same order, same words, everything – but the scientists told one group that it was a test that measured abstract reasoning ability. They told another group it measured computer programming ability. Two groups of people took the same exam, but each batch of subjects believed it was measuring something unique to that group. When asked to evaluate their own performances, the people who believed they had taken a test that measured reasoning skills reported back that they felt they did really well. The other group, however, the ones who believed they had taken a test that measured computer programming prowess, weren’t so sure. They guessed that they did much poorer on the test than did the other group – even though they took the same test. The real results actually showed both groups did about the same. The only difference was how they judged their own performances. The scientists said that it seemed as though the subjects weren’t truly judging how well they had done based on any ease or difficulty they may have experienced during the test itself, but they were inferring how well they had performed based on the kind of people they believed themselves to be.
Dunning and Ehrlinger knew that most college students tend to hold very high opinions of themselves when it comes to abstract reasoning. It’s part of what they call a “chronic self view.” You have an idea of who you are in your mind, and it is kind of like a character in a story, the protagonist in the tale of your life. Some aspects of that character are chronic, traits that are always there that you feel are essential and evident, beliefs about your level of skill that are consistent across all situations. For most college students, being great at abstract reasoning is one of those traits, but being great at computer programming is not.
Dunning and Ehrlinger write that the way you view your past performances can greatly affect your future decisions, behaviors, judgments, and choices. They bring up the example of a first date. How you judge your contribution to the experience might motivate you to keep calling someone who doesn’t want to ever see you again, or it might cause you to miss out on something wonderful because you mistakenly think the other person hated every minute of the night. In every aspect of our lives, they write, we are evaluating how well we performed and using that analysis to decide when to continue and when to quit, when to try harder and work longer and when we can sit back and rest because everything is going just fine. Yet, the problem with this is that we are really, really bad at this kind of analysis. We are nescient. The reality of our own abilities, the level of our own skills, both when lacking and when excelling, is often something we don’t know that we don’t know.
Dunning and Ehrlinger put it like this, “In general, the perceptions people hold, of either their overall ability or specific performance, tend to be correlated only modestly with their actual performance.” We must manage our own ignorance when reflecting on any performance – a test, an athletic event, a speech, or even a conversation. Whether modest or confident, you often depend on the image you maintain of yourself as a guide for how well you did more than actual feedback. To make matters worse, you often don’t get any feedback, or you get a bad version of it.
In the case of singing, you might get all the way to an audition on X-Factor on national television before someone finally provides you with an accurate appraisal. Dunning says that the shock that some people feel when Simon Cowell cruelly explains to them that they suck is often the result of living for years in an environment filled with mediocrity enablers. Friends and family, peers and coworkers, they don’t want to be mean or impolite. They encourage you to keep going until you end up in front of millions reeling from your first experience with honest feedback.
When you are unskilled yet unaware, you often experience what is now known in psychology as the Dunning-Kruger effect, a psychological phenomenon that arises sometimes in your life because you are generally very bad at self-assessment. If you have ever been confronted with the fact that you were in over your head, or that you had no idea what you were doing, or that you thought you were more skilled at something than you actually were – then you may have experienced this effect. It is very easy to be both unskilled and unaware of it, and in this episode we explore why that is with professor David Dunning, one of the researchers who coined the term and a scientist who continues to add to our understanding of the phenomenon.
Read more about the Dunning-Kruger effect from David Dunning himself in this article recently published in the Pacific Standard.