Better Questions and Al Yagoda


The Dunning-Kruger Effect has become popularized in recent days. Unfortunately it sometimes gets reimagined as “Stupid people often think they are smarter than they really are.” Of course, that is not the issue. It is that people tend not to be self-aware of their own incompetence in a subject. People who are very ignorant in a topic often feel that they are quite knowledgeable in the topic. This is hardly surprising, since it is a truism that…

“We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know”

This reminds me of a satirical post in the “Babylon Bee.” The title was, “Scholars Now Believe Job’s Friends Were First-Year Seminary Students.” Since the story was certainly used in the training of young men in rabbinical schools for millennia, I can’t help but wonder if it is more truth than satire (“Not the Onion”-worthy).

“It takes considerable knowledge just to realize the extent of your own ignorance.”

— Thomas Sowell

Perhaps a bit more surprising is that people who are genuinely experts in a topic often feel that they are more ignorant than they really are. The more one studies a subject the more one understands how vast it is. Although experts tend to be more realistic than novices, one may become so focused on the vast vistas of the unknown that one may lose sight of the level of competency that one has achieved. When I was in first year college for mechanical engineering, a question had come up in mathematics that was new to me. I decided to ask my dad. He told me that he had no idea what the answer was. I was shocked. My father had a bachelors degree in mathematics (magna cum laude), had been “human computer” (back when those were the only computers that existed) in missile design and then a test engineer at a high-performance bearing company. As I went on in my education, I gained a better understanding of how vast mathematics. It is so vast that no one embraces all of it with any level of competence. Expertise narrows. When young, my dad was an expert in college-level mathematics… as well as mental math. When older, his expertise became Weibull distributions and failure analysis (small but important parts of the vast, infinite, plane that is mathematics).

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

–Charles Darwin

So:

  • Incompetent people in an area tend to think that they much more competent than they actually are.
  • Highly competent people in an area tend to think they are somewhat less competent than they actually are.
  • Highly competent people in an area tend to think that they are more competent than they really are in areas that they lack expertise.

It could be suggested that the first point on the list is unnecessary. Pretty much all of us are experts in something, and every single person on earth who is an expert in something is going to be incompetent in a vast range of things. So you get people like astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson speaking about philosophy with great confidence but without competence. I shouldn’t pick on him alone. I find people talking about climate change with great confidence (actually on both sides of the issue) but with know training in the matter. I have seen Nobel prize winners talk with great confidence on topics that they have little expertise in.

In fact, we all do it. We are all rather incompetent in most ways…. but we really don’t want to go around and sound ignorant. We all want to appear competent and that we know exactly what needs to be done. I teach Interreligious Dialogue and I have my students write up case studies of themselves in interreligious dialogue. So many are uncomfortable because they are afraid of being asked something that they don’t know the answer to. They are afraid of that “Gotcha!!” moment where they feel stupid. (Strangely, in most cases, the person they were talking to probably would have respected them more if they simply said, “Wow, that is a great question. I need to research that. Or maybe we can figure it out together.”) We want to be the Gotcha!! guy like Ben Shapiro focused more on belittling the other than on seeking truth.

We all want to be Al Yagoda.

Who is Al Yagoda? One of my bosses back when I was a mechanical design engineer told me to avoid Al Yagoda. When we have a question, don’t listen to people that answer with, “Al Yagoda do is….. ” or “All you need is…”

Answers are rarely that easy. We rarely know the answer. I tell my seminary students to embrace the sentence, “I don’t know.” It is a good sentence because it is commonly true. It is also often true when you think it is not true (As the Dunning-Kruger Effect suggests).

This does not mean that one must end with “I don’t know.” I don’t know is a starting place, not an endpoint. In the classes I teach, someone asks a good question. I often will say, “I don’t know… but here are some thoughts I have on this.’ Or maybe, “I don’t know… but maybe someone else here knows.”

Sometimes, I don’t know is followed by a strategy to find out. I remember as an engineer, a friend of mine was making an electronic cabinet and wasn’t sure what thickness of sheet metal he should use. He asked me what I thought would work. I said, quite correctly, “I don’t know.’ However, I then followed with, “I think I know how we can find out.” I took him downstairs to the testing department where there were a number of electronic racks. I pointed to three of them and told him to sit on them and push on them. He did. I told him the thicknesses of sheet metal used for each. Based on that he had a good idea what to use. He discovered the truth, and did so in a way that was more visceral. Me telling him what I thought was the best thickness may or may not have been right… but it certainly would NOT be the best way to inform him.

Being an expert in a field is often not about having better answers, but having better questions. I think this is especially true in missions and in theology. I like to tell my students that they should not expect that I have the best answers. I can be wrong. I am wrong every day. I have met people who think that they are experts and so should be believed. I don’t think anyone living today is such an expert in a subject that they have earned the right to be unquestionably believed. But PERHAPS they should be taken seriously.

That is what I tell my students. They can disagree with me… and they may be right in doing so. Based on my training and experience, I don’t expect to be believed… but I DO expect to have my thoughts taken seriously. If all I do as a seminary professor is indoctrinate them to parrot my beliefs, I have done little, if any, good.

But if I can train up people to gain some sense of the vastness of theology and missions, have the self-awareness to recognize their own expertise AND ignorance, and help them to ask better questions, I have accomplished something wonderful.

That is something that I am pretty sure that I know.

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