Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Fake Knowledge or Not Knowing: Which Is Worse?

Scientists say a lack of curiosity makes us slower, dumber, and less successful.

The question of knowledge, facts, and truth is a big one these days. What do we really know? What is the real truth? Who do we believe? And what can we really do to solve whatever problems we are facing?

It often feels daunting to admit what we don’t know, but as many successful people will tell you, only by recognizing and owning that you don’t know everything can you learn what you actually need and want to know. A Chinese proverb puts it this way: As hunger is cured by food, so ignorance is cured by study.

The thing is, if you don’t acknowledge that you don’t have answers, you won’t know that you need to learn them.

In this difficult time of “alternate facts” and painful shaming of anyone who does not share one’s beliefs, emphasis on curiosity and learning seems to be diminishing. Yet in the world of robots, science, and startups, curiosity is making an interesting comeback.

123rf mnsanthoshkumar
Source: 123rf mnsanthoshkumar

In an article published in Science in May, 2017, Matt Hutson, writes about recent research conducted by computer scientists who have programmed robots to be curious. He writes,

"The new approach could allow robots to learn even faster than they can now. Someday they might even surpass human scientists in forming hypotheses and pushing the frontiers of what’s known."

Further, Hutson tells us,

'Developing curiosity is a problem that’s core to intelligence,' says Konidaris, a computer scientist who runs the Intelligent Robot Lab at Brown University and was not involved in the research. 'It’s going to be most useful when you’re not sure what your robot is going to have to do in the future.'”

Can the same be said for humans?

The American psychoanalyst Hans Loewald wrote that we can only learn if we allow ourselves not to know. Young children have no difficulty asking “why?” – often far more than the adults in their lives would like. But, like the robots in the experiments conducted by Todd Hester, a computer scientist currently at Google DeepMind in London, and Peter Stone, a computer scientist at the University of Texas in Austin, human babies are programmed to enjoy learning, and furthermore, not to be ashamed of not knowing.

For adults, however, not knowing can feel shameful. It can also feel very confusing. Loewald suggests that this combination of shame and confusion is one of the reasons many of us have difficulty learning new things as we get older. We like the comfort of feeling knowledgeable. We don’t like the discomfort of not knowing.

Yet not knowing is the root of curiosity; and, according to and Emily Graslie, vlogger and the first ever Chief Curiosity Correspondent for Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History (and perhaps only Curiosity Correspondent in the world), curiosity is what will protect our natural history and environment; and even more, it brings value to our everyday lives. As host of the science Youtube channel The Brain Scoop , Emily describes the importance of not knowing in over 170 Youtube talks.

She’s not alone in valuing curiosity.

Hypnotherapist Milton Erickson was famous for his curiosity. According to Jane Parsons-Fein, president of the Parsons-Fein Training Institute for Psychotherapy and Hypnosis in New York City, Erickson encouraged his clients and students to pay attention and open up their thoughts to many different possibilities, saying "The easiest things to see are often overlooked."

In a recent article on CIO, Sarah White writes:

Tony Vartanian, co-founder of Lucktastic, a division of the mobile game design company Jump Ramp Games. Vartanian has grown his company by hiring qualified, curious candidates over people who simply have an impressive background, but don't demonstrate the same thirst for knowledge.

According to a study from Gallup International, some of the best entrepreneurs are curious and creative thinkers, which the study says indicates they can "creatively look beyond the present and imagine possible futures for their company." They aren't the type of people who sit around and wait to be told what to do -- instead they drive the change within their own organization through out-of-the-box thinking. And, according to Vartanian, that's a quality you want in every employee you decide to hire at your startup.

So next time you think you’re supposed to know something before you start finding out about it, stop for a minute and consider what it might mean to not know. Try being curious. You’ll probably learn something new. You might have fun. And you might even get a new job out it!


Follow me on Twitter

More from F. Diane Barth L.C.S.W.
More from Psychology Today