Post No.: 0666
It’s said that the ‘fox’ knows many things but the ‘hedgehog’ knows one big thing. For some, this means that the ‘fox’ is a jack of all trades, master of none, whilst the ‘hedgehog’ is at least a master of one thing.
But ‘hedgehogs’ can be overconfident in what they think they know and can suffer from confirmation bias more greatly, which can make them poor at even predicting future events in their own areas of expertise. Meanwhile, ‘foxes’ will tend to make better predictions for being able to accept and aggregate wider sources of knowledge in order to see the bigger picture. (These are just metaphors by the way because my spiky hedgehog friend Lucho knows tons of things, whilst Kirie, a beautiful fox, only knows how to do one thing, which she does extremely well, and that is to keep the Hell Gate sealed. Bless her.)
We experience a rewarding sense of pleasure when we think we’re correct so are drawn to whatever confirms our beliefs, and are averse to whatever disconfirms them. Also unfortunately, most laypeople would rather trust in those who are overconfident and adamant about what they believe in rather than those who speak with humility for understanding how the world really is – complex and should be described in the language of probabilities instead of absolute certainties. Predicting the future involves different levels of uncertainty.
Sounding definite can make us sound more knowledgeable, to laypeople at least, but we could be totally wrong – like saying, “I know that wink means he/she’s lying” instead of, “I don’t know what that wink means on its own because it’s ambiguous, but I can give a tentative probability, while we await further clues.”
Decisiveness can increase confidence in one’s leader, and leaders indeed must not vacillate on urgent decisions. Yet neither decisiveness nor confidence is a reliable indicator of someone making the right decision. Fast answers are often given to questions without deep enough thought, or any thought at all. Yet laypeople tend to assume that those who can give fast, confident, decisive answers are the most knowledgeable and skilled.
Sometimes we need quick decisions because time is of the essence. But we don’t need nor want hasty answers when it’s not urgent and when the risks of costly errors are high. Leadership isn’t the same thing as being able to provide fast and confident answers.
We can be so clueless that we mistake a tricky question as simple. Therefore if you’re asked a question you’ve not explored before – pause and think first. Ask questions about why you were asked that question too? The person who asked you it likely has good reasons, such as they had already thought about the issue deeply and the answer doesn’t appear straightforward; rather than they asked you it because they thought you were the expert. Don’t give a thought-terminating response just to give a quick and ‘decisive’ answer – ask your own questions and seek for more information first.
The more one learns about human psychology and most, if not all, other large subjects, the more one learns how complex some things actually are; and the more one is aware that general findings may have many caveats, things are less black-or-white as originally thought, many different points of view can be valid, short or simple answers aren’t always available, and there’s a lot that one still yet fully understands. (For example, generally, if you praise someone, they’ll raise their game and perform even better, but if the person has a very low self-esteem then compliments may produce the reverse effect because they don’t feel that they can perform to the expected standard.) You’ve probably experienced this many times before whenever you’ve decided to deeply investigate a problem – in the search for answers, more questions actually arise, when you initially thought the matter would be simple. It therefore requires a more refined and deeper understanding of the world. (So in the above case, one must be careful to only compliment specific achievements, or even better, praise efforts over outcomes.)
Most of us perceive or prefer a world that’s simple, where A = B and that’s that. But the more one learns and understands life and how the world works, it’s more like A if and only if B, C and D, but not if E, F or G, or if H and I (like regarding health advice or socio-economic reforms). The wisest thing is to probably accept that the world is complex and to not too quickly accept the simple answers that those with their own particular interests give. Then again, some things are simple and have simple answers. ‘Basically’, everything has nuances, and that includes nuancing too(!) All we can do is keep questioning everything and staying abreast with the latest news and research. Woof!
We perhaps need to specialise our knowledge nowadays because it takes decades to learn everything about a specific field/sub-field, and one must remain specialised in order to properly keep up with the cutting edge in a particular field/sub-field too. But we’d miss so much if we, for instance, only studied science but not philosophy. We can at least take away the key points and outlines of each subject hence we should all be interested in everything, as citizens with the power to shape societies with our votes, voices, wallets and actions. And we might think biology, chemistry, physics, business, religion, sociology, etc. are all different subjects – but they all pertain to this one universe and life of ours! Everything in this universe is interconnected so we need to know a lot about all sorts to understand our place in it properly. To understand just one or two areas of interest is to know too little about the grand picture. Post No.: 0186 suggested variety is the spice of life too.
So be always motivated to learn more and more, because once we think we already know everything we think we need to know, or think all we currently know is correct – we stop listening and growing, we fall behind the times (sometimes in tone deaf ways) and we won’t know what we’re missing personally and intellectually.
Education doesn’t necessarily make one know the answers to every question but makes one understand the problems far better – thus creating a more rounded, open-minded and humble person who can see from and understand more opposing views on various complex matters, instead of a simplistic and arrogant person who forthrightly thinks they know the single right answers to everything, especially in contexts where there aren’t categorical single right or wrong answers. For example – utility versus liberty, pro-life versus pro-choice, and other dilemmas such as freedom of speech versus privacy, harassment and spreading lies (because some freedoms directly impinge on other, or other people’s, freedoms). There are no easy ‘one size fits all’ answers to these except to the naïve or unwaveringly biased.
One will be more aware of the effects of luck or chance, and how chaos can make a subtle initial difference magnify in eventual consequence, which in turn makes long-range predictions difficult. And instead of making things appear more black-or-white – in most cases regarding the big complex questions or perennial issues of the world (like war and peace) at least – gaining more knowledge will often make things seem even less black-or-white, because understanding the world more means understanding that it’s more complicated than at superficial glance or on paper sometimes. Our raw instincts or intuitions, including our crude mental shortcuts, stereotypes or over-generalisations, will refine significantly too.
Simple minds like to settle for simple explanations or false dichotomies like pointing the blame at single causes when most things in the real world involve a combination of multiple factors (like nature and nurture, mental and physical, yin and yang, we’re born to be altruistic and violent) and will therefore require multiple angles to truly understand or solve them. Some individual factors may be more influential than others but few things offer the complete explanation for a perennial issue alone. And few solutions in a complex world come without side-effects too, hence we cannot realistically expect ‘perfect’ answers and we should expect at least some compromises.
A thorough education and balanced analysis allows one to understand the subtleties, nuances, counterpoints, the still-unknowns and the many different perspectives on complex issues that don’t have clear black-or-white answers, like many age-old conundrums. We need to see beyond our own side’s propaganda. By considering other sides, we might be able to empathise with copyright laws from the position of a content creator as well as a consumer or disseminator of other people’s works, for instance. But when we only understand a one-sided view, an issue appears simple, and because it appears simple, we’re going to feel more confident with that view. So a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing because we only see an overly-simplified, overly-coherent and one-sided picture. And those with the least knowledge can feel the most strongly vocally opinionated concerning what they think they know too (and this is quite evident every day on social media). But we won’t sense that what we know isn’t enough because we won’t know what we don’t know.
It’s like why people often say, “No comment” in interviews because the less information they give, the less anyone can poke holes in what they say and find inconsistencies in it. So the less information you know, the less chance you’ll find any holes in what you know and believe – not because there aren’t any holes in what you believe but because you don’t know enough to identify that there are holes in what you believe. Just like a person saying, “No comment” isn’t necessarily trustworthy but we simply haven’t been told enough to figure out whether they are or not – someone who hasn’t learnt much isn’t knowledgeable but won’t be able to figure out how little they know because of how little they know. Being happy with sticking with what one currently knows is therefore a comfortable yet perilous place to stay settled, because one doesn’t risk learning something that’ll rectify what one believes.
Meanwhile, the growth mindset of constant education is the opposite attitude – you’re trying to learn as much as possible from as many different subjects as possible in order to intentionally look for any inconsistencies or contradictions that may challenge your own present understanding of the world and in turn your own current worldviews. But the payoff is that if you’re happy that all you’ve been exposed to so far hangs together coherently despite the ongoing amount of information you’re absorbing from diverse sources, then you can be more happy that what you believe in is being rigorously tested to be the most true, robust or justified it can be.
The only way to find out if we only know a little about something is to never stop learning about even the things we think we’ve completely figured out. This applies to the total pool of human knowledge too. Even regarding objective facts, the human species as a whole right now still has plenty of major open questions in every exciting field of science imaginable. It’s therefore logically arrogant to believe one can ever be objectively clever – if you think you know all there is to (importantly) know, you just don’t know what you, and the whole human race, don’t, or doesn’t, yet know. And we’ll logically never know how much we don’t know, no matter how much we (think we) do know. Hence the only wise thing to do is to keep on learning!
Woof! A key thing that we all must learn is to not automatically trust in those who appear cocksure and decisive in their opinions and predictions. It’s supply and demand – if we keep over-trusting overconfident ‘hedgehogs’ over open ‘foxes’ then we’ll keep voting for clueless bigheads in positions of power.