Known Unknowns or: How we learned to stop worrying about uncertainty and love intellectual humility
Peter L. Samuelson, Fuller School of Psychology, (moved to the Thrive Foundation) firstname.lastname@example.org
Ian M. Church, St. Louis University, email@example.com
Post-doctoral researchers in the Science of Intellectual Humility Project funded by the John Templeton Foundation.
In two recent articles on the NY Times opinion pages, the term “intellectual humility” has played a central role. As “leading experts” on intellectual humility (we are researchers on a grant from the John Templeton Foundation to study the science of intellectual humility, and probably know more about intellectual humility than anyone else in the world!), our ears naturally perked up.
The first instance was in a column dated Feb. 22, 2014, in which Thomas L. Friedman interviewed Laszlo Bock, the senior vice president of people operations for Google, who claimed “intellectual humility” as one of the most important attributes Google looks for in hiring candidates. Bock went on to characterize intellectual humility in this way:
What we’ve seen is that the people who are the most successful here, who we want to hire, will have a fierce position. They’ll argue like hell. They’ll be zealots about their point of view. But then you say, ‘here’s a new fact,’ and they’ll go, ‘Oh, well, that changes things; you’re right.’
Contrast this conception of intellectual humility with a quote from the memoir of Donald Rumsfeld, cited in the second of a four-part series in the NY Times Opininator Blog posted on March 26, 2014 by Errol Morris, entitled “ The Certainty of Donald Rumsfeld: The known and the unknown.”
The idea of known and unknown unknowns recognizes that the information those in positions of responsibility in government, as well as in other human endeavors, have at their disposal is almost always incomplete. It emphasizes the importance of intellectual humility, a valuable attribute in decision making and in formulating strategy. It is difficult to accept — to know — that there may be important unknowns.
Both Bock and Rumsfeld are appealing to intellectual humility as a crucial virtue in human endeavors, especially in collaborative efforts like software development or strategy formation. A virtue is classically defined as “doing the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason.” In what we will call the “Googlean” conception (expressed by Mr. Bock), intellectual humility is holding a position firmly until proven wrong. In what we will call the “Rumsfeldean” conception, intellectual humility is holding a position loosely because knowledge is necessarily incomplete.
Both conceptions of intellectual humility have merit. The Rumsfeldean position has been used as the very definition of wisdom. As tradition has it, Socrates was the wisest man in all of Greece because he knew his own intellectual limitations, because he knew that he didn’t know. In our own work on the intellectual humility project, we have defined intellectual humility as “holding a belief with the firmness the belief merits.” Some beliefs, like the belief that 2+2=4, merit being held with the utmost firmness; to do otherwise—to have serious, lingering doubts as to whether or not 2+2=4—is to be intellectually diffident or intellectually self-deprecating. Other beliefs, like the beliefs regarding the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin, merit being held with very little firmness; to do otherwise, to be convinced that exactly five angels can dance on the head of a pin—is to be intellectually arrogant. To put it roughly, intellectual humility, as the virtuous mean between such vices, calls for us to proportion our beliefs, our convictions in accord with our justification, our warrant, our evidence.
The thin edge between virtue and vice, however, is not in having the right formulation of intellectual humility, but in exercising intellectual humility at the right time, for the right reason. In the Rumsfeldean conception, intellectual humility might best be exercised as caution – not making a decision too quickly because any given bit of knowledge is incomplete. Intellectual humility, then, would be the willingness to gather more evidence, from as many sources as possible, to make the knowledge as complete as possible, before a decision is made. It would be vicious, however, to embrace ignorance because knowledge is necessarily incomplete. Even if our knowledge of the bus barreling down the road is incomplete, that doesn’t mean we should cross the road.
By Googlean lights (and our own), intellectual humility is virtuously exercised by a certain tenacity, when the belief is merited (even zealotry, according to Bock), and a willingness to adjust the belief when evidence warrants. It would be vicious to hold a belief when there is not enough evidence to warrant such a belief, or when evidence exists that proves the belief wrong. According to Errol Morris, this is precisely what Donald Rumsfeld did: held a belief that Saddam Hussein had WMD’s, which justified the invasion of Iraq, when there was not enough evidence to support that belief. If Morris is right, Rumsfeld is displaying intellectual arrogance – holding a belief more firmly than is merited.
What is interesting about Rumsfeld’s intellectual arrogance is that he justifies it based on his idea of intellectual humility. Intellectual humility, by his lights, acknowledges that “there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. … there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” (Rumsfeld speaking at the Feb. 22, 2002 news conference). Rumsfeld seems to claim that since no knowledge is certain, we have to act on beliefs formed from uncertain or (highly) defeasible evidence. This, however, is not intellectual humility. Morris is right to conclude that Rumsfeld’s certainty is vicious, because he held a belief without sufficient evidence, what we define as intellectual arrogance.
Intellectual humility, to be an intellectual virtue, must be exercised in the pursuit of truth, even if the “truth” cannot be completely known. In this context, it will exhibit characteristics such as curiosity, inquisitiveness, and love of learning. Indeed, in our own research, these words are found to be uniquely prototypical attributes of a “folk” conception of an intellectually humble person. In the face of the limits of our knowledge, we can neither throw up our hands and claim nothing can be known, nor can we arrogantly assert our claims because they have as much merit as any other, but must humbly collaborate to find the best evidence we can so that our actions are true.