Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Most Important Thing to Know...

Over the last few months, I have spent a great deal of time reading blogposts and comments on skeptical sites on the Internet, and one important fact has become readily apparent: that many in our community aren't aware of one of the most important things a skeptic should know.

I’ve seen opinions stated without any factual substantiation.  I’ve seen self-styled “experts” make derisive comments about others' lack of knowledge about a topic, only to find out that it was they who were, in fact, ill-informed. Why? Because too many of us don't know what we don't know.

Skepticism should start with ourselves.  When it does, we come to understand the limits of our own knowledge.  Without this self-awareness, we can make fools of ourselves by stating opinions which are in direct opposition to the facts.

Before we open our mouths, perhaps, we should consider the possibility that we may not know as much about what we are going to say as we think we do.  While it's no guarantee that we won't make mistakes, awareness of the limits of our own knowledge is important. Not only because it helps us avoid making fools of ourselves, but also because it spurs us to pursue that knowledge we lack, rather than closing our minds.

The most important thing to know is what you don't know.

(Of course, if you do happen to forget this, and make a fool of yourself, you can always apologize.)


  1. "I everyone were to only speak of what he knows, a great hush would fall over the Earth." - Mark Twain.

    Thank you for the reminder.

  2. Thanks for this quote, Stephen!

    When I wrote this post, I knew a quote like this existed but I couldn't remember it in the detail needed to search for it and include it in my post.

    Now you have done so and I am much obliged.

  3. Sober and sensible words, thank you, Ardent.

    If I might add one of my favourite quotes:
    "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool." - Richard Feynman.

  4. Indeed. I profess myself a left-liberal skeptical of my left-liberalism and an atheist skeptical of my atheism.

  5. Thanks for the the excellent and highly applicable quote, James! The "easiest person to fool" makes it difficult to "not fool yourself". We would all do well to remember this and, before speaking, ask ourselves, "Am I fooling myself? Perhaps, I should heed this advice: 'It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open one's mouth and remove all doubt.'"

  6. Thanks for this excellent post! Short, concise, and pertinent.

    I'd also add this: Before you share your opinions, ask clarifying questions about the beliefs and interests of the other person. It's much easier to share information and be heard if you first create a mutually workable relationship.

  7. Thanks, MissingtheSolstice! Asking questions and carefully listening to the responses is useful in learning "what you don't know" about others. Listening is an important skill every skeptic should hone.


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