A Little Knowledge Is A Dangerous Thing

The title is an old proverb about the danger of having little knowledge in a particular area and acting as an expert. How often did you meet someone with trivia-level expertise in some areas but acts as if they are the experts in the field and are not willing to debate or hear the argument from the other side? More often than not, whenever someone thinks they know more than others in general trivia questions, they know less than they think. This condition is called the Dunning Kroger effect, a cognitive bias in which people wrongly overestimate their knowledge or ability in a specific area. In other words, a little bit of knowledge makes them think that they have moved from learners to professionals, while in reality, they are barely at the amateur level. This effect tends to occur because of a lack of self-awareness that prevents them from accurately assessing their skills. Sounds familiar? Mr. Know it all? I bet it is, and I am sure we all have been in that situation one way or another, and we have met people around us who fit the definition. The funny thing is that people with the Dunning Kroger effect don’t know they have it.

Adam Grant’s latest book, “Think Again,” is a wake-up call to the little kid inside us. Kids live by their “aha” moments and get excited when learning how things work or discovering new aspects of the world around them.  On the other hand, adults treat some of their experiences and knowledge as a sacred script that cannot be doubted or challenged.

The notion of accepting that we don’t know everything and that we are open to learning new things in life every day is a necessary mindset that allows self-growth and humbleness. Isn’t it ironic that we sometimes make fun of those still using Windows 95 while clinging to thoughts and ideas from 1995 and refusing to question them? Of course, this does not mean everything we know is subject to change or might have been wrong; instead, we should always be open to questioning our knowledge and what we think we know and accept that we are always learning new things, so as long as we are alive.

Business history tells us that some of the corporations that were the giants of their era disappeared because they refused to accept change, learn from the changing environment around them, nor be agile to market changes—case in point, Nokia, Kodak & Blackberry. Nokia favored voice-over data, and Kodak did not understand the behavioral shift toward digital vs. paper. Blackberry did not see the need for its customers to have more than email access on their phones.

Zooming in to the individual level, we should all be open to questioning all we know and accept that our knowledge could be outdated and that it is ok to change our minds and learn new things. One should never be ashamed of changing their mind or convictions, as that is a sign of growth and willingness to learn. Think of the scientist mentality, someone who only believes in data and facts to form their opinion, and in debates, they are always willing to back down from their views if proven wrong. A scientist’s mentality always seeks to find the truth, regardless of its source, compared to a preacher or a politician.  A preacher or a politician, on the other hand, will push on their views religiously to convince others of their opinions and constantly argue in favor of their ideas while hardly entertaining the other side’s views.

Some of the main takeouts from this book are the following

  • Think like a scientist. Scientists are constantly testing their ideas and resting them against all possible arguments. They are always willing to learn and challenge what they know to reach the truth. However, in many cases, we discuss our beliefs/views as politicians, preachers, or prosecutors.
  • Don’t link your opinion to your ego. Accept that you will not always be right and that everyone around you has something to teach you, and whenever you are proven wrong, take it as a sport and grow. Don’t let your ego kick in, and allow the notion of being false to define you who you are.
  • When challenged, focus on the HOW, not the WHY. It would be best if you tried to use HOW in your questions so that you and the other side of the discussion will notice the gaps in both views and show the will to explore different ideas. This will also help remove emotions from the equation, which usually ruins any debate or discussion.
  • Teaching kids to Rethinking. One of the essential takeaways from the book. We need to raise our kids with the mind of a scientist, an inquisitor, and an explorer, who are always willing to challenge what they know and see if it holds up or needs to be updated or reconsidered.

In the movie, based on a true story from 1971, Best of Enemies (2019), the leading character, CP, played by Sam Rockwell, is the president of the KKK in his hometown, Durham, North Carolina. He grew up believing that the white race was superior to the black race, which was just a fact of life. Never did he question that, nor had any doubts. Why would he? He grew up in this environment and culture that was the norm. It was the case until the black kids’ elementary school in their town was damaged, and there were civil calls to merge the two schools so that black kids could go to school with the white kids. By the end of the movie, CP will give a speech at the voting site, and his change of heart is noticeable. He changed his deep-rooted beliefs that blacks were inferior to whites and accepted that all men were created equal in the eyes of God.  CP told the crowd that he no longer believed that black people were inferior to white people; therefore, he had no place being the president of the Klan, and then he ripped his KKK membership card. 

Accepting to change your direction and take another route, no matter how far you have gone, is a sign of maturity, self-awareness, and strong will.  Ironically the two main characters in the movie, the white man who was the president of the KKK, and the black lady leading the movement to allow black kids into white kids’ schools, formed a long-lasting friendship that lasted a lifetime between them after this incident.


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