The importance of “I don’t know.”


When it comes to grand questions of philosophy, never overlook a chance to admit you don’t know. It’s a perfectly acceptable position to admit to. Does “god” exist? I don’t know, which god? How did the universe come to be? I don’t know, but if you have a claim you better have evidence. Which politician has a better economic plan? I don’t know……….but does your fellow voter?

A new poll from Public Policy Polling found that an impressive 39 percent of Americans have an opinion about the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan.

Apparently they do. It looks like at least 39% of Americans polled had a strong opinion about a specific plan for reducing government debt.This is good, right? An informed citizenship benefits us all.

Before you start celebrating the new, sweeping reach of the 2010 commission’s work, consider this: Twenty-five percent of Americans also took a stance on the Panetta-Burns plan

Competing plans provide options, that must be good, right? There is one downside to this though. When it comes to that Panetta-Burns plan:

its “a mythical Clinton Chief of Staff/former western Republican Senator combo” that PPP dreamed up to test how many Americans would profess to have an opinion about a policy that did not exist.


Awkward. Just keep in mind, their vote matters just as much as yours.


You can find me on twitter, @DrDavidBurger

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  • baal

    heh – I value making assertions based on evidence but still find that I need to regularly stop myself from going beyond what I know. The survey, however, points out a couple of primary problems with surveys. Folks want to give the interviewer what they think the interviewer wants and it points up the need for (scientific) controls.

  • eric

    When I was in grad school, it was pretty commonly understood that during oral Ph.D. exams the professors would intentionally push you beyond your limits to see if you were willing to say “I don’t know.” Saying it too early would get you in trouble, of course, because that meant you didn’t know material you should know. But if you were unwilling to admit it at all, you’d have to start bullsh***ing at some point, just to keep up with the questions…and then they would fail you.

  • Highlander

    This reminds me of a Kickstarter campaign that I saw somewhere on Patheos (either Friendly Atheist or WWJTD). It’s a childrens book that helps kids understand that an OK answer is, “I don’t know.”

  • john

    Does “I don’t know” also apply to broad sweeping claims that antitheists like to make about religion, or is it fine to throw this maxim out of the window when it suits your ideology?

    • baal

      :) We have, of course, never ever heard a religionist make this point. Nor have we never ever responded to it. This question is asked and answered. It’s incumbent on you to know this.

      I refer you to the googles “richard dawkins 6.9″*. You’ll find your answer there. And since I already know that you are lazy,

      For myself, I don’t know that there isn’t an exquisite Ming vase orbiting the sun somewhere between Earth and Mars. I don’t know that there are invisible pink unicorns in Bolivia. I don’t know that there is a dragon in my garage (awesome essay really, it’s well written). And I don’t know that there is a god – particularly the god of Abraham.
      I’m guessing that you don’t know if the FSM is real or not or how to tell if it’s the same thing as FGM (hint, one is a tragic cultural event). I’m guessing you don’t know if reality actually exists or not (the argument from “you’re sitting on a chair”). I’m guessing you have no clue on how planes fly, cars run, and cell phones let you phone home or why that’s relevant to bring up.

      *Don’t google “richard dawkins 69″. That’s a rule 34.

      • john

        I’m not referring to the claim that God does not exist – I’m referring to the broad sweeping generalizations about religion being the source of evil (a howler if anything), everything that is wrong with the world, etc.

        I don’t expect Dawkins to know much about that subject, since he is not a social scientist. Yet he does presume to make strong claims on that subject, that are naive at best.

        • Loqi

          I don’t see many people claiming religion is the only source of evil. But I will absolutely claim that religion is a source of evil. There are mountains of evidence that religion causes harm. It doesn’t take a social scientist to read the news.

          • baal

            I agree generally with Hitchens that religion poisons everything and Greta Christina’s argument that moderate christians provide social cover for the fundamentalists as well as support for irrationality. Those aren’t things were “i don’t know” applies. They are general arguments and set a backdrop, your free to disagree or not with them. It’s not a ‘knowing’ issue.
            I do know that the RCC knew about and intentionally covered up child sexual abuse. I do know that a man is on the run from the RCC in India for the crime of showing the RCC was lying. I did see the death threats from (presumably) xians in a 10 commandments monuments case in a posting today in Ed Brayton’s blog. I do know that the Mormons and the RCC have been spending tens of millions of dollars to prevent some very nice gay couples from marrying. I do know that evangelical leaders teach that wives should be submissive and that women should suffer for having sex (willing or not). I could go on (or you could read prior posts on this blog and friendly atheist, there are many examples pretty much daily) but I do know that religious organizations do harm that is clear and were they true to their teachings, they would not do this shit. I agree with Loqi that this doesn’t really take a study.
            Maybe I could feel less like I’m flailing a bit here if you (john) had a more specific example of atheists unfairly tarring religion or professing knowledge in something that is in fact not knowable (ex Just last week Baal said, “on the dark side of the moon is an alien space colony, the mormans have been in contact with them. Most recently the mormons used alien mineral extraction technology to generate profits to fund Orrin’s reelection campaign”.)

  • Roblem

    Ya the Panetta-Burns survey is a clear example of what’s wrong with religion. The need to know how things work is fine, not knowing and learning the truth are hard. Having an opinion, that you don’t have to back up is easy. It’s magic, it’s Panetta-Burns, or it’s god.

    Theists claim victory at any gap in scientific knowledge. Not just the usual misunderstanding of terms like Scientific Theory, or the bible says this therefor you are wrong. Shoving god into the gaps of anything science hasn’t worked out yet. In science not knowing or being wrong is ok, as it should be.