The power of knowing what you don’t know

AS we wander through the dark Covid tunnel wondering when the next train is going to hit us, our minds also turn to the people who are supposed to stop those trains. Thus far the barriers they have put up – lockdowns, fining innocent people, hunting down migrant workers and refugees – have been knocked into splinters like so many chopsticks. And still they insist that their policies work and indeed have been successful.

But then they’re in the nice, air-conditioned tunnel riding on the gravy trains. Not likely to be run over any time soon.

There’s a quote often misattributed to Albert Einstein that says that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Whoever originally said it, we now know that it’s true, with the rise in our Covid-19 cases and deaths as proof.

It’s obvious that our leaders and policymakers don’t read. They don’t read the science which is why they do unscientific things like disinfect roads. Nor do they read the signs that come in the form of white and black flags. Or they do, but instead of feeling ashamed, they feel insulted and claim that the appropriate flags should be blue. But they also haven’t noticed how we’ve become blue in the face trying to make them see sense.

It’s also clear that they’ve been blocking out bad news. How else to explain anyone who believes it when hospitals clean up their disaster areas or when they are told that people’s kitchens are full of food? I didn’t know it was possible to be blind and tone deaf at the same time.

For those of our leaders who did go to school, I recommend a book called Think Again by Adam Grant. It’s about “the power of knowing what you don’t know”. Grant wants us to accept that we don’t always know everything, that we can only grow and come up with better solutions when we decide that we need to rethink everything that we know. He starts the book by giving the example of the inventor of the Blackberry who was so sure he had invented the best phone and that he knew everything about human wants that he failed to see the iPhone coming.

To be able to rethink your ideas and beliefs, you need to be, most of all, humble. But most people, especially the higher up the totem pole they are, tend to cling to what Grant calls the arrogance of ignorance. They believe that they got up their perch because they are special and therefore everything they say must be true and smart. Even though people lower down the pole don’t think their bosses are as clever as they are supposed to be, they don’t want to say anything because of the danger of being gaslighted. In other words, trying to correct those on top of them might elicit the comeback, “If you’re so smart, how come you’re down there and I’m up here?”. In our feudal society, this effectively shuts minions up.

Grant goes on to talk about how most people over-estimate their abilities on any subject they claim to know. He gives examples of experiments where the more confident people are in their own abilities, the more mistakes they are likely to make. They are so sure of themselves, they never think they can be wrong. But he also says there’s an underlying force that can also cloud our vision of our abilities, our inability to think about our thinking. “Lacking competence,” he says, “can make us blind to our incompetence.” In Malay, we call it bodoh sombong. Can you think of anyone who might fit the bill?

What’s most needed is confident humility, the willingness to be open and to learn from others. But unfortunately, as we have seen time and again, that’s exactly what’s missing. There are people who blunder on, causing economic and social damage, without caring in the least bit about the human cost. By the time this column comes out, there’ll be probably 8000 people dead from Covid and countless others from suicide. Do the blunderers care? In Indonesia, the public gets apologies from Ministers when they make mistakes. Here? Not a peep.

Instead, we get a show of eye-watering arrogance when people, who need to be labelled VIPs in case we forget, pray in an enclosed place with 300 others and get away with it, despite their own warnings to the rest of us. Elsewhere 200 not very important folks pray on the road outdoors and immediately get investigated, resulting in only 49 of them, all foreigners except one, being arrested. Does it smell to you like it does to me?

Nothing is going to change unless people feel safe enough to give new ideas. In one experiment that Grant cited, people who have psychological safety – they feel they won’t suffer if they provide different ideas – reported more errors than people who felt less safe. But on closer examination, it turns out that while they reported more errors, they made less of them. “By freely admitting their mistakes, they were then able to learn what caused them and eliminated psychologically unsafe teams, people hid their mishaps to avoid penalties, which made it difficult to diagnose the root causes and prevent future problems.” Sounds like that Klang hospital visit, no?

If we ever get rid of this lot, I think we should make it mandatory for anyone aspiring to rule us to read this book so that they won’t cling to their self-assumed smartness as if it came down from above. I might even sponsor all 222 copies of it.

Marina Mahathir is spending a lot of time rethinking her opinions on people she thought were marginally competent. Now she knows they’re just incompetent. The views expressed here are solely the writer's own and do not necessarily reflect those of The Star.

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