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On the Origins of Bunk

Saturday, August 25, 2012

As Representative Todd Akin’s recent statement shows, we all don’t know lots of things. But no matter how much we don’t know, saying ‘I don’t know’ is never easy and does not get any easier with practice.

Back when President Jed Bartlet of “The West Wing” was running for reelection, he had a private encounter with his opponent, the very rickperryesque Governor Ritchie (played by James Brolin). To the news that a Secret Service agent has just been shot and killed, Ritchie responds sadly “Crime. Boy, I don’t know.” The president, who you may recall is a Nobel Prize winner in economics and who, in another episode, argues with God in Latin, absorbs Ritchie’s comment and then, a few moments later, tells him, “In the future, if you’re wondering, ‘Crime. Boy, I don’t know’ is when I decided to kick your ass.”

It’s not entirely clear what Ritchie means by “I don’t know.” He might mean “I don’t know what causes crime”; he might mean “I don’t know how to prevent crime”—or it might simply be a phatic utterance, one meant to convey social solidarity or sympathy rather than information. In any other circumstance, it would be an unexceptionable thing to say.

But a political campaign is not an ordinary circumstance, and President Bartlet is, as he seldom forgets, no ordinary politician. Underlying the machismo of his response is his palpable contempt for someone who confesses to not knowing. His clear implication is that he does know. And yet we know that he doesn’t, because we know that no one truly does. Bartlet is a man accustomed to knowing, and he does it so frequently and well that he sometimes forgets the necessity—the humility—of the occasional “I don’t know.”

He differs only in degree from the rest of us, of course. We all don’t know lots of things, but no matter how much we don’t know, saying “I don’t know” is never easy and does not get any easier with practice.

There is a kind of anxiety associated with not knowing. We don’t like not knowing something, and we don’t like to be reminded that we don’t know it. Someone at a cocktail party asks you “Say, who played Jed Bartlet in ‘The West Wing’?” and you immediately realize you don’t know. What to do? You select one of three possible tactics:

1. Assume a faraway look, put your hand to your forehead, say something like, “Oh, just a moment. I know...who was that? Oh, I can see his face,” and wait for someone else to supply the answer, whereupon you chime “Right, right, that’s it.”

2. Make up an answer, hoping not to be caught. “I believe it was Alan Alda.”

3. Look your interlocutor in the eye and say “I don’t know.”

None of these is entirely satisfactory; one is a pretense, one is a fabrication, and the third is an abject admission. I doubt many in the “West Wing” audience have ever given Governor Ritchie the credit he is due.

The problem of which unsatisfactory option to select can be avoided, however, by the simple expedient of knowing. Of course, you can’t hope to anticipate every random question that may be asked of you. So what is needed is a method for knowing things that you don’t actually know. Fortunately, there is such a method. It consists of loosening, just a little, the criteria for what it is to know a thing. The formula at its simplest is this: An answer = the answer.

The best part is that you don’t have to learn how to do this, as we humans have an instinct for it, one that flows directly from the anxiety associated with not knowing. What we do is adopt the first attractive candidate answer that comes along. With next to no effort, we suddenly know what we didn’t know a mere moment before. End of anxiety; bring on the party. The flip side of the anxiety of not knowing is the pleasure, always tinged with a touch of complacency, of knowing.

Psychologists and others have studied the question of what makes a candidate answer attractive. Daniel Kahneman, in his recent Thinking, Fast and Slow, offers a brilliant survey of how our biases and predilections guide our thinking and beliefs.

And note, please, that it is, in fact, belief that we are talking about, not some abstract substance called knowledge that either is or is not in our heads. With the possible exception of Descartes’s cogito, what we know is what we believe beyond any doubt. Bartlet knows, yet we know he doesn’t; in fact, he merely believes, strongly and sometimes simply automatically. He may have very good reason to believe, but very good reason doesn’t amount to truth.

For a real-life example, consider newly famous Representative Todd Akin, the Missourian who failed to heed his state’s unofficial motto, “Show Me.” In the matter of what consequences may follow rape, he found an attractive answer, a bit of pseudobiology that fitted his prejudices quite nicely, and he latched onto it. It was conveniently sciencey, in the sense that it used words like “implantation” and “hormones.” (Of course, for us laymen, “hormone” carries exactly the same scientific weight as “humour” did in the 16th century—who knows what it is, but it sounds good. We are slow to learn from experience.) Unfortunately, he used his handy little answer in a forum less forgiving than a cocktail party.

Where did Akin’s answer come from? Several sources have been suggested, and what they have in common is that they seem to have employed tactic number two above: They made stuff up. Abracadabra and hey, presto! And why not? The market for that kind of thing is just huge.

Robert McHenry is former editor of Encyclopædia Britannica and is a contributing writer to He is the author of How to Know.

FURTHER READING: McHenry also writes “‘Despair, Destitution, and Undiluted Evil,’” “Science vs. PR,” “Rule Britannica,” and “The Problem with Bambi-nomics.” Jonah Goldberg says “Akin's Idiocy is Infectious” and “Mitt, More Gaffes Like This, Please.

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group

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