Don’t Trust Anyone Who Offers You the Answer
October 21, 2013 Editor 0
Two and a half thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Socrates was put on trial for corrupting the youth of Athens and failing to respect the gods; he was sentenced to death for those crimes.
The real motivation behind the charges, however, seems to have been that Socrates had exposed broad intellectual corruption among those in power. He was killed because of his concern for truth — by showing that the elites of Athens did not share his concern and that they knew much less than they claimed to know.
A couple weeks ago here in Singapore I met a man who reminded me of Socrates: Nassim Taleb (the author of Black Swan and more recently Anti-Fragile). Socrates exposed his contemporaries’ pretentions to knowledge, and Taleb is serving a similar function today. Taleb, like Socrates, is, I believe, a rare honest man.
The evening I went to hear Taleb speak I fully anticipated that he’d annoy me deeply — that I was just going to hear an obnoxious rant about the pernicious impacts of the modern financial industry, one of his favorite subjects. His writings had often struck me as arrogant, meandering diatribes against caricatures of groups (typically economists, bankers, and business school professors), and I thought I’d hear much of the same that evening.
Instead, I encountered, I believe, a rare honest man, someone who cared more about truth than being liked. It was unusual to hear someone answer the majority of the questions thrown at him with, “I don’t know. How can I know that?” He did rant about business school professors who profess to have answers for everything but who, he claimed, often know very little (disclosure: I’m a business school professor). I was standing right next to him during that one, and felt fortunate for the accident because I agreed with him, and it was nice to hear someone being truthful.
But the business school professors are only partly to blame for their pretensions to knowledge. The people they speak to — their audience — want answers to questions. Responding “I don’t know” is, I believe, too often seen as a sign of incompetence or as a dereliction of duty (to give answers). Our hypothetical business school professors may be giving their audiences what they want but not necessarily what they need. The audience wants answers, but it actually needs truth. (I won’t do bad philosophy here and try to give a definition of “truth.”) And that desired truth may not be available to anyone: even the best, most honest inquiries can conclude inconclusively. That’s a truth, I’d conjecture.
In Plato’s Apology, we are told that Socrates’ friend Chaerephon asked the Delphic Oracle whether Socrates was the wisest man in Athens, and that she responded affirmatively. According to the legend, Socrates found himself confronted with a paradox: he was profoundly ignorant and yet he was the wisest of all men. To try to resolve the paradox, he assigned himself the project of figuring out what the other people in Athens knew. He interrogated statesmen, generals, and other elites, and concluded that, despite their claims to the contrary, they knew very little. Finally, he decided that the Oracle could be right because he knew that he didn’t know much, while the others knew little but thought they knew much. Knowing he was ignorant made him wise.
Socrates is now a respected historical figure whose name nearly everyone reading this post will know. What’s easy to forget is that his story has been passed down through history because he was an honest man who above all knew he didn’t have the answers. In Socrates, we see his self-acknowledged ignorance as a virtue. Strangely, in our current, radically more complex world it seems that we want “experts” always to have the answers. I propose instead that in business, politics and life in general, that we should consider seriously respecting our contemporaries whenever they display Socratic humility and let us know they don’t know.
It may sound like sycophantic hyperbole to say that I saw in Taleb (who, like Socrates, is a squat, solid figure with a bit of a paunch) a modern-day Socrates. He seemed to be a man who values truth more than getting on some Top 10 list or getting shares and likes on social media. Unfortunately, I found his honesty quite rare. I hope he continues to corrupt the youth and disrespect the gods for a very long time.
In the meantime, consider that the person without answers — the one who says, “I don’t know!” — might be the most responsible, respectable person at the meeting table.
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