Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 22, Issue 19;   May 18, 2022: Obscuring Ignorance

Obscuring Ignorance


Some people are uncomfortable revealing that they have limited understanding of topics related to the issues at hand. They can't allow themselves to ask, "Pardon me, what does X mean?" Here are a few of the techniques they use to obscure their ignorance.
Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451, in 1975

Ray Bradbury, author of Fahrenheit 451, in 1975. The novel is about a dystopia in which all books are burned. A famous quotation from the book is of particular interest to those concerned about their own ignorance: "If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you'll never learn." Photo by Alan Light (cc) Attribution 2.0 Generic courtesy Wikimedia.

Although many people achieve mastery of some areas of human knowledge, for any subject, and for any master, there is still something left to learn. Because nobody can know all there is to know about anything, we all have gaps in our knowledge — little patches of ignorance. But some people are uncomfortable with their own ignorance. They don't want to acknowledge it to themselves or to anyone else. If the urge to avoid acknowledging their own ignorance is strong, some people adopt techniques for obscuring ignorance.

Often, this behavior harms only those who choose to obscure their own ignorance. It defers opportunities to learn, or worse, deprives them of those opportunities altogether. But in some circumstances, other people are also affected. For example, in a team effort all team members depend on each other. If Team Member A is ignorant of something important to the effort, and if Team Member B is unaware of A's limitation, the team's performance might be harmed if B relies on A to carry out a responsibility that requires knowledge A lacks.

In today's work environments, with responsibilities shared across teams or groups, the pattern of obscuring one's own ignorance can lead to expensive delays and failures. Knowing how to recognize this behavior is therefore helpful to team members and especially to team leaders.

Techniques for obscuring ignorance

Below is a little catalog of techniques people use to obscure their ignorance from others. In what follows, I use the name Oscar to refer to the person who tries to obscure his ignorance from others.

Use the nominal fallacy
The nominal Obscuring ignorance harms those who
choose to obscure their own ignorance.
It defers opportunities to learn, or
worse, deprives them of those
opportunities altogether.
fallacy [Levy 1997] is a rhetorical fallacy that causes confusion between naming something and explaining it. Having given a name to something, we succumb to this fallacy when we believe that the name explains the thing named. One might also conjecture the existence of a meta-nominal fallacy, whereby assigning a category to something causes us to believe that we have explained the thing categorized.
By mastering the terminology — or even merely mastering the buzzwords — of a subject area, Oscar can convey the impression that he has mastered that subject area.
Interview, don't converse
The term conversation generally denotes an exchange of spoken words. The exchange is usually informal but it does have a widely accepted structure. For a conversation between A and B, that structure would imply that A and B, in turns, contribute thoughts to the exchange or make inquiries of one another.
An interview is a kind of conversation in which one partner, say Alpha, is the interviewer and the other, say Beta, is the interviewee. In this arrangement, Alpha asks a series of questions, and Beta responds, usually with a comment or insight that pertains to Alpha's question.
In interviews, the interviewer (Alpha) has near-total control of the conversation. Alpha can pursue any idea that arises. Or Alpha can chose to raise a new topic. This power is useful to those who, like Oscar, want to obscure their ignorance. Oscar can terminate any portion of the conversation that he feels might expose his ignorance. He can also direct the conversation towards areas of the subject matter with which he feels more familiar.
To detect this technique, in addition to the stream of questions from Oscar acting as interviewer, notice sudden swerves away from some concepts, or towards others. Watch for Oscar to ask questions that don't seem to connect well with the interviewee's response to the previous question. This can indicate such a level of ignorance that Oscar doesn't understand the interviewee's response well enough to ask a sensible follow-up question.
Set the pace
By setting the pace of the discussion, Oscar can limit anyone's ability to guide the exchange. He then has more freedom to guide it himself in his preferred direction, or away from any areas he wants to avoid. He can accomplish this easily if he maintains a steady flow of comments and questions. If he loses the initiative, he tries to regain it by interrupting whoever is speaking.
Invoke confidentiality
If Oscar feels pressed or backed into a corner, he might invoke confidentiality as an excuse for deflecting the conversation. Or he might use confidentiality to assert that he can "say no more at this time." He might even claim that no one present "should say anything further on this topic." By abruptly terminating the current branch of the discussion, Oscar can prevent it from entering his areas of ignorance, in a way that seems to others to demonstrate that he knows more than anyone, when in fact he knows less.
Violate norms
Norms relating to respect for others enable discussion participants to engage on difficult topics while keeping relationships intact. Violations of these norms tend to elicit emotional responses that distract participants from whatever was the current topic. By intentionally violating norms, Oscar creates distractions and puts people off balance. That enables him to direct the conversation away from his areas of ignorance.
Hone your word salad skills
Word salad is another technique, but the term is misleading. It suggests a stream of random words. What Oscar actually does when employing this technique is different. He produces a marginally coherent mixture of formulaic utterances, embolalia, and phrases of art either for the relevant domain, or for what Oscar believes are or might be relevant domains. By pumping out this drivel at a high rate and for a long time, Oscar can prevent anyone interjecting a retort or correction. More important, in meetings of predetermined duration, Oscar can consume valuable time, reducing the chances of anyone raising topics he knows nothing about.
Exploit ambiguity
Ambiguity can provide very effective cover for ignorance. For example, in a discussion of automobile models, if one is unsure of the distinguishing features of sedans vs. coupes, using the term passenger car or vehicle could provide a "safe" alternative. Watch for uses of ambiguity as a tool for covering ignorance.
Abject surrender
Abject surrender is useful to Oscar when he finds himself explaining or defending a position or prior statement. For example, suppose Oscar is asked, "Why did you choose Magenta?" Instead of explaining his choice, which might require some knowledge he feels he lacks, Oscar might say, "You're right, I probably should have chosen Fuchsia." The characteristic of abject surrender that clearly identifies it is the neutrality of the query that precipitates the surrender. The surrender, in context, seems surprising and premature, because there has been no evident attack.

Last words

Judge with care the motivations of those who use techniques like those described here. Some people work in environments so unhealthy that revealing ignorance is not a safe thing to do. The penalty for doing so can be unjust and severe. If you work in such an environment, consider using these techniques only as a temporary measure — until you can make a safe exit. Go to top Top  Next issue: On Reporting Noncompliance  Next Issue

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[Levy 1997]
David A. Levy. Tools of Critical Thinking: Metathoughts for Psychology. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1997. Order from Amazon. Back

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