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Thinking vs. Knowing: When Facts Get in the Way

• March 20, 2012 • 8:58 AM

“Knowing” often serves as a crutch for “thinking,” suggests the author of “Liberal Arts at the Brink” in this essay. That can have bad consequences when we accept those shortcuts in our leadership.

Thinking is not easy. It requires effort. Whenever possible, all of us seek to avoid it by replacing it with knowledge. Once we know something — 2+2=4, the trash is collected on Tuesdays, or it takes two hours to drive to Chicago when there is no traffic — we don’t have to think about it again.

Paradoxically, one of the fruits of thinking is that it leads to the acquisition of knowledge that replaces the need to think, such as thinking in order to answer the question, “When is the trash collected?” leads to knowing always on Tuesday. Even great thinkers clear their mental decks in this way so they can give their full attention to thinking about what they don’t know.

One way to avoid thinking is to create rules: “I will only cross the street when the light is green.” By knowing the rules, we avoid the necessity of thinking about the decisions the rules govern. (It has been observed that, even with rules, New Yorkers are still obliged to make 20 decisions every day. Without rules, city life would become a crushing burden of thought.)

Of course, some knowledge is imprecise, e.g., if any of our kids is going to have a problem sleeping it will be Bobby, or mom always brings her famous fruitcake to a party. When the knowledge proves wrong, thinking is required to perfect it, such as when Bobby has been outside playing all day, or in the summertime when it is too hot for mom to bake.

Being ready, able, and willing to think when necessary protects us from mistaken knowledge. For example, it now appears that some things may travel faster than the speed of light (or not). Thinking also protects us when facts we know and have relied on change, as when a power failure causes the traffic lights to cease operating.

Substituting beliefs (and prejudices) for knowledge is a widely used strategy for avoiding thought, for example, cutting taxes will always increase employment, evolution is a lie, abortion is murder, no Serb can be trusted, exposure to homosexuality will inevitably cause impressionable youths to become homosexuals. When a religious sect “knows” the world will end on a date certain and it doesn’t, the usual response is not to think about why the world did not end, but rather to choose a new deadline, i.e. create new “knowledge.”

If we choose to think, it can protect us from confusing beliefs for facts. Sometimes, we speak about the importance of having an open mind, an ambiguous phrase of uncertain meaning. What we really mean is having the willingness and ability to think.

When an unexpected event occurs, we say, “If only I had known.” We rarely say, “If only I had thought.” Not having thought makes us feel derelict and culpable — “I could have thought, but failed to do so.” Not knowing is “no fault” — “The needed facts simply were not in my memory bank at the time they were needed, so there was nothing I could do.”

For many persons, it is doubtless the case that the more they know, the less they think. The greater truth, however, is the more they believe they know, the less they will think. The more certain leaders and their followers are of what they know, the less the lives of all citizens are thoughtfully governed.

Victor E. Ferrall, Jr.
Dr. Victor E. Ferrall, Jr. is president emeritus of Beloit College and the author of Liberal Arts at the Brink (Harvard University Press, 2011). A former senior partner in a Washington, D.C. law firm, he specialized in communications law, serving in private and federal practice for three decades before joining Beloit in 1991.

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