Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


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.

More From Victor E. Ferrall, Jr.

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 24 • 4:00 PM

We Need to Normalize Drug Use in Our Society

After the disastrous misconceptions of the 20th century, we’re returning to the idea that drugs are an ordinary part of life experience and no more cause addiction than do other behaviors. This is rational and welcome.


October 24 • 2:00 PM

A Letter to the Next Attorney General: Fix Presidential Pardons

More than two years ago, a series showed that white applicants were far more likely to receive clemency than comparable applicants who were black. Since then, the government has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a study, but the pardons system remains unchanged.


October 24 • 12:00 PM

What Makes You So Smart, Middle School Math Teacher?

Noah Davis talks to Vern Williams about what makes middle school—yes, middle school—so great.


October 24 • 10:00 AM

Why DNA Is One of Humanity’s Greatest Inventions

How we’ve co-opted our genetic material to change our world.


October 24 • 8:00 AM

What Do Clowns Think of Clowns?

Three major players weigh in on the current state of the clown.


October 24 • 7:13 AM

There Is No Surge in Illegal Immigration

The overall rate of illegal immigration has actually decreased significantly in the last 10 years. The time is ripe for immigration reform.


October 24 • 6:15 AM

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.


October 24 • 5:00 AM

Why We Gossip: It’s Really All About Ourselves

New research from the Netherlands finds stories we hear about others help us determine how we’re doing.


October 24 • 2:00 AM

Congratulations, Your City Is Dying!

Don’t take population numbers at face value.


October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


Follow us


Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.