'I Don't Know': Some Thoughts On Honoring Doubt

Editor's Note: This week, we mark one year since WBUR formally launched Cognoscenti. So far, we’ve published 580 pieces of original writing from more than 200 different contributors. And recently we started airing some of the commentaries on Morning Edition.

Today, we bring you the story of how one of our favorite essays has been turned into a book. But not before the commentator — Leah Hager Cohen — overcame her doubts about having something worth saying.

Have you ever found yourself completely clueless, but muddling through a conversation without letting on? Maybe you were afraid of losing face, or of disappointing the person talking to you. Maybe you felt ashamed of not knowing, like you really should be familiar with that author, that theory, or that esoteric French idiom. Like if you admitted you didn’t know, you’d be judged stupid.

That's how I felt when I was invited to contribute to Cognoscenti. The word means "those in the know," and my first reaction was to feel flattered. Really? Somebody thought I was a member of the community of distinguished thinkers and experts? Cool! 

My second reaction was less heady. You silly poser. You’re not "in the know." You’re no expert on anything. What could you possibly contribute?

For months, I let that voice convince me not to contribute anything. But I kept getting these persuasive nudges from the editor. Finally, I had an idea. I wouldn’t try to claim expertise of any kind. Instead, I would write a piece about admitting ignorance, about why it’s so hard just to come out and say, "I don’t know."

I drafted a little essay, then read it over.

How absurd, I thought. This isn't even about anything. Or at least, the thing it’s about is so obvious, so ubiquitous, so unoriginal as to be hardly worth mentioning.

Oh well — they can always reject it. And with that, I hit "send."

Everyone has a story about hiding ignorance out of fear and shame...

I was pleasantly surprised when Cognoscenti published the piece. I was even more surprised when they informed me it had, in their words, "gone viral." And, I was flat-out flabbergasted when I was offered a publishing contract to turn the essay into a book.

But the biggest and best surprise has been discovering that everyone has a story about hiding ignorance out of fear and shame — and how sharing these stories can make the fear and shame dissipate.

I never expected to write an essay, let alone a book, about this subject. But in doing so, I’ve learned the more we speak the truth about what we don’t know, the easier it becomes. It begets vulnerability, yes,  but also – or perhaps I should say, and also – paves the way to truer, richer, deeper knowledge, not only of the world but also of our own selves.


On Oct. 22, 2012, Cohen joined Radio Boston to discuss doubt's unique place in academia:

This program aired on September 23, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.


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