Confidence and Hot Air
In The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist by Richard Feynman, he lectures about knowledge, skepticism, and uncertainty. He remembers with vivid enthusiasm how some of the biggest and smallest questions are scrutinized, by physicists, because of how much we still do not know about the fabric of reality. It’s a sobering thought: that on the outside of our bodies the worlds that we inhabit are still strangers in some way to our learning. And though we can see effectively with our eyes (for the most part), and though we can touch and hear and smell, we still know so little beyond our intuitions.
He contrasts this uncertainty to politics, which has the gall to propose sweeping legislation they hope to pass which may or may not happen. It is baffling to see how confident each side is in their desires to change the United States in such and such a way. While the Republic National Convention focused more on feelings than on figures, the thought goes that they have the confidence and the prowess to succeed in exactly what they set out to do.
It made me consider the interviews I’ve given in the past. Similar to a job, the political parties want to make you feel safe and secure that you are making the right choice in voting for their representative and their party. Whether it is in rhetorical arguments for themselves or against the other party, they attempt all methods of ethos, pathos, and logos, in order to convince you. Whether the facts are there or not, the real issue is you growing comfortable.
When I sit down for interviews, I have to provide a feeling instead of facts. My resume checks out, and likely a criminal background check before or after would prove I’m a stable and ordinary citizen. The judgments in these moments must encompass a huge array of qualifications. Are they a good fit for the role? Do they have the experience enough to explain what to do? Do they have the confidence and assurance in what they do that they seem like they could independently manage the work? And if they were hired, will they do what they are told and not make a big fuss?
These seem to me to be two irreconcilable problems.
For those that do not know, the “Dunning-Kruger” Effect is the paradoxical idea that those who know hardly anything about what they speak tend to be the most confident about their skills in it. As a person builds awareness in a task or knowledge-set, they realize that not only is the concept or skill more difficult than at first glance, but that the practice or learning required to become a professional at it will require a depth that will take many years before all is said and done.
For me in 2020, this has been true with writing, but also rings true with meditation. When I started vipassana meditation in April, I was under the impression that it was an easy task that provided an altered state. Simply close your eyes and think about your breathing. But the truth is that most of my time meditating has proven to me that I am painfully bad at it. I cannot seem to keep my mind at attention on the various tasks, whether it is the breath, or holding my gaze open to allow the mind to simply register sensations, or to focus on a particular aspect of my body, like the weight of my body against the chair, or the changing dark or bright tones in my visual field. I have been doing this for almost six months, at about 20 minutes a day, but sometimes 30 to 45 minutes a day, and I am just now starting to understand some of the deeper concepts. When Sam Harris before told me to “look for the one who is looking” or told me to “pay attention to attention itself,” I had absolutely no clue what to do. But now I am gaining just the first signs of the change in mental perspective that it brings, along with the thrill of the altered traits that come from the practice.
These are anecdotal reports, but for anyone that has tried…anything, it must sound familiar. Everything is interesting and nothing is simple. Each element of life is so meticulously detailed and rich that much of our conversations and talk have a hard time broaching subjects and becoming interdisciplinary.
The Dunning-Kruger Effect occurs when people have not become aware of the specificity of the world. It may seem shocking that anyone over the age of 25 could feel this way, but I have seen it first hand. These are the people whose ignorance can be embarrassing in one light or, in a much scarier alternative world, magnetizing.
So. I seem to be stuck.
I am unemployed, and while I am applying for teaching jobs, the state of teaching in the United States, along with the horrifying reports of how each school district and college campus is handling positive counts of COVID-19, is making me wary of even taking on a teaching role. Yet eventually I must go back, and when I do end up in a place where I am forced to describe myself, I will likely hedge on many of my teaching philosophies. I feel like I am in the valley of despair when it comes to teaching. Just what exactly is learning? And how can we be absolutely sure that a student not only can perform the skill in the classroom, but also take that knowledge with them for years and decades on? What education is robust, and what education is flimsy?
And that has little to no bearing on what I must do when seeing students for the first time. These 150 students I would teach have different personalities compared to the students in the past, and despite our culture’s best attempts to create similar robotic children, the world does a fascinating and wonderful job ensuring they are different. I have to somehow account for that in an interview?
The greater the humility of the person interviewed, the less skilled they seem to be at first glance.
No wonder employers have a difficult time picking sound employees.
Here is the takeaway: if physicists cannot even be secure about the state of reality, then we should be far more sanguine about our abilities. If neuroscientists are still trying to reach the “hard” problem of consciousness, we should be much more democratic about methods of learning. We should be skeptical about the behaviorism of school as the definitive method for education and morality. We should also be skeptical of ourselves.
With more humility in approaching problems, we may find ourselves closer than ever to making discoveries we can collectively get behind. Leaving behind the ego is once again one of the best things we can do.