The Lurking Danger of What We Don’t Know

When we don’t seek outside perspectives, we needlessly limit ourselves.

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We know less than we think. That’s fine, in theory. The problem is that we don’t always know what we don’t know.

For example, consider the mystery of the shape-shifting submarine.

During the Cold War, the Swedish military spotted what appeared to be terrifying new technology: They saw a strange shape-shifting form in the ocean that made a mysterious sound, which they presumed to be a Russian vehicle. How did it work? What could it do? They spent tons of money and time and resources trying to figure it out — and they kept it all a secret. They asked nobody else for input.

Eventually, however, the Swedish military admitted defeat: They could not figure this thing out themselves. So they brought in some scientists — ie, people who had totally different knowledge sets than they did — to analyze the sound they detected.

The scientists quickly identified the culprit: The military was looking at a school of fish — herring, actually — as it swam as a group, then subdivided, and then came back together. The sounds they were making? Farts.

This story was detailed recently in a fun RadioLab episode. But as far as I’m concerned, it should be taught in every business school. The lesson: When we don’t seek outside perspectives, we needlessly limit ourselves.

The greatest answers may come from the people you think know the least.

What don’t we know?

Let’s consider this story from the Swedish military’s perspective. A Russian submarine had, years ago, washed up on their shores by accident. That made them pretty jumpy, and also inclined to think that any mystery object was going to be a Russian sub.

If you think you know the problem, then you think you have the solution. But if you do not know the problem, then you will simply compound it — by trying to solve a misunderstanding!

As the military came to learn, they could only really solve the problem by collaborating with people who have totally fresh, different perspectives. Scientists were able to do what the military wasn’t, which sounds simple but is also profound: They looked at a military mystery, and considered the possibility that it wasn’t a military problem.

We can avoid all kinds of confusion this way. This spring, when stock in the furniture store Ethan Allen started skyrocketing, some people on the internet were certain that we had a GameStop situation on our hands and that investors were artificially inflating the price of the stock. Then some smart stock market people came in and reminded us that, no, there wasn’t a conspiracy to blow up furniture stocks; investors were just confusing Ethan Allen’s public listing (ETH) with the one for Ethereum (also ETH). D’oh.

In the Tokyo Olympics, news made the rounds of cardboard “anti-sex” beds supposedly designed to prevent athletes from getting too close and spreading Covid. An interview with an Olympic organizer revealed that the beds were designed in 2019, long before Covid emerged, for the purpose of sustainability, not vibe-killing— they’re currently being recycled into paper products.

What I’m getting at here is that we’re all so quick to spin narratives based on our lived experience. Covid on the mind? Anti-Covid beds! Stonks acting up? Must be nefarious.

Widen our bands

What’s the solution here? Warren Hatch has an answer. He runs a forecasting company called Good Judgment, and he says we all need to “widen our bands.”

Most people are overconfident in their knowledge, he told me in a recent podcast episode. As a result, they narrow the information they’re willing to consider. “So if you make a decision — well, I know this — and then you make another decision based on that, it's a geometric equation: You can find yourself really far out on a statistical limb, needlessly so,” he said.

Our perception lives within our own frame of reference. For each of us living just one life, that’s inevitably going to be pretty limited. So why wouldn’t we open our minds to other people’s perspectives when we’re making big decisions? It’s almost a given that our brains, left to their own devices, are pretty myopic.

Imagine the time, energy, and money that the Swedish government (and public) could have saved by bringing in those scientists from the get-go. The same is probably going on at most companies right now, because we think we’re experts. But as I wrote in another newsletter recently, the only way to become an expert is to admit that you’re not.

The next time you think there’s something fishy going on, ask around. The truth might surprise you.


Speaking of what we don’t know…

The Lurking Danger of What We Don’t Know

Like many people, I was completely fascinated by the 23,000-year-old human footprints recently found in New Mexico. As the discovery forces us to reevaluate what we know about people across time, my fellow Bulletin writer Andrew Revkin put it in valuable context: "It's best to think of textbooks, and history itself, as a series of crude, ephemeral tokens, not a firm reference."

I’m really enjoying his newsletter about smart sustainability. Check it out.


Cover credit: David Marano Photography / Getty Images