Learning to learn again

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A while ago I posted some ideas about ‘people who know things’ and ‘people who look things up’, with a minor reference to ‘people who don’t know anything but pretend that they do’. I thought it was time to talk about those people.

Upon further reflection, I think a better name for this category of people is ‘people who seem to know things, but don’t’. The question then is whether the person knows they don’t know the thing (and are exaggerating what they actually know for their own reasons) or doesn’t (and thus is genuinely trying to be helpful). This also makes me think there should be a category called ‘people who don’t seem to know things’ (which would then be broken down into people who do know things but aren’t convincing and people who really don’t know things… however, that’s a topic for another day).

It’s hard to quibble with people who are trying to be helpful, although I have run my share of wild goose chases inspired by some well-intentioned coworker. It’s easier to quibble with people who are aware that they might not have all the information, and yet pretend to be knowledgeable. My sympathetic interpretation is that they are scared to admit they don’t know things. This reminds me of the age-old complaint from undergraduates, that when they ask a question in class, they frequently feel like the professor will offer stipulations or qualifications or possible answers when the ‘real’ answer is, in fact, ‘I don’t know’.

It’s funny… though I think this hypothesis is probably applicable to most scientists, it seems counterintuitive: in the broadest sense, our mission in life is to find out things that no one knows yet. So why is it scary? In this job, I have to admit that I have rediscovered my joy of admitting that I do not know things. Since it’s impossible that I could ever begin to know (in great detail) the various topics that I read about every day, I ask lots of questions. People are always excited to explain things to me.

So, what to do about these pretenders? In my opinion, it is great to offer ideas and suggestions, but not at the expense of making someone believe information that’s not correct. So, stop pretending. Feel free to admit you aren’t an expert on everything. Or set a new year’s resolution of being an inquisitive and engaging person and go out and learn what the real answer is.

As a bit of journal promotion, one way that we’re hoping to help people learn things is via a new content type called Primers (see here for the first one, published in our Feb issue which is now online [Hooray, as always], and here for our January editorial, which talks about why we’re doing this). These are perhaps most akin to mini-mini-reviews – short and sweet summaries of basic topics in chemical biology. I particularly wanted to draw your attention to it here because it’s going to be a bit tricky to strike the right balance between topics that are obvious to everyone (not good), topics that are obvious to only some people (good) and topics that aren’t obvious to anyone (great). So if you have a topic in mind – perhaps you went to a talk recently and were lost after the first 5 minutes because some concept wasn’t explained, or perhaps you’ve never grasped the distinction between some related ideas, or similar – let me know!

I’m off to learn what the rest of the day holds…

Catherine (associate editor, Nature Chemical Biology)