Monday, June 28, 2010

I don't know

If you are sitting at a business meeting, all in your suit and tie, and your three-up manager fires a question (to which you have no idea) at you - this is something you do not want to say: "I don't know". You are compelled to think up some mumbo-jumbo on the spot. And the better you are at doing that, the higher you will probably go up the ladder in your organisation.

If you are presenting a paper at a scientific conference, all in your jeans and t-shirt, and the most experienced person in that field (in the entire world) fires a question (to which you have no idea) at you - this is something you do want to say: "I don't know". If you feel compelled to make up some mumbo-jumbo on the spot, be prepared to slide down the long orange snake back to square 4.

Making shit up when you have no idea seems to be very popular with people outside of science. How do I know this? From personal experience. I have done both of the above.

In a scientific forum, answering "I don't know" is liberating. People sit back, think a bit, maybe ask a helpful question or suggest a fruitful direction to follow, but they don't attack you.

In business, you tend to get attacked.

The important thing here is to know your context. If you are talking science (at any level) it is ok to say "I don't know". Never, ever, ever make shit up. Unfortunately people have been doing that for centuries. When studying lightning, for example, they couldn't work it out and so they concluded it was an angry Zeus. How useful was that? Not at all. It took a non-Zeus-believing scientist to tackle it.

A modern day example is the Pioneer Anomaly. The Pioneer spacecraft is the furthest spacecraft from us and is gradually slowing down due to gravitational attraction of the sun. However it is slowing down more than it should. (Only a tiny tiny bit, but enough to notice).

No one knows why.

All gravitational theories (newtonian and relativistic) fail to cover it.

Does this mean we throw out the entire theory of gravity? No.

Does it mean god did it? No. (And I'm talking to you theists!)

It just means we don't know.


So, if you are in a business meeting and you feel compelled to answer your three-up manager with a bullshit answer - fine.

But don't ever do it, anywhere, if it's a science question.

1 comment:

  1. Hehe, it depends to some degree which field you work in and what the culture is at your work place. I used to try some bollocks answer and it sometimes worked, but I've also come unstuck. So the past couple of years I've tried extremely hard to say, "I've got no idea!" with a laugh and it seems to go down very well. If I think I know I'll say, "from my understanding.... [insert]... but I could be wrong".

    Having said all that, people will welcome that from a under 30 year old, it all might change when I get older. I sure hope I can keep doing that until I retire!