And neither does anybody else
The famous phrase ‘You know nothing Jon Snow’ from Game of Thrones always made me wonder. I thought it was meant to make Jon aware that he was in a different world with different rules than what he knew. But it felt pompous. Ygritte who first utters this to Jon Snow means to tell him that he knows nothing of Wildings and life north of the Wall. But the events show that neither Ygritte nor the Wildings know that much. The phrase applies to them as well.
You know nothing, Ygritte.
It’s not just the Wildings and Game of Thrones. You can say this to anyone and be correct. You know nothing Prime Minister. You know nothing wife. You know nothing father. You know nothing Albert Einstein.
You know nothing [anyone].
I have recently read ‘When Breath Becomes Air’ by Paul Kalanithi. It is his autobiographical story revolving around fighting, but also accepting death. Some of the book talks about his experience as a resident and then a neurosurgeon, and the death he encounters. Then he finds out he has severe cancer. He has to give up surgery which was his whole identity, gets treatment, the cancer goes into remission, he struggles to resume surgery only for the cancer to re-emerge more aggressive than before. He dies in the end.
It is a moving book on many levels. The brilliance, dedication and hard work Paul puts into neurosurgery is amazing. The complexity and virtuosity needed to perform it are mind-boggling. From the book you know he is top of a field of brilliant top-performers.
And yet, this extraordinary expert in medicine, who routinely did miracles to save other people, could neither prevent nor cure his own illness.
We believe we know everything, but we know almost nothing.
Why do we know almost nothing?
You might say that we know a lot of things. We certainly know more than people knew 10,000 years ago. We know more than people knew 50 years ago.
The problem is we don’t know everything, but we act as if we do.
We don’t have the keys of the universe. We are not masters of reality. There is so much that we don’t know. There is so much that is out of our control.
But we choose to ignore it by pretending we have complete and absolute knowledge. Let’s take some areas where this illusion is prevalent, and dangerous.
What could be more important than human health and longevity?
Is there anything in life we should prioritize over maximizing our healthy lifespan?
It’s certainly more important than your smartphone’s resolution or the number of likes on Instagram.
Yet we are not really very good at either health or longevity. Chronic non-communicable diseases like heart-disease, cancer, auto-immune diseases, neurological diseases, digestive diseases, are ravaging our society.
For the past 30 years their prevalence has been increasing. Death by cause data shows non-communicable diseases numbers increase.
The population has also increased. So there is actually a decrease relative to population size. But we are nowhere near eradicating them. For some, like cancer, we are barely making a dent.
We are nowhere near eradicating non-communicable diseases.
It is even worse when we take into account the burden of disease, not just death. It does not only matter how long you life. It matters how long you live while being healthy. This chart shows the burden of disease, e.g. years burdened with the suffering of the diseases: Burden of disease by cause
Non-communicable diseases are an increasing burden. But at least infectious diseases are decreasing. This topic seemed to be one of great success. We eradicated smallpox and significantly reduced the impact of many other infectious diseases.
Yet when COVID-19 came, it revealed that we don’t know that much about infectious diseases. From many perspectives COVID-19 is not a huge challenge: it has low severity (compared to other viruses), we have been dealing with the class of coronaviruses for a long time, it is closely related to two other viruses which appeared in the past decade: SARS and MERS, and it had been predicted by many different people and organizations.
Yet COVID-19 became a global pandemic that has killed 2.9 Million people until now.
We know nothing about health.
Economy and wealth
Here we should know more. After all, global GDP has increased tremendously in the past decades.
Yet GDP increase does not translate into higher wealth for everyone. Inequality has increased even more than the GDP. The wealth is concentrating more and more in the hands of the very rich.
The economic gains of the past years have been almost exclusively for the very rich, while the poor have remained the same or gotten poorer.
An analysis found that the three richest people in the U.S. own as much as the poorest 50%, which 160 million people.
In the U.S., one of the richest countries in the world and home to some of the richest people, there are millions of people living in abject poverty.
“It’s horrible. 40 percent of Americans have no wealth at all.” Michael Mechanic, author of Jackpot: How the Super-Rich Really Live–and How Their Wealth Harms Us All and senior editor at Mother Jones
We know nothing about wealth.
Tech is booming. It is a magical field where new inventions happen every day.
What are we actually inventing? Shiny smartphones, addictive digital content and convenience apps. Technology is working to make life more convenient, more entertaining and get us to spend money. Think of the most known inventions of the past years: iPhone, the smartwatch, Uber: convenient transportation, AirBnb: convenient accommodations, new social media platforms. There are also electric cars, but they are still only 1% of car stock, so not that important yet. Little of this technology has a significant beneficial impact on humanity.
This is 49 years ago. We have not been back to the Moon since.
It’s not a matter of inability, it’s a matter of interest. Technology to walk on the moon advanced the realm of human possibility and served the interests of the entire human race.
Nowadays technology makes profit. It gets you to buy stuff. Or it steals your attention to sell it to advertisers. We make irresistible social media and apps instead of rocket engines. When it comes to technology we have ‘forgotten the face of our father’ as Stephen King says in The Dark Tower books.
We know nothing about technology.
Have you become happier? Yes, if you have been living in poor, dangerous, uncertain conditions that have improved. The prosperity of less developed nations has been a boom in happiness and wellbeing for their citizens.
What if you have been living in a developed country? Data shows that in the past 10 years you have not become any happier. Rather the population hovers at a good, but not great, 8 out of 10 happiness. Self-reported Life Satisfaction
Despite increasing wealth and technology, we are not improving our happiness.
We know nothing about happiness.
Of course this is exaggerated. We know a lot. This knowledge makes all the comfort and benefit and richness of modern life possible. If we knew nothing, we would be struggling to survive in wild forests.
The problem is we think we know everything. This arrogance leads to bad outcomes that could be been avoided. A clear example is medicine.
The medical expert: the Physician knows everything about health in our perception. You go to the Physician when you have a health issue and expect the Physician to know what it is and how to cure it. The Physician feels this pressure and acts out this role of all-knowing. Trying to appear all-knowing is in direct contradiction with the data gathering and questions needed to arrive at the best possible diagnosis and treatment.
You can tell good Physicians from bad Physicians by how confident they are versus the data they have.
If he says he knows what the problem is after only a few questions on your first visit, then most likely he is a bad Physician. He is either too lazy or too afraid to accept uncertainty so he makes a quick diagnostic based on insufficient data.
If the Physician asks you a lot of questions and tells you tests and investigations are needed to explore potential diagnostics, then you might have found a good Physician. He accepts the burden of uncertainty in order to try to find the most likely explanation for your problems.
This example applies to everything. For any topic, if you don’t understand it individually, you are sure there are experts who do. We collectively share the illusion that humanity has figured out the Universe.
Why do we believe we know everything?
Because otherwise we would be scared and anxious all the time. It’s an illusion necessary for survival.
Our brains did not evolved to achieve the best understanding of the universe. They evolved to understand the universe well enough to predict the future for survival.
Our predictions had to be quick otherwise they would be useless. Think about what a rustling bush means for too long, and the tiger comes out and eats you.
Natural selection created brains which are quick, but flawed. At the same time, it created humans who dread uncertainty. Uncertainty means your prediction of the future is unsure which means you are at risk of death. It is the main source of fear.
The reality is our predictions of the future are uncertain. We have limited understanding of how the world really works, incomplete information and are unable to predict the future beyond the next few days.
For a brain that evolved to dread uncertainty this should be terrible. We should be cowering in fear all the time. Or we should at the very least be chronically anxious.
But we’re not. Uncertainty of the future beyond a few days was not useful for survival until very recently. Our brains evolved to avoid the anxiety associated with this by pretending the future does not exist. Basically the future becomes less and less real the further it is from the current moment.
This is why we are not scared of long-term problems, like chronic illnesses or climate change.
We cannot imagine the future as real which acts as a defense against its uncertainty.
So we pretend we, humanity, know everything there is to know. And so that the long-term future is ok. It’s not even a conscious decision. It is an inbuilt illusion that protected us from crippling anxiety throughout our history.
The future is neither known, nor safe. It might feel unreal to our unconscious, but that does not stop it in any way. The universe does not care about what we believe.
Science understands this. The scientific approach is that the current model or theory is not the absolute truth. It is just the least wrong approximation of how the world works at this time. Each scientific paradigm is by default destined to be replaced with a better one in the future as data accumulates that disproves it.
How do you combat this problem?
Think like a scientist.
Treat your understanding as the least wrong theory of how the world works. Treat everyone else’s understanding the same way.
When the Physician says you have disease X after 5 minute discussion, don’t take it at face value. Investigate what is driving this conclusion. Ask what other possibilities exist. Inquire of potential data that might be gathered to confirm or refute the hypothesis.
Do the same for everything else in life.
When you see a piece of news, don’t take it at face value. Ask what are the arguments for the conclusion. Are there alternative explanations? What data could help clarify which direction is more likely correct?
Suffer a little anxiety now by questioning your model of the world, and you will develop a better understanding of the world than 99% of people.
This will feel unpleasant at first. Questioning our model of the world is scary. But it’s invaluable.
Suffer a little anxiety now by questioning it, and you will develop a better understanding of the world than 99% of people. This understand leads to success in almost any field.