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Knowing When You Don’t Know

By Stephanie G. Franklin

This past winter break, I traveled to Israel with the Harvard Hillel birthright trip. In addition to touring the country, we participated in a number of conversations about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a result, I returned home both more informed and less sure about my opinions.

This came as a bit of a surprise; after engaging in informative first-hand discussions, I had expected to come back with a whole host of new opinions. Yet given the enormous complexity of one of the globe’s most multifaceted conflicts, it makes perfect sense to say that I lack a hard-line and conclusive opinion after only ten days.

It can be tough to acknowledge: At Harvard, in particular, there can be enormous pressure to know everything and to be confident in your beliefs. Debate is by its nature competitive, so there is value to proving someone else wrong and not backing down. And political engagement is by its nature partisan, so there is an incentive to have a strong opinion as a way of seeming informed and engaged.

Yet indecision is not apathy. There is an oft-overlooked importance to being able to say, “I don’t know.”

While I believe I logically and independently chose my own political beliefs, I am uneasy about the fact that they are so highly correlated with the beliefs of the people I grew up near in Bethesda, Maryland. As much as I would like to think otherwise, my background and perspective appear to have influenced my outlook. While this is not in and of itself a reason for me to reject my political opinions, it certainly seems like a reason to be comparatively less confident that they are right.

Differences in perspective shape our opinions because they determine the knowledge that we have access to. The lifestyle choices of those living in poverty might not make sense to others who don’t face the same problems. Men don’t experience the same feeling of fear that women do when walking alone at night —this might cause them to underestimate the importance of violence and safety issues affecting women. A person living in a war-torn region is likely to understand the impact of war in a way others could not.

Of course, it’s possible to exaggerate one’s own personal concerns as well; my point is not that personal experience makes one automatically correct on broader policy issues. Rather, it’s not easy to tell who is right: Generational, racial, regional, and socioeconomic differences all play a role in shaping the opinions that people have. People with different information and experiences can use equally valid processes of logical reasoning and arrive at starkly different conclusions.

If getting more information means getting more perspectives, then an increase in information could just as easily lead to an increase in indecision. There’s no reason to say that being informed necessitates having an opinion—it is important to recognize that two opposing opinions might both be valid.

Admitting you’re not sure opens a lot of doors—it means that discourse isn’t stifled or protest valued above conversation. This is particularly important in a college environment, which is a place where many people form their worldviews. When students at Brown heckled former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly off the stage last semester, they valued their own opinions above the idea of open discourse. By attaching so much confidence to the fact that their opinions about stop-and-frisk were accurate, they improperly oversimplified a complicated topic and prevented valuable dialogue that could have better informed people about the subject.

Arguably, as much as it pains me to admit as an avid feminist interested in science, even outrage over Larry Summers’ comment about women in STEM was unjustified. As psychology professor Steven Pinker aptly pointed out, Summers’ statement actually does have potential logical justification— there is evidence suggesting differences, be they the result of genetics or socialization, between men and women’s natural preferences for certain fields. Anyone who disagrees with this argument (myself admittedly included) should argue against it instead of simply ending discourse on the topic and calling for Summers’ resignation.

The correct course of action should be to engage opposing viewpoints, not to silence them. There’s a strong argument to be made that hateful and blatantly offensive speech should not be given a microphone. But any opinion that has its basis in logical argumentation and not hatred is potentially valid.

That's why your teachers in high school told you it was more important to show your work than to get the right answer. It’s important to know the true answers, but it is more important to learn the process by which those answers can be reached. If we are left with just a set of formulas—a political dogma—and no ability to logically reason and figure out answers beyond those we are given, then political polarization and false confidence follow.

Essentially, we need to be more willing to say that we aren’t sure about things. But really, who knows? That’s just my opinion.

Stephanie G. Franklin ’16, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Dunster House.

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