“I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer

I was reading an article. It got me to thinking about testifying expert witnesses. Basically, the premise of the article is that “I don’t know” is a perfectly acceptable answer. It is. It is a beautiful answer. It should be our default position in forensic science. We should start out with no presumptions or assumptions. We should start with no ideas. We test and retest and accumulate data. Only if the data is clear, clean and indisputable should we offer an opinion. Otherwise, it fits the pattern of the old joke: “What do you call an opinion with no data to support it?” The answer is: “A guess.”  I suggest that too many times in the Courtroom experts truly offer guesses or they give us any kind of answer as opposed to telling the scientific truth that the answer is unknown given what is known.

Why is “I don’t know” such an evil answer in the courtroom?

Here is the article: There Is Nothing Wrong With “I Don’t Know” Written by Kyle Hill

Some notable points from the article include:

Modern skepticism, however unknowingly, has become a community of science communicators. Those who we look up to, the beacons of reason that we so embrace, are some of the best science communicators in the world. To live up to this, boots-on-the-ground skeptics take up the charge of communicating our science-based positions. While well meaning, an unfortunate consequence of this is that there arises a compulsion to offer an answer to every phenomenon, an explanation for every weirdness. Being in the minority, we feel challenged by the majority who feel the burden of proof is on us to explain the queerness of the universe. This can drive us far from our foundations of scientific inquiry, until we are merely reciting the positions of the group.

Shouting “confirmation bias!” at an argument is more a mantra than an explanation. The desire to explain some phenomena with debunking in mind, especially when most of us are not experts, has us throwing out phrases and stances that certainly sound more like clutching at straws to the curious inquirer. There is nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know.” In fact, it is more intellectually honest to say this in place of some explanation you heard the group whisper of. We try to shrug off the accusations of “armchair skepticism,” but much skeptical discussion on the Internet fits this bill.

We cannot come at questions with conclusions in mind. The askers see right through this, think less of us for it (or think us cynics), and most likely get very little from the exchange. It is far more important to treat every situation as a process of inquiry. For example, should we really have to go much further than explaining dilution rates to those who are curious about homeopathy? Yes, I think we should. Reiterating “the placebo effect” and “regression to the mean” does little to change the minds of users, at least in my experience.

As skeptics and communicators, we have to lead others through the darkness and towards the fire. Offering the consensus of the group, especially in place of saying a simple “I don’t know,” rings hollow for entrenched believers of all kinds. To quote a great man: “It’s not what you think, but how you think.” Showing some intellectual vulnerability instead of a false façade of expertise humanizes our positions. We want to teach reason, not offer up skeptical dogma (or what is perceived as such). And, again quoting another great man, if we can “teach a man to reason, he’ll think for a lifetime.”


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