How To Think Like A Freak: Say "I Don't Know"

Monday, May 12, 2014

Stephen Dubner, host of the Freaknomics podcast and co-author (with Steven Levitt) of Think Like A Freak (HarperCollins, 2014), joins The Brian Lehrer Show for a three-part series about retraining your brain to "think like a freak." Today, he'll explain why it's important to admit when you don't know the answer to a question, and the danger of predicting the future.


Stephen J. Dubner

Comments [19]

robert rebsch from Sleep Hollow, NY

It is ironic that Stephen Dubner dishes out the same misinformation he aspires to rise above: "We now know ulcers are caused by a bacterial infection, not stress," he smugly says. This is only a half-truth. With a medical background, I can assure Mr. Dubner that the formation of ulcers is the body's response to a multiplicity of factors, not the least of which is the processing of stress.
Perhaps the larger annoyance for me is that WNYC sees fit to take up the listener's time with their latest wonderkind. Nothing beats the perspicuity of Leonard Lopate when it comes to journalism. I suggest that Mr. Dubner post his insights to his mom and let Brian do his regular Yeoman's job.

May. 12 2014 05:47 PM
Ed in the Apple from NYC

Experts rarely say "I don't know," because in most decisions there is a financial reward for one answer over another answer - from fracking to finding clean water in Africa to the best educational innovations follow the money ... it won't lead to the "best answer," it will lead you to the path most likely taken ...

May. 12 2014 12:30 PM

Hmmm. Maybe "recurrent" and "repeatedly" would fit better.

May. 12 2014 12:11 PM

The Rumsfeld quotation is neither absurd or insprired. It is matter of fact, basic epistemology, first year philosophy stuff. The incessant, long, meandering discussions of this are akin to endlessly debating the boiling point of water. It got tedious a long time ago.

May. 12 2014 12:07 PM

Not EVERYONE in government is guilty of this .... to his credit, spokesman Jay Carney, when asked what Barry Obama was doing the night of the Benghazi attack, said - "I don't know."

May. 12 2014 12:01 PM
Amy from Manhattan

I meant to add a parallel: the "Vision Zero" project to reduce pedestrian fatalities could learn a lot from pedestrians who were hit but not killed, as I was last year. I think we could tell them a lot about what circumstances led to these incidents.

And I have no trouble saying "I don't know" when I don't.

May. 12 2014 12:01 PM

I don't know and I don't wanna know, because ignorance is bliss.

May. 12 2014 11:59 AM

One of the few possible upsides for graduate school (the previous segment) is that ability to think critically. This includes advancing the null hypothesis on causality rather than biased opinion. It shouldn't take graduate school to hammer that in, but it is a salutary side effect.

May. 12 2014 11:56 AM
Herb from Westchester

please, let's not gush too much over rumsfeld. his quote might well be "brilliant," but it was no answer to the legitimate proof questions posed by reporters; it was just dressed up obfuscation — obfuscation that ended up costing hundreds of thousands of lives.

May. 12 2014 11:56 AM
John A

Does he cover the spectacular case of NPR's Jonah Lehrer?

May. 12 2014 11:55 AM
Amy from Manhattan

There *is* a source for knowledge of why people kill themselves: people who *attempt* suicide but survive. I'm surprised Mr. Dubner didn't say anything about this--at the least, if there's a reason asking them wouldn't work, I'd hope he would give it.

May. 12 2014 11:55 AM
Rochelle from jersey shore

I often dont know the answer to my 7th grade daughters homework (I thought it would college before this happened). At first it was hard to admit I did not know, or perhaps remember, but I have learned to swallow my pride and say I dont know. But not wanting to leave her in the lurch -- I have accepted researching to help her ....or sending her to her classmates when needed.

May. 12 2014 11:55 AM
Anonymous from Park Slope

Have we ever heard George Bush, (pick one) OR ANY politician say "I Don't Know"? I don't know.

May. 12 2014 11:54 AM
GJ from Indiana

I think the problem with the Rumsfeld quote is twofold: Firstly, it is actually very mundane, but he said it as if expounding some profound truth. Secondly, his apparent "introspection" didn't alter his warmongering one bit.

May. 12 2014 11:54 AM

again smear a Bushie ... that's a hoot.

Rumsfeld has "forgotten" more about security/defense matters than sleepy Chuck Hagel will ever "know".

BLS - all-snark-all-the-time

May. 12 2014 11:53 AM

Just curious - have we ever heard those words pass Obama's lips?

Truly, "I don't know" if we ever have.

May. 12 2014 11:48 AM

I fully agree but no one has ever gotten ahead in the real world by openly admitting that "I don't know." Certainly you can't possibly make a living as a "talking head" on radio or TV by publicly saying you don't know. Dead air doesn't sell advertising space. Let's face it, honesty is poverty.

May. 12 2014 11:47 AM


Can't admit "I-don't-know."
Can't know more until you do.

Solve the riddle at the beginning of this essay
before the answer is disclosed.

"Welcome to the Paradise of the Real"

May. 12 2014 11:22 AM

And Piketty's "Capital" is a good start to find out what we know, economically speaking.

May. 12 2014 10:25 AM

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