“I do not Know” is a Legitimate Answer, Sometimes 20100929

Many of you know that I regularly post and host the Pique the Geek series here and elsewhere on Sunday evenings.  One of my rules is to prepare myself for questions and corrections (both of which I relish) after posting.  Some of you may not know that I NEVER look up anything after posting, unless specifically requested to do so, and when I specifically say that I have in the comments.  There is a reason for that.

When I write my scientific blogs, I prepare for them.  For each minute that you read them, often more than an hour of research has gone into them.  But I can never know everything, and the comments are usually the most interesting and often the most illuminating part of my posts.  I would not have it any other way!

What I am saying is that it is OK to say the following phrase, but not too often (otherwise I am not well prepared).

I do not know the answer to that question.

That is all.  It is simple, and honest.  I just watched Lawrence O’Donnels’s show on MSNBC when he had an interview with Levi Johnston and played his responses against Sarah Palin’s responses.  Levi did better.

Here is why.  Whey Levi was asked a question about which he did not know, he honestly answered essentially, “I have no idea”.  Palin tried to fake answers or to redirect the question.  I vote for honesty.

No stranger am I to public speaking.  I have briefed folks from local, state, and federal officials, including Senators, with honesty about what our projects meant.  Never did I bluff them.  Of course the presentation was designed to be in the best light, but I never tolerated dishonesty.  I have also briefed full Generals (most of you would think of them as Four Star ones), and have been honest.  I have also briefed members of the Senior Executive Service (SES), and kept the same philosophy.  That time I was called out HARD, the SES person calling my statement “Bulls**t!”, but I held my ground, because I was being honest.  Months later, he decided that my position was correct.  I did not tell him about the nausea just after the confrontation.

Many questions have been presented to me, and mostly I knew the answers.  However, sometimes questions were asked about which I had no idea, either because it was off topic (quite common, and easily dismissed by saying that this is off topic) or something that was ON topic about which I had not considered.  For those, I just thought for a bit, and answered, “I do not know the answer to your question, but if you will allow me some time to do some research, I think that I can find it.”

You would be surprised how well that honesty works.  Now, you can not do that TOO often, because if you have no answers for anything folks will soon, and correctly, decide that you are ignorant.  But, if you are good in your subject, the audience will appreciate such an answer now and then.

What they DO NOT appreciate is a line of made up stuff that is not true.  At least ONE person in the audience knows better, and at break time they will talk.  I have witnessed that several times.  Once there was an “expert” on explosives that lectured us, and he just made up stuff that was not correct, even before the Q and A session.  When I asked him a question constructed such that it contradicted his presentation, his lies were so blatant that he was NEVER paid to come back.  One simple question destroyed his made up projection of reality.

The bottom line is just this:  if you do not know, just say so.  If the speaker mentioned just above had said, “Well, I do not know, but will think about it.”, all would have been forgiven.  But he chose to bluff with a lie that was easily detected.

The moral of this story is just to be honest, but be good at what you do.  The better that one knows one’s subject, the fewer questions of fact surface.  It is much better to admit ignorance than to bluff with bull.

Warmest regards,


Featured on Thestarshollowgazette.com.  Crossposted at Dailykos.com

1 comment

  1. being honest?

    Warmest regards,


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