The Paradox of Knowledge

We all know “things.” What it means to “know” and “things” are all open to debate, but let’s ignore those debates for a moment, and recognize that some people know more than others about topics.

Gary has a degree in technology and spends much time using, thinking about, and troubleshooting and repairing technology systems. Compared to his peers (adults in their late 40’s who work in education), he knows more about computers than they do. He can perform more tasks and a greater diversity of tasks than most of them can and he can perform them more quickly and with less thinking than they can. Most people would agree that Gary has greater knowledge about computers and technology than his peers.

Now, assume Gary has a colleague named Robert. Robert is an English teacher who has spent his life reading books. He knows Shakespeare’s work very well and writes letters in longhand to his friends and family. He is a very knowledgeable person and writes novels on his laptop, but he asks Gary for advice on formatting files, and he asks for advice and help when using a computer for much more than writing and using email. Gary provides technology help to Robert in exchange for Robert’s help editing articles and books that he writes.

The paradox of knowledge comes when we ask Gary and Robert the question, “Do you know a lot about computers?” As you see, both Gary and Robert respond, “no,” to this question.

That is a paradox because, while we are not surprised that Robert claims little knowledge of computers, we expect Gary to answer that he knows a lot about computers. (Both Gary and Robert are highly ethical and responded honestly to the question.) In talking with these men further, we find that Gary explains his answer. “I know that I still have much to learn about computers.”

The paradox of knowledge leaves us is a difficult position. If we ask “do you know a lot about computers?” to a group of people, we can predict that those who answer “yes” probably don’t know much. Those who answer “no” include both:

  • those who do know a lot (and understand the limits of their knowledge) and
  • those who don’t know much (and understand the limitations of their knowledge).