Know reservations: It’s okay to not have the right answer, says Charles Assisi - Hindustan Times
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Know reservations: It’s okay to not have the right answer, says Charles Assisi

Mar 02, 2024 05:38 PM IST

Check out a tale about Nobel laureate Max Planck and his driver, that offers lessons on faking smarts and admitting ignorance, in this week’s Life Hacks.

A question I am asked often is what I do. When I respond with “I am a journalist”, what inevitably follows are questions for pointers to an “insider’s” view of the political climate in New Delhi. Elections are just around the corner and people want to know. The problem is, I don’t have one because I am not a political journalist. To get to this point where I can say “I-don’t’-know” has taken enormous courage. And I wear this courage as a badge of honour. And each time I say no, I tell myself I have passed the Max Planck/Chauffeur Test. This needs some background.

In the TV series The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon Cooper is a know-it-all physicist. When he doesn’t have the right answer, he’s rarely able to admit it. Instead, his face twitches, he mumbles and finds himself befuddled. Saying ‘I don’t know’ takes courage. PREMIUM
In the TV series The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon Cooper is a know-it-all physicist. When he doesn’t have the right answer, he’s rarely able to admit it. Instead, his face twitches, he mumbles and finds himself befuddled. Saying ‘I don’t know’ takes courage.

There is real knowledge, which is profound and rooted in deep comprehension. Then there is pretend knowledge, which is superficial and masquerades as expertise. The dichotomy between the both was vividly illustrated by a narrative, apocryphal perhaps, that involves the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Planck and his chauffeur. This story, captured public imagination when Charlie Munger, the billionaire investor and vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, delivered the commencement speech at the University of Santa Clara Gould Law School in 2007. Now called the Max Planck/Chauffeur Test, it serves as a powerful lens through which we can examine the texture of true understanding versus the veneer of pretend expertise.

The story has it that Planck, after receiving the Nobel Prize, was invited to lecture across Germany. His chauffeur, after having heard Planck’s speech many times, memorized it and could recite it perfectly. One day, to amuse themselves, Planck and his chauffeur switched roles; the chauffeur delivered the lecture flawlessly until a physicist in the audience asked a complex question. The chauffeur, realizing the limits of his mimicry, wittily remarked that the question was so simple, he would let his chauffeur answer it. Max Planck took over. The point is, there is a profound truth about knowledge: the difference between understanding what lies on the surface and wrapping your head around its depths.

Extrapolate this test to professions such as journalism, stock market research and academia, where the currency of credibility is knowledge. In journalism, the rapid pace and the pressure to break news can sometimes lead to a reliance on pretend knowledge. Journalists, under deadline duress, may skim the surface of complex issues, offering summaries without the depth that understanding requires. This is not to disparage the profession; many journalists perform their roles with diligence and integrity, striving to understand the nuances of the stories they cover.

Much the same can be said of stock market analysts. As recently as in January 2024, the most blue-blooded of them applauded Paytm’s founder Vijay Shekhar Sharma for the company’s results declared in the last quarter of December 2023. They refused to see the man was breaking the law and it would be a matter of time before the RBI would lose patience with him.

In much the same way, academia is not immune to the allure of pretend knowledge. The publish-or-perish ethos encourages quantity over quality. This leads many researchers to feign expertise in areas beyond their genuine comprehension. It is compounded by the complex incentive structures within academia, such as funding for the labs they rub, hinges on perceived expertise. The outcome is a landscape where some take shortcuts and navigate with the compass of pretence rather than the hard-earned map of real knowledge.

While it is true the pressures are high in all these professions, it takes moral strength to admit the boundaries of one’s understanding. “I don’t know” is not a declaration of defeat, but a statement of honesty,

Charlie Munger himself has championed the virtue of recognizing the limits of one’s knowledge. He advocates for a model of intellectual integrity where admitting ignorance is not only acceptable but commendable. The real versus pretend knowledge framework encourages us to scrutinize not just the information we consume but also the depth of our understanding. It invites us to ask ourselves whether we are the chauffeur, reciting facts without comprehension, or the scientist, deeply engaged with the material.

In the end, the Max Planck/Chauffeur Test is more than just a cautionary tale about the perils of superficial understanding. It is a call to intellectual integrity, a reminder that real knowledge is not just about the accumulation of facts but the depth of understanding. It challenges us to look beyond the surface, to engage with ideas and issues at a profound level, and to recognize that in the quest for knowledge, the courage to admit ignorance is the first step towards true understanding.

This is why I decline to comment on politics. Or write on which way the stock markets are headed despite having trained as a business journalist.

(Charles Assisi is co-founder of Founding Fuel. He can be reached on assisi@foundingfuel.com)

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