Why we need to hear the phrase “I don’t know” much more in a world of instant online opinions

I am disheartened by how certain everyone seems, all the time.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

My GCSE chemistry class was hard on our teacher for several reasons. The first was his name: Mr Sandell, so unfortunately and undeniably footwear-like. The second was his age: recently graduated from teacher training college, he was only a few years older than us and didn’t have the good fortune to look it. The third was that whenever a student asked a question that he didn’t know the answer to, he employed the same eight-word catchphrase again and again: “That’s a good question – I don’t actually know.”

Now that I’m older, I can’t help but respect Mr Sandell (even if he did once give me detention for writing “Mr Flip Flop” at the top of a test paper). After using his catchphrase, the chemistry teacher would promise to consult a book and return to the next class with an answer to the question. Although his frank admissions betrayed the gaps in his knowledge and made us laugh, they were far better than the alternatives: better than teaching us the wrong thing, better than blustering, better than telling us to be quiet.

“I don’t know” is a phrase that is sorely needed in modern discourse. In a world of push notifications, populism and prolifically tweeting presidents, it is easier than ever to feel overpowered by the news. We can’t move for outrageous occurrences, our phones buzzing with bite-size snippets of information that demand our immediate attention and just as immediate opinions.

I am disheartened by how certain everyone seems, all the time. When my phone flashes red with a piece of breaking news or glows blue with a trending topic, I am overwhelmed by my not knowing. What does this mean? Is it significant? How should it make me feel – how does it make me feel?

I used to feel ashamed that I was confused and overwhelmed in our confusing and overwhelming times. Now, I’m proud that instead of firing off immediate opinions, polarising the already polarised, I take a while – like Mr Sandell – to consult my books.

On Wednesday 18 September, a video went viral in which the father of a sick child in a London hospital confronted Boris Johnson about the crumbling NHS. As the video continued to spread, it emerged that the man, Omar Salem, was a Labour activist, and the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg quote-tweeted him, meaning she exposed his social media account to her one million Twitter followers. Within hours of the video going viral, Salem’s sick baby daughter and the NHS were both irrelevant. What suddenly mattered was Kuenssberg, and whether her tweet proved that she had a Tory bias and wanted to start a “dogpile” on an innocent man (the phrasing of her tweet, “This is him here”, was certainly uncomfortable) or whether she was simply a journalist doing her job.

A pause might have saved the day. Instead of immediately deciding whether Kuenssberg was absolutely wrong or absolutely right, we could have collectively paused, considered Salem’s own view (that the BBC editor was “doing her job without fear or favour, which is a vital part of democracy”) and got back to talking about the NHS. That is not to say there aren’t important debates to be had about the ethics of Twitter “pile-ons” (I bemoan them in this column most weeks), but we should have questioned whether this was the most important conversation we needed to have that day.

In a 2012 paper, “Political Communication and Influence through Microblogging – An Empirical Analysis of Sentiment in Twitter Messages and Retweet Behaviour”, academics from the University of Münster in Germany found that political tweets that contained an emotion (either positive or negative) spread further than those that didn’t. In this age of polarisation, sentiments have more currency than facts. Although the Münster academics didn’t ponder this, I can easily see how our desire for positive feedback online could provoke us to make our emotions more extreme in order to gain attention.

“I don’t know” isn’t sexy. It doesn’t win retweets or inspire crosses on the ballot paper. But extreme polarisation is a threat to democracy, and being absolutely certain about absolutely everything only further divides our divided nation. Nearly all of our modern sagas would benefit from a second of not knowing – if we stopped seeing the world as something to categorise as completely right or completely wrong, and instead took a step back and assessed the significance of the storm.

It is not clever or good or helpful to have a pithy, retweetable opinion three seconds after a piece of news breaks. It is scary to be immediately absolutely certain whether something is right or wrong, to condemn and to praise without asking for more information. Social media rewards those who are certain and who are righteous with that certainty, no matter that binary thinking is of little benefit to society as a whole.

Part of the reason I wanted to be a journalist was because I always want to know more. I have very little confidence in my own opinions, and relish the opportunity to consult experts, or the people affected by an issue, to uncover the truth. More often than not, their answers will surprise me, and my view of the world will be challenged.

I’m uncertain about many things – truthfully I’m already embarrassed about this column and the certainty I express within it. Undoubtedly someone will point out something I didn’t think of, and my opinion will shift again. Yet the more I watch democracy unfold before us, the more I feel “I don’t know” is the most powerful phrase we have. I’m not certain of much, but there is one thing I feel fairly confident about: we would all benefit from being as honest as Mr Sandell. 

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh

This article appears in the 27 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great disgrace