October 1, 2012

You Don’t Know That

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Something bizarre happened about midway through my sophomore year, a sort of academic tipping point. I threw a problem set phrase into a search engine, and instead of straightforward explanations I got … research papers. (There’s a joke here about research papers being straightforward, but I’m going to let it go). I was a little taken aback the first time it happened, but since then it’s become par for the course. I’ve kind of come to terms with the fact that, at some point, I started being asked questions that maybe don’t have completely established answers. That I really have the capacity, if not the time and energy, to understand the solutions to some of the more interesting unsolved problems. Or at least understand why people are arguing for one solution over the other for fixing energy policy and  traffic light algorithms and the moral degradation of America’s youth.

It goes hand-in-hand with something else that started happening only recently, I guess because I started looking slightly older than 16. People started trusting what I say. And not indulgent “Okay-we’ll-try-it-just-to-humor-you” trusting me, but full-blown “If-you-say-so-it-must-be-true.” It was a little unnerving the first time it happened, and it’s no less unnerving now.

The funny thing is, the less distorted my self-perception of my knowledge base gets, the less I feel the need to defend my opinions and solutions and the systems I’ve designed. There was a time when I spent an embarrassing amount of time defending my political opinions on web forums. (Yes, I was THAT person. Stop judging me). Once I learned a little bit about how our government actually operates, I started sitting on my proverbial hands. Not only was I not about to condense a semester of US Gov into a couple of paragraphs, I was deathly afraid that someone more knowledgeable than I was would come along and make me feel all ignorant again.

I think that in a perfect world, there’s a fairly linear relationship between someone’s merit and how quick they are to offer an opinion. After all, nearly all the problems worth solving are difficult, nuanced and complicated ones. (And some of the more lucrative ones even get funded). Surely no one would ever presume to instantly understand deep-rooted, complicated issues. Or make snap judgement calls about other people and the way they do things, based on their own limited knowledge and fleeting impressions of the situation.

Heh. Yeah. Because speculating about a hypothetical perfect world is a productive exercise. Anyways, about this whole knowing-the-answers thing. I like to only half-jokingly say that college has made me stupider and less confident, because man, I was so sure that I knew so much in high school. Instead of hedging every sentence with “Correct me if I’m wrong, but” and “Couldn’t it be argued that,” I called people out when I was sure they were wrong. I complained about broken systems that I was sure I could fix. I knew stuff. And if everyone else in the world just stopped being so stupid and selfish, things could be so much better.

And oh my, isn’t this ironic, now that I’m marginally more qualified to have an opinion about the world, I’ve realized how little I actually know, my, how poetic life is, etc. etc.

Hmm yeah, trying to make it sound trite doesn’t get me away from admitting that all almost-16 years of education has gotten me is moving from thinking I know everything, to realizing that I am just at the point where I have the tools to chip away at this huge mountain of human knowledge in front of me. I can read someone’s Ph.D. thesis now! And actually (mostly) understand what they’re talking about!

But then I guess the flip side of that is that I have this burden now, to back up every position I hold with at least a small hill of substantiated fact and well-balanced discussion from every conceivable angle.

Man, life was so much simpler when I was sure I was always right.

Deborah Liu is a senior in the College of Engineering. She may be reached at deborahliu@cornellsun.com. First World Problem appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Deborah Liu