Assumed Understanding

About twenty years ago I started to go off piste. It was then that I started exploring various philosophies, and different schools of thought. Whatever else I may be, I like to think that I am thorough. My understanding of what thorough means goes beyond most, or so the wife says. I have a fair deal of patience and can stick at stuff. When I started to go off piste I thought that I knew a lot and had a comprehensive understanding, I assumed that I understood a whole bunch of stuff, I was a smart young scientist after all. I was wrong about the extent of my understanding and by a long way. Wherever possible I like to get source documents and if there is a translation, then at least a few translations. I also try to apply stuff. I have a fairly eclectic book shelf with titles from “Quantum Optics” through “The Deciphered Indus Script” to “Tarot Meditations”. Only recently I found out that the person who signed the recommendation for my half-uncle’s MBE in Malaya 1950-51 was the head of Military Intelligence. Which kind of suggests that my uncle was a spook. I have a copy of that citation now. There are some things that I will never know.

So many people assume that they understand more than they do. And it is from such positions that they make decisions. I suspect that many have more confidence in the extent of knowledge than is warranted. I am a little older now and know more than I did back then. My level of arrogance and omniscience in my thirties was high, not as high as some, but high nevertheless. One of the problems in being a specialist is that the knowledge is tight and highly specific. I can talk to you about high resolution rovibronic spectroscopy if you would like. It is easy to get into silo-thinking. It may not transfer out of the silo. I am reminded of a punishment I received as a 10-year-old. I had been “naughty”, and the teacher held us back. We had to write a 500-word essay about the inside of a table tennis ball. Try it… and see how easy it is. Detailed knowledge about the inside of a table tennis ball does not mean that you know a whole bunch of other stuff. Yet expertise in one area can confer a sense of general assumed understanding which is in error.

If one starts from a position; “there is a whole bunch of stuff I do not know, appreciate or understand”, then one has a better chance of learning. Some things are hard, such as Quantum Optics. Other things have subtlety, such as Aikido. If one is prone to rush and take short-cuts whatever understanding one garners will be surface level only. The onion metaphor applies to many but not all things. I have found knowledge and understanding to be very layered. Sometimes you cry peeling off a layer. The true test of any understanding must be in application. Only when one attempts to test knowledge does one find out, if it exists or not. It seems to me that there are many experts in our times; there is a lot of opinion but not as much application. Opinion is an onion pi and can also make you cry, this is because opinion can both damage people and prevent learning. Much opinion comes from an assumption of understanding. The prevalence of opinion is increasing, I am not so sure about the levels of knowledge.

It is my opinion that assumed understanding is not a good thing.

The only way to test understanding is through inquiry, this can mean asking or applying. Over the years, I have met many people who talk a good game and are up with all the buzz-words. They might at first glance appear to be experts. This species is not on the extinction danger watch list. It is impolite to subject them to Ph.D. viva style questioning, though I have been tempted on a number of occasions. I did this with a consultant medic once and he shit bricks, I had questioned his deity and he did not like it. I had thoroughly researched the subject before the consultation. He had an assumed understanding about the nature of his patients.


It is a weird thing this assumed understanding…