AND it’s costly and dangerous for the nation.
The statement is tautological, but it’s an increasingly popular idea in leadership and management studies. And it may help explain why, four years into his term, President Benigno Aquino 3rd is stumbling all over the place without solving one serious problem of national life.
Like the classic Socratic admonition, “know thyself.” the idea of being aware of what you do not know is considered important by philosophers, psychologists and leadership gurus.
Not knowing can be a sign not only of ignorance, but of incompetence.
Knowledge gaps and problem solving
In an article for the Harvard Business Review, “Do you know what you don’t know?”, the psychology teacher Art Markman explained the subject as follows:
“You probably don’t know as much as you think you do. When put to the test, most people find they can’t explain the workings of everyday things they think they understand.
“Don’t believe me? Find an object you use daily (a zipper, a toilet, a stereo speaker) and try to describe the particulars of how it works. You’re likely to discover unexpected gaps in your knowledge. In psychology, we call this cognitive barrier the illusion of explanatory depth. It means you think you fully understand something that you actually don’t.
“An upsetting instance of knowledge gaps in the last decade was the profound misunderstanding of complex financial products that contributed to the market collapse of 2007. Investment banks were unable to protect themselves from exposure to these products, because only a few people (either buyers or sellers) understood exactly what was being sold. Those individuals who did comprehend these product structures ultimately made huge bets against the market using credit-default swaps. The willingness of companies like AIG to sell large quantities of credit-default swaps reflected a gap in their knowledge about the riskiness of products they were insuring.”
Markman goes on to offer practical tips on how to overcome explanatory gaps.
1. No matter the scale, discovering your explanatory gaps is essential. An undiagnosed gap in knowledge means you might not fully understand a problem. That can hinder innovative solutions.
2. Explain concepts to yourself as you learn them. Get in the habit of self-teaching. Your explanations will reveal your own knowledge gaps and identify words and concepts whose meanings aren’t clear.
3. Engage others in collaborative learning. Help identify the knowledge gaps of the people around you. Ask them to explain difficult concepts, even if you think everyone understands them. Not only will this help you to work through new ideas, it will occasionally uncover places where your colleagues don’t understand critical aspects of an explanation.
4. When you do uncover these knowledge gaps, treat them as learning opportunities, not signs of weakness. After all, successful innovation rests on the assumption that you and the people around you have a high-quality understanding of the problem.
Three exhibits of Aquino knowledge gaps
In four years with him at the helm of our republic, it’s only to be expected that some or many of the failures and shortcomings of the Aquino administration can be attributed to knowledge gaps on the part of the chief executive and commander in chief.
He entered the presidency with the barest credentials ever in national history. Although he served three terms in the House and one term in the Senate, he came away with no legislative accomplishment or notable achievement. And he never served in an executive capacity in either the public or private sector.
From his very first fiasco, the Manila hostage crisis of August 2010, to his biggest and current setback, the voiding by the Supreme Court of his Disbursement Acceleration Program (DAP), the pervasive belief is that he was done in by his own ignorance.
Over this past year, I can think of three clear instances where Aquino‘s lack of awareness of his knowledge gaps has proved detrimental to the nation and to his presidency.
Exhibit 1: Bernas on Aquino’s ignorance of the law
I refer here to his lack of understanding of the DAP, which his Budget Secretary Butch Abad invented and which the President authorized and repeatedly validated by signing every fund release.
Constitutional commission delegate and constitutional law authority Fr. Joaquin Bernas, SJ, ascribes Aquino’s lapses with the DAP to ignorance of the law.
Bernas believes the president cannot be held liable for culpable violation of the Constitution because the violation has to be intentional. But he adds that Aquino was likely ignorant of the law because of wrong advice from his legal team. Ignorance is not a ground for impeachment.
“They didn’t know what they were doing, they thought that they were doing the right thing. After his term, you can go after him,” Bernas says.
But presidential ignorance here could not be more costly. Because of it, P172 billion of taxpayers’ money went into the DAP, and will probably never be seen again.
Exhibit 2: Aquino clueless in Japan
A second vivid example of an Aquino knowledge gap occurred during his recent one-day visit to Japan.
In Tokyo, Aquino openly endorsed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s move to amend Japan’s 67-year-old pacifist Constitution, “reinterpret” its anti-war provision, and adopt the “right to collective self-defense.”
This has raised many eyebrows here at home, none higher than those of former senator Kit Tatad, who wrote a scathing column in the Standard. Kit commented:
“Amending Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution would most certainly impact Japan’s security ties with its neighbors, and there is no room at this time for a foreign head of state to comment publicly on the ongoing process.
“Despite this obvious red line, Aquino gleefully declaimed on the virtues of the Japanese exercise, with no inhibitions. He said:
“We believe that nations of goodwill can benefit only if the Japanese government is empowered to assist others and is allowed to come to the aid of those in need, especially in the area of collective self-defense.”
“We…do not view with alarm any proposal to revisit the Japanese constitution if the Japanese people so desire, especially if this enhances Japan’s ability to address its international obligations and brings us closer to our shared goals of peace, stability and mutual prosperity,” he added.
Tatad concluded: “With a small pinch of knowledge of international relations and statecraft, Aquino could have avoided making that completely avoidable statement in Japan.”
Exhibit 3: Aquino’s defense of DAP
Without getting an expert legal briefing, the President sallied forth in October last year to adamantly defend the DAP and threatened to barnstorm the country and shame its critics.
He declared on live TV: “The Disbursement Allocation Program is not pork barrel. Spending through DAP is clearly allowed by the Constitution and by other laws. DAP is only a name for a process in which government can spend both savings and new and additional revenues.
“The issue here is theft. I did not steal.
“Those who have been accused of stealing are those who are sowing confusion; they want to dismantle all that we have worked so hard to achieve on the straight path. We were stolen from, we were deceived–and now we are the ones being asked to explain? I have pursued truth and justice, and have been dismantling the systems that breed the abuse of power–and yet I am the one now being called the Pork Barrel King?”
At the time, Aquino clearly did not know the legal intricacies of the DAP or understand the controversy it triggered.
He doesn’t know how our govt works
Now that the program has been ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, he probably understands even less the reason why he lost so spectacularly in the legal battle before the High Court, and in the court of public opinion.
I am convinced that throughout the period when the DAP was hatched and when he was signing all those documents facilitating it, Aquino never once paused to ask Abad whether the DAP was legal and constitutional. He does not know how our government works.
He doesn’t have a notion of what governing or running a government is all about. The only thing he tries to grasp is power, the powers of his office. But not how power is supposed to be used to solve national problems.
From ignorance to arrogance
For any leader with gravitas, these lapses of judgment and understanding would be mortifying. Yet Aquino’s attitude has been the opposite.
Instead of being humbled, he becomes arrogant, probably amused by the thought that ignorance rhymes with arrogance.
He repeatedly dares his opponents and critics to impeach him, completely confident that Congress, which he thoroughly corrupted with the DAP and PDAF, would never impeach him.
On this point, he again shows that he doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.
He probably doesn’t remember that President Joseph Estrada was impeached by the House on the sly. The impeachment complaint against Erap did not pass the chamber through the normal process; then speaker Manuel Villar smuggled it out, thinking of profiting politically from it. It would not have passed otherwise.
If there’s one truth that Aquino ought to learn by heart, it’s the fact that politics is the art of the possible. Things change.
For all he knows, some members of Congress could develop a conscience. And some may already have shifted their allegiance to the people.