By Jamie Etheridge

This week in the office we had a discussion about the dangers of swimming in the sea. I asked how many people here could swim and how many visited the beach. A show of hands survey revealed that around a quarter of our staff don’t know how to swim but still might sometimes wade into the water at the shore of the beach. I then asked another question: How many people know about rip currents and water safety. Only one of my 20+ colleagues raised their hand. Even among the practiced swimmers who regularly visit the beach, almost no one knew what a rip current was or how to spot one from shore.

Every year thousands of people around the world lose their lives from ignorance. Whether it’s swimming in a rip current, or vaping an unknown substance or carbon monoxide poisoning from incorrectly ventilated spaces. We don’t know what we don’t know until it’s too late. “Successful negotiation of everyday life would seem to require people to possess insight about deficiencies in their intellectual and social skills. However people tend to be blissfully unaware of their incompetence,” writes David Dunning et al in the introduction to ‘Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence (Current Directions in Psychological Science Vol. 12, No. 3, Jun., 2003).

This mindset is often labeled the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias where people fail to comprehend or even be aware of their own incompetence. Incompetence doesn’t always equal ignorance but there is significant overlap. If one is wholly blissfully unaware of a potential danger-rip currents, for instance-then how can one protect themselves? The short answer is they can’t and the longer, sadder, answer is that as a result people die from wholly preventable reasons.

As a mother, one of my most important jobs is anticipating danger and teaching my children how to protect themselves. When they were small, I had to show them not to put their hands into a fire or run out into the street without looking. As they grow older, I explain about the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning during the winter months, open the bedroom window before we go to sleep. Over time, I hope my children will learn enough of these survival skills and anticipate potential hazards in order to avoid them.

Society is meant to facilitate the transmission of knowledge from generation to generation. We are now in an era where everything can be found online Ð from detailed, illustrated information on how to escape a rip current, to the chemical substances likely to be found in vapes. But if we don’t know to look for this information, if we don’t know what we don’t know, what good will it do us?

Multigenerational relationships are key because they help children not only to learn from their elders about life in what my daughters gleefully call ‘the olden times’ but also provide a forum for the transmission of important and necessary life skills.

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