Making People Smart

This is the eleventh post in the series The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (Unabridged), written by Steven Sloman and Phillip Fernbach. Making People Smart is a chapter in this book.

The authors state, “The illusion of comprehension arises because people confuse understanding with familiarity or recognition. When you reread text at a later time, it seems familiar. Psychologist Paul Kolers provided an extreme case of this by having people read inverted text. More than a year later the same people could read the same text faster than different text they hadn’t read before. Thus, they had retained a memory over the course of a year for how to read specific text.

A problem that we all have is that this sense of familiarity can be confused with actual understanding of the material. It’s one thing to be familiar with some text or to know it by heart, but another to really get a full understanding of its meaning. Comprehension requires processing text with care and effort in a deliberate manner. It requires thinking about the author’s intention. This isn’t obvious to everyone and many students confuse studying with light reading. The knowledge illusion extends to education as well. Learning requires breaking common habits by processing information more deeply.

Sloan and Fernbach neglect to discuss how current technology hinders the development of fuller and deeper understanding. In their chapter on Thinking with Technology they did discuss how technology fools us into thinking we know more than we know. But they did not discuss how being continually plugged in and multitasking prevents fuller and deeper understanding. The belief that we can multitask is mistaken. What we are in reality doing is switching between, or all too often, among tasks, and the act of switching has attentional and cognitive costs. Fuller and deeper understanding comes from concentrating on one topic for a prolonged period of time. Usually many such encounters are often needed for this fuller and deeper understanding. Multitasking fosters superficial, not deep processing.

We suffer from the knowledge illusion when we confuse what experts know with what we ourselves know. The fact that we can access someone else’s knowledge makes us feel like we already know what we’re talking about. We are not built to become masters of all subjects, but we are built to participate in a community.

The authors write, “A real education includes learning that you don’t know certain things (a lot of things). Instead of looking in at the knowledge you do have, you learn to look for the knowledge you don’t have. To do this, you have to let go of some hubris; you have to accept what you don’t know. Learning what you don’t know is just a matter of looking at the frontiers of your knowledge and wondering what is out there beyond the border. It’s about asking why.”

Since 2006, a course entitled “Ignorance” has been taught at Columbia University. Guest scientists are invited to speak about what “they don’t know, what they think is critical to know, how they might get to know it, what will happen if they do find this or that thing out, and what might happen if they don’t.” The course focuses on all that is not in the textbooks and thus guides students to think about what is unknown and what could be known. The idea is to focus not on what students themselves don’t know, but what entire fields of science don’t know, with the aim of provoking and directing students to ask questions about the foundations of a scientific field. This course requires that students ponder not just some set of scientific theories; it requires that they begin to understand what the entire community has and hasn’t mastered.

Being a cognitive psychologist, HM has needed to learn about many disciplines, computer science, neuroscience, statistics, and linguistics, to name just a few. This is vastly more knowledge that one individual can comprehend. So much knowledge is accepted as faith. What distinguishes this faith from religious faith is that there is a higher power to appeal to: namely the power of verification. The Dalai Lama is a religious leader who is unique in that he incorporates scientific results into the Buddhist religion.

It was perhaps when HM graduated from high school that he had high confidence in what he knew. His undergraduate education quickly disabused him of this notion, and his graduate and continuing studies have increased his awareness of how much he does not know.

We all need to become better consumers of information. We need to be skeptical when deciphering the media. As has been noted in previous posts that there is a profitable business in false science and false news. Adrian Chen wrote in the New York Times Magazine of Russian “troll farm”, which was a business whose employees are assigned pro-Kremlin viewpoints and putative information to propagate by blogging, posting on social media sites, and flooding comment sections of news sites, often using false identities. It is sad that this sort of thing goes on all the time in both the political and commercial domains. All of which emphasizes that we should be modest about what we do know, to never have absolute beliefs in anything, and to constantly try to increase our understanding so we can use knowledge more effectively, and perhaps contribute to communal understanding.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.



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