“The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone” is the second of three books to be reviewed from an article titled, “That’s What You Think: Why reason and evidence won’t change our minds” by Elizabeth Kolbert in the 27 February 2017 issue of “The New Yorker.”
The authors of this book, Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach also believe that sociability is the key to how the human mind functions, or, more accurately, malfunctions. In a study conducted on Yale University, graduate students were ask to rate their understanding of everyday devices to include toilets, zippers, and cinder blocks. Then they were asked to write detailed step-by-step explanations of how the devices work, and to rate their understanding again. Doing this revealed to the students their own ignorance, because their self-assessments dropped.
Sloan and Fernbach call this the “illusion of explanatory depth” and find this effect just about everywhere. They say that what allows us to press in this belief is other people. This is something we are very good at. We’ve been relying on one another’s expertise ever since we figured out how to hang together, which was probably a key development in our evolutionary history. They argue that we collaborate so well that we can hardly tell where our own understanding ends and others’ begins. They argue that this borderlessness is crucial to what we consider progress. “As people invented new tools for new ways of living, they simultaneously created new realms of ignorance; If everyone insisted on, say, mastering the principles of metalworking before picking up a knife, the Bronze Age wouldn’t have amount to much. When it comes to new technologies, incomplete understanding is empowering.”
Where this gets us into trouble, according to Sloan and Fernbach, is in the political domain. “It’s one thing for me to flush a toilet without knowing how it operates, and another for me to favor (or oppose) an immigration ban without knowing what I’m talking about.”
Sloan and Fernbach cite a survey conducted in 2014, not long after Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. Respondents were asked how they thought the U.S. should react, and also to locate Crimea on a map. The farther off base they were about the geography, the more likely they were to favor military intervention.