Knowledge

You Are Ignorant, But Not Necessarily Dumb.

A review of The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone

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David Castillo Dominici/Dreamstime

You probably suffer from the "illusion of explanatory depth." Moreover, you often succumb to the "illusion of understanding." So say two cognitive scientists, Philip Fernbach of Colorado University and Steven Sloman of Brown, in The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone.

Disagree? OK, then write down how a zipper works. Or draw all the parts of a simple bicycle in their proper places. If that's too complicated, tell me: How does a flush toilet operate?

The illusion of explanatory depth was exposed in experiments by Frank Keil, a cognitive scientist at Cornell. Keil asked subjects to rate on a scale of 1 to 7 how confident they were about their understanding of how such mechanisms as zippers, flush toilets, helicopters, quartz watches, and piano keys worked. Then Keil asked them to write down a detailed explanation. Most could not. Afterwards, Keil reported, "many participants reported genuine surprise and new humility at how much less they knew than they originally thought."

Fernbach and Sloman then report cognitive scientist Thomas Landauer's estimate that the average adult's brain has the capacity to store about a gigabyte of information. The computer on which I am typing this review has about 1,000 times more memory than that. "Human beings are not warehouses of knowledge," the authors observe. Instead, we maneuver through the complexities that surround us by abstracting the relevant information that enables us to achieve our goals. The purpose of thinking, Fernbach and Sloman argue, is to choose the most effective action given the current situation.

Our minds think causally, not logically. To illustrate that, the authors offer a logical puzzle: If my underwear is blue, then my socks must be green. My socks are green. Therefore my underwear is blue. When asked, many people agree with the conclusion. But what about: If I fall into a sewer, then I need a shower. I took a shower. Therefore, I fell into a sewer. It's the same logical mistake, but this time our knack for causal thinking prevents most people from making it.

The authors also note that we are much better at thinking about how a cause produces an effect than we are at reasoning backward from an effect to find its cause. It is easier for a doctor predict that an ulcer will cause stomach pain than that stomach pain is the result of an ulcer. We are better at prediction than diagnosis.

The authors also cite Daniel Kahneman, the economics Nobelist who elucidated the difference between intuitive and deliberative thinking. Think of an animal whose name starts with E. For most Americans, elephant comes to mind quickly and intuitively. (For the record, I thought of echidnas. I don't know why.) Now unravel the anagram: vaeertidebli. The answer is "deliberative" and, for most of us, it takes deliberative thinking to figure it out.

The authors argue that we depend upon intuitive thinking to navigate most of our daily lives. We tend to turn to deliberative thinking when we encounter novel situations or engage in cooperative activities with others. Sloman and Fernbach note that more deliberative folks are somewhat less subject to the illusion of explanatory depth, and that they score better on the standard 3-item test measuring cognitive reflection. (Less than 20 percent of the U.S. population gets all three answers right.)

If we are all so deeply ignorant, how is the modern world possible? The book's answer is that we live in hive mind where knowledge is distributed throughout the human community. We are, in the authors' words, "built to collaborate." When we don't know something, we tap into the knowledge and expertise of our fellow human beings." Ignorance has to do with how much you, whereas being dumb is relative to other people," the authors point out. Like everyone else you are ignorant, but you are not therefore necessarily dumb.

We don't need to know how a flush toilet or the internet works. All we need to know is how to use these tools effectively to achieve our goals. Most our "knowledge" is really a set of placeholders and pointers that tell us how to access the information we need in the communal knowledge base.

So far, so good. But now we come to my main peeve about The Knowledge Illusion. Sloman and Fernbach are all about communal knowledge and cooperation, but they largely ignore the most effective institution that ever evolved for assembling and making effective use of dispersed knowledge in human societies: markets.

The duo does spend a page or two on the "hive economy," noting that "economies chug along merrily because they don't depend on individuals' understanding. An economy works because we each to our own little part." They are unknowingly recapitulating economics Nobelist Friedrich Hayek's insight, in his 1945 essay "The Use of Knowledge in Society," that information is radically decentralized, with each individual having "knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place." This dispersed knowledge is coordinated in markets via the price system.

And the prices in markets are superb knowledge placeholders. As Hayek explains, "It is more than a metaphor to describe the price system as a kind of machinery for registering change, or a system of telecommunications which enables individual producers to watch merely the movement of a few pointers, as an engineer might watch the hands of a few dials, in order to adjust their activities to changes of which they may never know more than is reflected in the price movement."

How human cooperation mobilized by world-spanning markets makes our complicated and increasingly wealthier world possible is illustrated by Leonard Read's magnificent essay "I, Pencil." If you want a real test of the illusion of explanatory depth, ask someone: How many people does it take to make a pencil? "Not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me," claims the essay's eponymous writing instrument. And that's entirely true.

KnowledgeIllusionCover
Riverhead Books

How do untold numbers of people cooperate across the globe to bring together milled wood from cedar trees felled in California with graphite mined and refined in Sri Lanka and rubber for the eraser tapped and congealed Malaysia? Not to mention the metal band to hold the eraser, the ink to print the brand name, and the rest. Nor the coffee the loggers drank and the bread they ate, the makers and drivers of the trucks and ships that transported the raw materials, and so forth.

Little of this comes through in the book. This avoidance is particularly puzzling because the authors do worry about how our pervasive ignorance plays out in the larger realms of policy and politics. They aptly note that when confronted with the complexities of public policy—what to do about health care, climate change, genetically modified crops, the possibility of nuclear war—most of us are not engaged in hard causal thinking about the consequences of different choices. Instead we tend to make our decisions based on the fast intuitive thinking embodied in our tribal loyalties and confirmation bias.

To overcome the problem of policy ignorance, they urge us to become more scientifically literate, learn critical thinking skills, and rely more on qualified experts. Such recommendations may help a bit, but that advice doesn't really overcome the problem of pervasive radical ignorance so well identified by the authors.

It's probably my confirmation bias talking (although I'm relying on folks I believe to be experts), but the deep problem here is the centralization and bureaucratization of decision-making. As the Utah State University anthropologist Joseph Tainter noted in his 1988 classic, The Collapse of Complex Societies, "In a hierarchical institution, the flow of information from the bottom to the top is frequently inaccurate and ineffective." Think of Soviet Five-Year Plans.

So let's reprise Fernbach and Sloman's main insight: "Intelligence resides in the community and not in any individual. So decision-making procedures that elicit the wisdom of the community are likely to produce better outcomes than procedures that depend upon the relative ignorance of lone individuals." Humanity has so far found no better general procedure for eliciting wisdom from the community than free markets. The more we use markets for mobilizing information to make decisions, the better those decisions are likely to be. It's a shame that the authors of this otherwise fascinating book are largely ignorant of that knowledge.

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  1. There are many people in my office building that do not know how a flush toilet operates. There are also one or two that do not understand zippers.

    1. More than once, I’ve been astounded at how a co-worker was able to tie his own shoelaces only to discover they wear loafers, sandals, and velcro near exclusively.

      1. I’m making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life.

        This is what I do,.,.,.,., http://www.careerstoday100.com

      2. I’m making over $7k a month working part time. I kept hearing other people tell me how much money they can make online so I decided to look into it. Well, it was all true and has totally changed my life.

        This is what I do.,.,.,.,.,.. http://www.careerstoday100.com

    2. Toilets are quite simple, but pretty vital to modern life. I’ve enjoyed being a hero more than once for knowing how to do a minor repair — once at a friend’s party, where it was particularly critical.

      Zippers, unfortunately, are a lot harder to DIY repair. The best you can generally do is look at them and say: “Yup, it’s broken. See right here?”.

      1. That tends to scare the ladies.

    3. Both previous respondents missed what was said. Toilets are pretty easy to repair, most of the time. That has little to do with describing how a toilet works, from siphoning to handle. I doubt one in a thousand knows those details, and probably only one in a million could actually design one from memory.

      1. Bingo. I can fix a toilet but will now google how the damned thing works.

      2. Both previous respondents missed what was said. Toilets are pretty easy to repair, most of the time. That has little to do with describing how a toilet works, from siphoning to handle. I doubt one in a thousand knows those details, and probably only one in a million could actually design one from memory.

        Personally, this is precisely backwards. I can/could design/construct a toilet or a zipper from memory, with the general knowledge of simple levers, gravity flow, float switches, etc.

        Repair, OTOH, may require retarded tools I don’t have and can’t effectively replicate without going completely off the ‘repair the toilet’ task or space to turn parts and insert assemblies that I don’t fit into, etc. Similar with zippers. If the zipper was assembled and then attached to the fabric, it’s entirely possible for it to be impossible to repair the zipper without removing it from or destroying the fabric.

    4. I believe they are one and the same: they fail to flush the toilet, and roam the halls at half mast.

  2. “You didn’t build that.”

    Oh, and although it’s abbreviated CU, it’s the University of Colorado. Go Buffs.

    1. I assume he meant Colorado University which is in Colorado Springs .

    2. I assume he intends Colorado University located in Colorado Springs .

  3. If I were a god-like being, and I were smart enough to think of something like dispersed knowledge, I’d want to make it the most effective way of making large decisions, if for no other reason than just to really anger control-freaks.

  4. (Less than 20 percent of the U.S. population gets all three answers right.)

    3/3, take that you 80% others!

    1. I would love to know what the average libertarian scored on it…

      1. Given the density of engineers and borderline autistics among libertarians, I’d guess it would be higher than the general population.

        1. I’m neither, but no-one ever called me “normal”, so perhaps you have a point.

        2. Also, the test has a pretty clear cultural bias against progressive ideology.

          1. *adjusts monocle*

      2. I’m an anarcho-capitalist, son of an engineer, financial guy by trade and I went 3 for 3….

        1. To the gulag with you, you son-of-an-engineer.

    2. I don’t think #2 provides enough information about the machines. But I’m pretty sure I got all the intended right answers.

      A lot of people seem to fuck up the first one.

      1. Agreed, there is an assumption of ‘atomic’ production and that whomever is operating the machines is operating them in a time-optimal fashion.

      2. I agree. The second question is ill-posed, bcause you don’t know whether the 5 machines are needed to perform different tasks, or whether they all do the same thing. Different answers for different assumptions. The correct answer should be “undeterminable”

        1. You’re overthinking it. Even if the different machines perform different functions, you know that five machines comprises a functioning unit capable of producing 5 widgets in 5 minutes.

          Thus, whether the 100 machines are 100 individually functioning machines or 20 groups of five machines, they will be capable of producing 100 widgets in five minutes.

          To assume that the 100 machines consist of, say, the wrong ratios of differently-functioning units, is to assume bad faith on the part of the questioner, which isn’t a realistic assumption for a problem-solving test. If you’re going to do that, you might as well assume that the questioner on the pond problem is hiding from you the fact that the pond has also been increasing in size over the 48-day period, due to heavy rains, or shrinking due to drought.

    3. That quiz is ridiculously simple.

      1. Some people are really stupid about numbers.

      2. That quiz is ridiculously simple.

        And I’m sure you’ll do better next time!

      3. I am so lazy that I wrote out algebraic equations and solved them, because it was faster than thinking out the right answer.

        1. I’m so lazy that I programmed an iterative procedure in C to solve them. It took me 17 seconds. But I goofed off for the first 9.

    4. The first two are hella easy, and I misread the “48 days” as “48 hours.” Reading the third question correctly, it’s easier than the first two.

    5. Yea that one was pretty easy. The first question is easier if you know algebra. The second assumes parallelism. The last one just a moments thought.

  5. Also, what this says about democracy.

    1. People think causality, from action to reaction (not logically).
    2. The point of democracy is to disperse power across everyone equally, with 1 person, 1 vote
    3. This implies that everyone chooses our ruling class members, yet every individual’s vote has practically no causal relationship to the outcome
    4. Therefore, people can’t think causally about democracy.
    5. This would imply that people, in general, suck at democracy.

    Oh, gee, look: reality.

    1. On the other hand, it mitigates against the hubris of those in the ruling class who are convinced that they know everything.

    2. Electing the correct lizard isn’t exactly dispersing political power. That’s more Athenian democracy (so anyone at Reason what to endorse markets to political structure?)

      The casual thinking bit is more tricky in that if you aware you suck at certain types logic, you’re likely to approach the problem more carefully. A lot of the awareness that you might be in error is pointed pushback.

      I think this is more a Dunning-Kruger effect in that people overestimate their reasoning ability, and a pat answer that at least seems plausible isn’t likely to trip alarms that you suck at the interpretation of the situation.

  6. For the record, I thought of echidnas. I don’t know why.

    Because you’re a monster.

    *mic drop*

  7. Are you gonna start calling your columns ‘Ron Bailey Saves the World’?

    Because that the level this one’s at.

    Gonna add a rap from some b-lister about her metaphorically speaking hive mind?

    1. Dude, that’s low.

      I suppose you are some kind of superman whose mind contains all knowledge in any way applicable to your life.

      Which is surprising, given that about 80% of your comments are completely stupid.

      1. …and here’s the b-lister, right on cue.

    2. I disagree with your analysis of this post, but I do think Ron would be great on children’s science show. Bring back the curiosity and sense of wonder that Bill Nye seems to have lost.

      1. Just a guess, but Bill Nye doesn’t give a shit about science or children.

        1. I think he once did. Now he just seems to want to be important or something.

          For some unfathomable reason, my wife decided to watch his new thing on Netflix last night (I guess she has fond memories of his “science guy” show). It took approximately 30 seconds for me to know (what I had expected) that it would be completely unbearable to watch. He actually said, without the least bit of uncertainty, that climate change was definitely worse than world wars and pandemic influenza.

          1. I’m trying to figure out how it could possibly be in his own best interests to transition from “beloved science-themed children’s show host” to “yet another generic aggravating climate wonk.” Like, is he expecting some neat payout from the attention? Does he think he’s actually changing anyone’s minds?

            More to the point, why doesn’t he just do a children’s show about environmentalism? That’d be much more effective in altering human habits towards a more CAGW-friendly culture than copying Al Gore’s schtick. And you know people would pay sick cash to have Bill Nye come out of TV retirement or whatever he’s doing in his free time for a new show. My generation (like most before it) values nostalgia a lot and it’d play to that.

            (Might be devolving into devil’s advocate there, but whatever.)

  8. You Are Ignorant, But Not Necessarily Dumb.

    Plenty of people don’t understand the difference between knowledge and intelligence.

  9. Zippers operate by magic. That’s why only the Japanese can make them.

    I can tell you all about toilets and bicycles and robots (well certain ones), though.

  10. I’m still coming to grips with the fact that “Enchilada” is not actually an animal.

    1. Then what the hell was I eating the other day?

    2. I am not sure where enchiladas come from, but I know hot dogs come from an animal that is just a seething mass of lips and assholes.

      1. So, politicians?

        1. I’ll never eat another hot dog again, thanks. Not about the lips and assholes, but the thought of actually touching any part of a politician, *hurl*.

  11. RE: You Are Ignorant, But Not Necessarily Dumb: New at Reason

    You can keep your ignorance if you like your ignorance.

  12. The computer on which I am typing this review has about 1,000 times more memory than that.

    It may have 1000 times more memory, but I’m guessing not more than 16 times more memory.

    1. You’re almost certainly wrong. Memory isn’t just dram. In fact since the brain is generally nonvolatile it would exclude dram.

      1. the brain is generally nonvolatile

        You ever try retrieving information from a brain after the power is shut off?

        1. Define shutting the power off. Information is stored chemically and physically. The relative conductivity of the pathways doesn’t degrade in milliseconds like dram does. The gradients are maintained chemically and not electrically. Readout is nondestructive. All of these are features that dram doesn’t have. But even if it did that wouldn’t invalidate the other forms of memory present in the computer.

      2. But what’s that got to do with Ron’s computer?

        1. You don’t reallu understand computers, do you?

          1. Computers have memory and memory and memory. 1GB is 1000 times less than the amount of memory, 16 times less than the amount of memory, and 8000 times greater than the amount of memory.

            So yes, I do know a thing or two about computers. But it is now apparent that you don’t know anything about lame jokes.

            1. Sorry, with current CPU architecture, cache memory is 0.008 times 1GB. So not 8000 times on the last one.

    2. I’m pretty sure this joke is racist.

      1. Well, … it is a joke.

    3. A few hi-res photos can consume 1 gigabyte. On the other hand, a squirrel (q.v.) can remember enormous detail about scenes, geography, landmarks, etc. that would consume far more than one GB of digital memory.

      Comparing digital computer memory to neural memory is not a meaningful comparison. One is discrete, the other is holographic. One is lossless, the other statistically lossy. One might as well compare a particle and a wave, or a point estimate to a probablity distribution.

  13. “Intelligence resides in the community and not in any individual. So decision-making procedures that elicit the wisdom of the community are likely to produce better outcomes than procedures that depend upon the relative ignorance of lone individuals.”

    Likely but unfortunately not guaranteed. Sometimes I’d rather spend the time to figure something out rather rely on some group’s say-so.

    1. But for most things, there is some level you get to where you really have no choice but to “stand on the shoulders of giants” as they say.
      I also like to understand how things work and do things for myself. It’s pretty much my meaning of life. But I wouldn’t get anywhere starting from scratch.

      1. Sure, I always tell my wife and kids that Google knows everything and they should be in the habit of searching for information they need.

        But some things are too important for that. In my opinion anyway.

        1. When they ask me a question, i tell my kids:

          “What do you get when you cross a goose and a piglet?”

          Anymore, they don’t wait for the answer. They just roll their eyes and walk away.

  14. This book sounds like an echo of one of my favorite peeves, the myth of the myth of the (ir)rational voter.

    Goddammit, voters are not stupid irrational idiots. They built this society, the railroads, farms, sailing ships, stores, telegraphs, all this shit, and they can’t have been stupid ignorant fools.

    Educating voters will have no effect. They don’t need education dictated by the elite, or by so-called libertarian elitists who at least think voters are educatable, which is better than the statist elites who wish voters were as dumb as bricks.

    The problem is that any government which controls more than one thing means there will always be voters who want combinations of policies that cannot be satisfied. Voters know that, which is why they don’t waste their time educating themselves on the finer points of policies, same as they don’t know in detail how a toilet works or how much to feed a cow. It is those self-selected elites who whine about (ir)rational voters who are too dumb for anyone’s good.

    1. You’ve just described the myth of the rational voter.

      1. Yes. The fact that people qua voters are not rational does not mean that people are irrational or ineducable. Just that they are when they vote. And not for terrible reasons either.

      2. Every description, and prescription, I’ve read wants to educate voters to make better decisions. Not a single one admits voters cannot make a choice based on knowledge of policies, because there is no single candidate who matches their choices, and there can’t be, because no single person can know everything. The only solution is to decentralize to the max, as close to anarchy as possible, so people can compartmentalize their life in any collection of policies they want, and change those combinations at any time they want.

        1. The only solution is to decentralize to the max, as close to anarchy as possible, so people can compartmentalize their life in any collection of policies they want, and change those combinations at any time they want.

          Yeah, but how do you get to that point without educating people about the benefits of such a state of affairs?

        2. The only solution is to decentralize to the max, as close to anarchy as possible, so people can compartmentalize their life in any collection of policies they want, and change those combinations at any time they want.

          “The myth of the rational voter” is the name of Bryan Caplan’s book, who is an anarchist, whose prescription is drastically reducing political power alongside better education. Jason Brennan, another anarchist, uses the argument to suggest that an epistocracy might be preferable to democracy.

    2. So, if something is they myth of the myth of something, do the two myths cancel each other out so that it’s not a myth but a real thing. Or do they combine to be something even less real than a myth?

  15. There must be something wrong with me. I can do all those things and more.

  16. their logical argument as proof is not logical hence the fallacy of scientist trying to determine how people think

  17. “Humanity has so far found no better general procedure for eliciting wisdom from the community than free markets. ”

    What about the Internet? Markets are fine for buying and selling things. To elicit wisdom, your local library or Internet connection might be better. Facebook, for example, elicits wisdom from the community all day long without having to go to the market. Hayek would be rolling in his grave.

    1. Facebook elicits wisdom? I thought it provides bat-shit crazy rants and cute puppies.

      Speaking of puppies, as far as good information that can be found on the internet, providing that to most people is as useful as giving it to puppies.

  18. “If we are all so deeply ignorant, how is the modern world possible? The book’s answer is that we live in hive mind where knowledge is distributed throughout the human community. We are, in the authors’ words, “built to collaborate.” When we don’t know something, we tap into the knowledge and expertise of our fellow human beings.” Ignorance has to do with how much you, whereas being dumb is relative to other people,” the authors point out. Like everyone else you are ignorant, but you are not therefore necessarily dumb.”

    So if most people are 98% dumb and 2% useful information, what is the statistical likelihood that a shared solution from any group will be smarter than a mud puddle?

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