We have a tendency to overestimate the extent to which we understand things. This is called the knowledge illusion. My presentation of the concept itself is a perfect example of this human error: After reading a book about the knowledge illusion I feel adept to share and summarize the concept. But in actuality my understanding of this theory is limited. I am ignorant in many regards, and so are you. Simply because it is not possible for us to be master of all things. This is a message that resonated with me when I read “The Knowledge Illusion” by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach.
At the very beginning of the novel, the authors posed a question that could be perceived as rather insulting, “How does a toilet work?”. Most people have got this concept down pat. You hit the handle (or if you’re privy to new technology you push a button) and the content disappears down a drain. But the vast majority of us don’t know what happens after that or the resources that made this possible. We don’t know the materials used, the process in which it is built, nor do we understand how they’re priced or which models are more desirable in certain regions. We think we know more than we actually do.
With that being said, our limited or shallow understanding of things is not problematic. The human brain was not design to retain all things in extensive detail. It is simply impossible to do so. What is problematic is failing to recognize that such ignorance exists. The knowledge illusion is real.
This revelation does not mean that that there aren’t varying degrees of intelligence or that there aren’t individuals more knowledgeable in topics than others. However, there is no such thing as an original idea. All thoughts are influenced by the thoughts of your predecessors. The hive mind, or collective intelligence is the reason that humans have been able to advance and continue to do so. Therefore, you are not as smart as you think you are and you did not get as smart as you are on your own. How is that food for thought?….
Reading this body of work was humbling and quite transformative. In a sense, it reintroduced me to myself.
Sloman, S. A., & Fernbach, P. (2018). The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone. New York: Riverhead Books.