Reflections on “The Knowledge Illusion” by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach

I’m writing this essay after listening in, via DUO, to our book club’s discussion of “The Knowledge Illusion” by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach on November 7th, 2019. At that time, I wasn’t able to offer my opinions about the book but which I’d like to do briefly here.

First, I found the book to be an entertaining, informative and provocative read. I came away with some profound insights about the concept of “knowledge” which have caused me many moments of wonder ever since.

As Sloman and Fernbach point out, the theme of the book is threefold and can be summed up as being about: a) ignorance; b) the illusion of understanding; c) the community of knowledge. (231)

The authors carefully walk the reader through many examples dealing with all three of these topics. It probably goes without saying that a book with such a large ambition is destined to fall short of its goal. The authors simply took on too much to deal with in such a brief amount of room, especially since their explorations wander from science to philosophy to psychology to technology to politics, and beyond. It’s just too much.

As I said above, there are many entertaining and provocative passages:

People love heroes. (17)

[C}ontributions we make as individuals depend more on our ability to work with others than on our individual mental horsepower. Individual intelligence is overrated. (18)

[P]eople live in an illusion. (22)

We tolerate complexity by failing to recognize it. (35)

People see stories everywhere. (64)

The mind is not in the brain…the brain is in the mind. The mind uses the brain and other things to process information. (105)

Hunting may have been instrumental to human evolution. (113)

People are built to collaborate. (117)

The knowledge illusion occurs because we live in a community of knowledge and we fail to distinguish the knowledge that is in our heads from the knowledge outside of us. (127)

We’ll be even more ignorant about how things work in the future. (151)

Discovering the credibility of an expert is certainly a more manageable problem than asking everyone to become an expert and is, in fact, the only way to solve social problems. (189)

Winston Churchill certainly went too far when he said, “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” (191)

In the words of Voltaire: “Illusion is the first of all pleasures.” (192)

Ignorance can be frustrating, but the problem is not ignorance per se. It’s the trouble we get into by not recognizing it. (257)

We never read in a vacuum. What we bring to the page determines in large part what we see on the page. During the time that I was reading “The Knowledge Illusion,” I couldn’t stop thinking subcon-sciously about today’s political theater in America. And most certainly, as I was preparing to write this essay by revisiting the passages in the book that were the most meaningful to be, I kept thinking that this book offered some powerful insights into how so many voters, contrary to all the evidence presented to them, continue to support Donald J. Trump as our president.

For many of us who see Trump as a threat to our country now and potentially in a second term, how could a reasonable person look at some of the following examples and not be profoundly shaken with wonder as to how such a deplorable person could be elected president:

* He is a philanderer, cheating on all three of his wives. He is not only a womanizer, he is a known patron of prostitutes, a person who treats women as objects. His crude quotations about women’s bodies are well known and not worth repeating here. And somehow, he’s supported by the Christian right.

* He is a known racist, as people close to him, under oath, have testified. Even his personal lawyer of many years called him one.

* He is known as a great business man, but he has filed for business bankruptcies at least four times. He also has multiple business failures including Trump University, Trump Airlines, Trump Vodka, Trump Magazine, Trump Steaks, Trump Mortgage, Trump Casinos, Trump: The Game; GoTrump.com, and many more. Even his father had to bail him out with millions of dollars in his Atlantic City casino.

* He has lied as president over 10,000 times according to research done by the “New York Times” through October, 2019.

* His Foundation was ordered to be shut down in New York, and he just settled a lawsuit against him and the Trump Foundation by pleading guilty to using it as a front for various personal uses. He was forced to pay a $2 million fine and also had to agree to say that he was guilty of these acts; he then claimed in a tweet that he didn’t admit to his own guilt, even though it’s been publicly reported.

To go on would be bringing coals to Newcastle, or in Trumpspeak, hoaxes to fake news. So many passages of Sloman and Fernbach’s book speak to this baffling phenomenon. How could this wretched human being be president?

We could start with “People love heroes” (17). In the public eye, Trump is a successful business man who showed his business prowess on his television show, “The Apprentice.” He became a television star by saying “You’re fired,” week after week, satisfying on some subliminal level his fans’ frustrations with being underdogs, outsiders, or wannabes. That’s entertainment.

Watching Trump on television gave viewers, then voters, “the illusion of explanatory depth” (23). Just as about half of the people in experiments couldn’t even draw a simple bicycle correctly, we still have about 40% of the voters who think that they are correctly assessing Trump’s “depth.”

Trump loves to tell stories, about himself in praise, but mostly about others whom he characterizes with his made-up names: Crooked Hillary; Little Rubio, Lyin’ Ted, Pocahontas Warren, and most recently, Shifty Schiff. As the authors point out, “People see stories everywhere” (64). The authors further state:

A good story goes beyond just describing what actually happened. It tells us about how the world works more broadly, in ways that pertain to things that didn’t actually happen or at least haven’t happened yet…A good story has a moral that applies not just to this world but also to other worlds that we might find ourselves in. (64)

If you’re pre-disposed to see stories everywhere, even believing in “things that didn’t actually happen,” a vivid storyteller can woo you into believing things that are actually harmful to your well-being. It’s not that far a stretch to go from Jim Jones and his colony of Kool-Aid drinking true believers to a storyteller who wants you to believe that Russians didn’t interfere with our election or that climate change is a hoax.

Perhaps the most profound insight into understanding the Trump phenomenon is explained in the book’s section, “Committing to the Community” (160). Dan Kahan, a Yale law professor, argues that “attitudes are not based on a rational, detached evaluation of the evidence.” He suggests that “beliefs are deeply intertwined with other beliefs, shared cultural values, and our identities.” He goes on:

To discard a belief often means discarding a whole host of other beliefs, forsaking our communities, going against those we trust and love, and in short, challenging our identities…[I]s it any wonder that providing people with a little information about GMOs, vaccines, evolution, or global warming has little impact on their beliefs and attitudes? The power that culture has over cognition just swamps these attempts at education. (160)

Sloman and Fernbach do an excellent job identifying the problems we face in political discussions, and as I said, I couldn’t help but apply their theories to our current political situation.

But, what to do about it?

One solution they suggest is finding better political leaders. Consider this quotation: “A good leader must be able to help people realize their ignorance without making them feel stupid (192). Now, apply that concept to our two last presidential elections: In 2012, Barak Obama’s campaign slogan was “Yes We Can.” Uplifting. Now, think about what Hillary Clinton said about Trump supporters. She called them “deplorables.” She made many voters feel stupid.

Part of my criticism of “The Knowledge Illusion,” despite its many fine points, is that by mixing technology and science and philosophy and politics together, we get murky suggestions for solutions.

By the book’s end, the authors report that in spite of a common sense approach to solving the problem of ignorance—providing more education—that approach doesn’t work. And they give numerous examples of why that is true in the section “The Solution is Not More Information.” (240)

How then do we change beliefs? It begins with his recognition: “Individuals don’t make decisions by themselves. Other people formulate options for them, other people present those options, and other people give them advice…We should be thinking about decision-making from a communal perspective” (241).

From there, I found the authors’ suggestions for reducing what I was interested in learning more about, political ignorance, too illusive, ethereal, and just plain unworkable. For that, I was very disappointed. Here is one of the points they make that, while sounding practical, isn’t a blueprint for action:

It’s futile to try to teach everything to everyone. Instead, we should play to individuals’ strengths, allowing people to blossom in the roles that they’re best at playing. We should also value skills that enable people to work well with others, skills like empathy and the ability to listen. This also means teaching critical thinking skills, not focusing just on facts, to facilitate communication and an exchange of ideas. This is the value of a liberal education, as opposed to learning what you need to get a job. (231)

Noble goals, but what do we do first?

Wouldn’t we all like to find a way out of this political morass? Well, wouldn’t about 50.1% of us?

Even that isn’t the right question, because Hillary Clinton drew 3 million more votes in 2016 than did Donald Trump, equaling 2.1% more of the vote (thereby destroying the current political argument, we shouldn’t impeach him and go against the will of the people).

I should rephrase that question to say, “How do we go about getting 270 electoral votes? That is the question we really face going into 2020. That knowledge illusion is still up in the air.

Ron Powers

About powersron

I'm a member of the Tacoma Retired Men's Book Club.
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