Ron Boothe Critique of The Knowledge Illusion

Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, The Knowledge Illusion, Riverhead Books, 2017.

The authors of The Knowledge Illusion are cognitive scientists. They use the term knowledge illusion to refer to the fact that humans often think they are more knowledgeable than they actually are about some given topic. This phenomenon can be measured in the laboratory as follows. First ask a subject to provide a subjective rating about how knowledgeable they think they are about some topic (high scores denote a belief that one is highly knowledgeable). Then ask the subject to write a description of their knowledge in as much detail as possible. After that task is completed, ask the subject to once again provide a subjective rating about their level of knowledge. When the two ratings are compared, a lower value on the second rating compared to the first is taken as a measure of the knowledge illusion for that subject on that topic. The rationale is that when subjects are compelled to sit down and put their thoughts on paper, they realize they know less than they had originally believed.

I consider this to be an interesting topic, but I found its coverage in the book to lead to more frustration than enlightenment. In the concluding chapter, the authors’ claim that the book has had three central themes: “ignorance, the illusion of understanding, and the community of knowledge.” (page 256) But one would be hard pressed to discover these three themes while reading the book. The book meanders from topic to topic with very little effort to explain how what is being discussed in one chapter relates to what is in other chapters, much less tying these topics into the supposed three central themes.

And the book creates much unnecessary confusion. For example, Chapter 11 advocates for an education system that emphasizes communal learning and trains people to rely on the knowledge of others more than on independent thinking. However, this seemingly ignores what had been earlier stated about the dangers of “group think” in Chapter 9. No attempts are made to relate these two ideas or explain why they are not contradictory. Examples such as this abound.

Another criticism has to do with failing to put important ideas into a proper larger historical context. That includes giving credit for where ideas originated. Consider a quote on page 105: “[T]he mind is not in the brain. Rather, the brain is in the mind.” I consider this to be an elegant and poetic way of expressing a potentially profound idea. However, this quote is not totally original. It is a paraphrase of a quote coined by William Mace to characterize theories of perception developed by the late psychologist J. J. Gibson: “Ask not what’s inside your head, but what your head’s inside of.” (Chapter 2 in Perceiving, Acting, and Knowing, edited by Shaw and Bradford, 1977). There is an extensive scientific literature regarding Gibson’s theoretical work on this topic, none of which is referenced in the Notes.

There are far too many examples of scientific assertions made in the book that are probably correct, but trivial. They do not pass what I would sometimes refer to when I taught Introductory Psychology courses as the grandmother test. By that I mean there is usually little value to be gained in conducting scientific experiments that simply demonstrate facts my grandmother, who did not even have a college education, already knew. Here is one (out of dozens I highlighted in the margins of my book) example: “It is futile to try to teach everything to everyone.” (page 231). Most likely true. But who would argue against this assertion? So what is the point of stating it? I think even my grandmother knew this without having to read an almost 300-page book. A few true but trite sentences in a book this long is not a serious issue, but they were so frequent as to become annoying for me. And other academics who provided the authors feedback about the manuscript before the book was published probably made similar critiques because in the concluding chapter the authors make attempts to explain, somewhat defensively, “Why write a book stating the obvious? (page 256)

My final criticism of the book is that it does not provide much in terms of an overall theoretical perspective. Without that background framework many topics discussed in the book appear haphazard and disjointed. For example, other than a couple fleeting paragraphs on page 223 there is almost no discussion about where our knowledge comes from. One theoretical perspective that would have allowed many of the seemingly disparate findings about knowledge to be better integrated is Evolutionary Psychology. In a future post I will discuss that topic in more detail. [here is a link]

Ron Boothe

About Ron Boothe

I am a Professor Emeritus at Emory University, currently living in Tacoma Washington USA.
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