Breaking ‘The Knowledge Illusion’.

The Knowledge Illusion, Goodreads.

How much do you really know? The Knowledge Illusion by Philip Fernbach and Steven Sloman suggests that you know a lot less than you think you do. It’s most valuable interventions are within and surrounding cognitive science; but there are lessons of value for you all, too. Particularly if you were educated recently and think humans use reason rationally and progress individually or competitively. 

Three things. 

Firstly – we’re all ignorant. 

Do you know how a bike works? If you saw an illustration of one with missing parts, you’d know which, right? Nearly everyone, on being shown the gaps in their knowledge, revises their self-estimation downwards. That’s the illusion of explanatory depth, and it applies to everything around us. 

What’s important enough to store, as well as how you intuit, partly depends on your values:; especially when it’s about society and politics. People form strong opinions on things, even without knowing about them. See American politics for countless examples. 

Secondly, embodied thought

It is not just our brains which affect how we feel and think. The rest of our body, and the world around us, has a role too.  

You don’t calculate the parabola of a ball that you are trying to catch. You check whether your gaze is rising at a constant rate – if it is, stay still and wait (WATCH THE BALL). Arachnophobics don’t consciously think: there’s a spider, might be poisonous, I feel fear. They see it and feel fear before even recognizing it. 

We’re not deductive machines, we’re physical beings. Yet most of your education will have assumed otherwise. 

Thirdly. People are quite literally built to collaborate.

And that collaboration is becoming increasingly complex as time passes on. The best way to successfully get things done in most environments in the modern age is through teamwork and mutual collaboration. 

We can measure collaborative ability in teams through something called the C-Factor, which is a better indicator of team performance on new tasks than combined intelligence (G).  

There’s too much complexity in the world to understand everything as an individual. As teams, we can understand more. 

Want to know more?

This blog post is part of a series I am making called Reading For The Aspirational Self. Don’t think of this as book summaries – I’m not doing that. Instead, I’m drawing out specific lessons that I find particularly interesting. And which I think could act, together, to help people who share my aspirations. If you, too, want to be present, family-centric, intrinsically motivated and polymathic, I can help.

  • The most distilled version of what I’m offering is a free mailing list designed for learning, “Think On Thursday” – each e-mail will include a lesson designed around the content. Click here for some information on that.
  • The series is also on YouTube in the form of 7-12 minute videos. Here’s the channel link – the video and transcript are below.
  • I’m tweeting excerpts from the videos, as well as some of the story of this project, how we’re doing it, and where it is going, on Twitter. @DaveCBeck

If you want to know more about The Knowledge Illusion take a look at Fernbach’s website here:

Starboard reflections,


This weeks video:-


How much do you really know about the world around you? The Knowledge Illusion a book by Phillip Fernbach and Steven Sloman suggests that you know a lot less than you think you do, about nearly every item around you It’s most valuable interventions for those who have an understanding already of cognitive science but there are lessons of value for all of you as well. Particularly So if you were educated recently and you still think that human beings are rational. 

In this video I’ll explore three things.  Firstly, the illusion of explanatory depth, which according to Fernbach and Sloman shows why we are all ignorant And this has important implications for things like democratic politics as well as our understanding of the world around us. Secondly, what they call embodied thought. It’s not just our brains and our rational thinking that affects how we feel and think the rest of our body and the world around us has a role too. Finally I’ll talk about collaboration We humans can share our intentions and attention with each other knowingly And when we work together in teams that are compatible and well -organized we can achieve great things. 

Let’s start with a question that seems like a really simple one. Do you know how a bike works? Just a normal ordinary pedal bicycle. Think about how that works for a moment. If you saw an illustration of one with some missing parts you’d be able to figure out which right? It turns out most people can’t. 

Most people think that they know more than they actually do about the everyday items around whether it’s a bicycle or the other example I remember from Sloman and from Fernbach’s book is the toilet. Most people can’t explain the siphon effect which is central to how the flushing toilets in most Western societies work. Most people can’t explain the selection of materials in either a bicycle or a toilet and many of the other everyday items around them. There’s certainly multiplies When you think about things like cameras phones and all of the other electronic gear around us now. 

Fernbach and Sloman call this gap in our knowledge where we can’t explain how things work ignorance. So for them following a lot of psychology what they’re saying is that human thought is orientated around causality. There are causal chains that link together all of the different things around us and what we remember, what sticks in our heads is only the bits of those chains that matter for us. So you know how to ride a bike. You might not be able to explain how the balance works how your ears help you to level out and things like that. But at the same time you can use the items around you. And that’s how human thought is for them designed to work. 

And the things that we don’t know are very interesting because they are often influenced by the values that we hold, our politics our wider opinions, the emotions we were feeling at the time that we first learnt those because many of these things have been taught to us in schools. They’re just forgotten theyre kind of So more in the memory banks that we can’t access at the moment. 

And this extends to politics too. So there was a survey by Pew research in 2012 about the affordable care act in which 76% of the public expressed a strong opinion one way or the other but only 55% knew anything about the act. People are expressing strong opinions about things that they don’t know. People know how to operate all sorts of  things that they can’t explain how they work And that’s what Fernbach and Sloman call the illusion of explanatory depth. 

You think you know more than you do about these everyday items. 

If a psychologist in the survey asked you to rank your knowledge about something like a toilet or a bike then before watching this you would have mistakenly said it was quite high. They would then have asked you some questions trying to underearth the causal chain and find your gaps in that causal chain find where you’re ignorant. And then when you self-rated again you would have ranked your knowledge lower and that gap between your  self-reported knowledge when you’re first asked about something and after you’ve examined your actual knowledge base that gap is called the illusion of explanatory depth. And it’s a really interesting concept to think about because we’re all guilty We all think that we know more about certain things than we do. 

The second thing that I want you to take away from Sloman and Fernbach regarding how people aren’t perfect reasoning machines is the importance of your body and your senses and the world around you in how you think and how you reason. So, a really simple example of this is imagine a ball has been thrown to you really way up high so it’s way above your eye line From a distance away and you’re trying to work out how to catch it. Nobody And I mean nobody is calculating the equation for the parabola of that ball thinking about forces like friction, gravity and doing the whole causal reasoning chain. Nobody does that. 

If your gaze is moving up at a constant rate and then back down at a constant rate the ball is coming towards you and you don’t need to move. You can just put your hands out and catch it.  For Fernbach and Sloman that’s proof that the world is doing computation for you, your senses and the way that you interpret the world around you 

The second one is spatial awareness. The second example I took away from this. So you probably have an idea of what’s around you right now even though you can’t see it. It’s partly stored in your memory and for them it’s the world being your memory banks as well. 

Another kind of interesting example for those of you who know mathematics and the alternative basis that you can use for counting  is based 10 that’s why we use base 10 because we have 10 fingers to count them. The way we order our numbers is determined by our bodies. 

The third example of this is that many of our emotional responses to situations and things come from a sematic memory. So that’s kind of an emotional memory that we have in response to a particular image or situation that occurs before our conscious thought about that situation. So if you see a spider and you’re worried about it or you’re worried about heights or you’re worried about open spaces some of those fears will actually come to you before you recognize that the thing is a spider. 

The emotions happen before the conscious thoughts that’s the important thing to take away. And of course they influence how you think about something So if you’re scared of spiders you’re less likely to be curious about them than um I don’t know an ant or something else that you see around you. 

That discussion of how we as humans aren’t perfect reasoning machines was a big shift over the last 20-30 years in cognitive science and the understanding of how human reasoning operates and the same kind of shift is now taking place or has been taking place in kind of 10-15 years in how we think about Artificial Intelligence in particular robotics too. So there was an older model of setting up artificial intelligence as a series of algorithms that can run on any kind of hardware kind of the same duality is mind body duality, for those of you familiar with Descartes  and that’s been replaced increasingly by the idea of embodied intelligence. 

Rodney Brooks was inspired by the way the animals sense the world around them and respond to them in all of the ways I’ve just been discussing because we’re animals too. And what he and the people since have been doing is looking at how senses as sensors for for robotics can be processed locally in different parts of the robot that you’re constructing and responded to so that they can make shifts in their behavior. 

Think about the robots you might have seen walking. So Boston dynamics is the best example in their dogs Um or think about robot vacuum cleaners 

Most of what I’ve been talking about there is of interest to people who have a passing knowledge in psychology or cognitive science or in computer science but probably seems a little bit far off to you but it’s important because the way you have been taught assumes that humans are perfect rational reasoning and we’re not. So you need to unlearn the idea that you’re rational. You’re not none of us are rational. 

That’s what one of the things that makes us human is the fact that we have emotions, we’re influenced by the things around us, we don’t  just use rational calculations to work out things like how to catch a ball, we can use our senses too And that shift is an important one because when you’re thinking about the decisions that you make. You need to take account of the fact that you’re not a rational being who has perfectly orientated goals and desires. And if you tick those off you’ll be happy. And we’re all a bit more complicated than that And opening yourself up to that complexity allows you to make better decisions for you as an individual. 

The third takeaway is around the importance of a community of knowledge of working together and recognizing that as individuals were ignorant whereas as a society and a group of experts we can know an awful lot more 

humans uniquely can share attention and intentionality. So we can share and know that we’re sharing a game between ourselves. Think of kids in the and the way that they indulge in make-believe play Uh those dinosaurs aren’t real. To use an example from this morning from my own children. And yet all three of my kids were playing quite happily with an imaginary dinosaur. 

We know we were experiencing the same thing and that’s important as people. And it’s what allows us to build according to this lemon and third back a community of knowledge. 

They use a range of historical examples to show that progress has generally come from collaboration. So, the idea of individual research has been the center of expertise has become unfashionable over the past 30-40 years, and the idea of collaboration and social conditions influencing how society and our knowledge has progressed is  seen as true now. 

That collaboration over time has become increasingly complex with broader and broader sets of people working on the same problem. Just think of the number of researchers who might currently be working on a COVID vaccine of various types and you’ll get some sense of the complexity of collaboration today. The same goes for many other things as well. 

And what happens when you have these big collaborative efforts and they work well is that you have a division of cognitive labor. So within a team who are working on a on a similar problem or or a single problem, each person will have their own expertise and bring that to the table. And what that that allows them to do is to ignore the things that other people are covering and focus their attention on what really matters to them and to their contribution that they’re making to this end. Ideas come from this kind of collaboration . 

given that knowledge is generated by communities We should think about how to measure The effectiveness of a team. And a business professor called Anita Woolley has come up with the idea of a C factor for groups of three or more. And the C factor is kind of the equivalent of the G factor in intelligence measure,. The C factor measures how well a team works together and collaborates includes things like social sensitivity within the group, and the dynamics of the group and how they operate how well they approach new tasks and things like that. 

And it was a far better perform better indicator of performance than the combined G factor. The combined intelligence of a that is the way that a team of people work together better determines the outcomes that they end up with than the combined intelligence of the group. 

Ignorance then is our natural state as individuals We don’t know all the details of the world around us and that’s not a problem because we have a society. 

All we need to know are the bits that apply to us how to pedal the bike or turn the electric engine on the bike, how to flush the toilet If you use flush toilets et cetera. 

If you know that you’re individually ignorant you can to some extent mitigate the illusion of explanatory depth. You can to some extent avoid what’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect where people who have a little bit of knowledge about something but very little overestimate their ability wildly. 

And the other thing that you could do is you can be grateful for the other people who have that knowledge that you’re lacking as an individual. You can recognize that society is an important thing That community is an important thing and that without working together as a society we can’t progress.