We have an “almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.”
With that simple observation, the Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, writing in his landmark book Thinking, Fast and Slow, gets at the heart of how we create an illusion of understanding even when our knowledge is limited or based on false information.
The week after the redacted Mueller report was released to the public seems an appropriate time to explore Kahneman’s assertion. Everywhere one turns there are those making stronger and stronger claims based on less and less factual evidence, even when those facts are clear and in the public realm. One of the culprits is most certainly the way we now consume news. We skim or graze over news feeds from sources chosen by tech giants’ algorithms, so that we grasp only the barest of essentials run through a filter of group think.
In The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach argue that we vastly overestimate what we know (a point also made by Kahneman). Quoting Sloman and Fernback in a recent New Yorker article, journalist Michael Luo suggests that “our unjustifiably strong opinions are reinforced by other people who are similarly ill-informed, creating self-reinforcing communities of misinformation.”
“When group members don’t know much but share a position, members of the group can reinforce one another’s sense of understanding, leading everyone to feel like their position is justified and their mission is clear, even when there is no real expertise to give it solid support. Everyone sees everyone else as justifying their view so that opinion rests on a mirage.”
The illusion of understanding has been around since the human race began recording history in part because tribal alliances have existed just as long. In the 21st century we simply call them by different names—economic class, ethnicity, nations, political parties, race. Or perhaps we call them our Facebook friends.
One way to break out of the group-think mold that leads to this illusion is to take the time to read and learn outside your comfort level. Molly Ivins wrote a column aimed at journalists (later reprinted in her book Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She? ) that fits all of us in this age of misinformation. After calling on reporters to read at least one good newspaper a day, she then urged them to:
“Concentrate on opening your mind. If you are 55 and straight, read Rolling Stone. If you’re 25 and hip, Readers Digest. . . . You should be reading at least one good book a week—history, anthropology, sociology, politics, urban problems. If you were a fine arts major, read about economics. If you were a business major, find out about the ballet. I’m not joking about any of this. You have got to stretch your mind, further and further. The alternative is letting it congeal, harden, and contract.”
While reading a great deal, I am nonetheless susceptible to being influenced by others’ opinions and adopting them without critical thinking. In the end we are all responsible for setting our own boundaries as to what we’ll read and accept in this age when every media and tech company is using increasingly sophisticated methods to vie for our attention. Stretching your mind does require that we gather and absorb more knowledge. But whatever the approach to get there, we can all benefit by focusing on the pace and diversity of our diet of information.
In the next few days, consider cutting back on Facebook (or whatever your particular social media addiction) and pick up a good book on a topic you haven’t considered in a long time. See if it doesn’t help you stretch your mind.
Have a good week.
More to come…
Image: A portion of the current DJB “to be read” bookshelf