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20200405 – The Knowledge Illusion




The main idea of this book is to reject traditional understanding of intellect, innovation, and achievement as product of individuals, their intellect and effort and provide the new paradigm: individuals are only a small part of bigger entity and it is this entity that does thinking, inventions, and all other staff. Authors also aim to supply some advice to individuals on how to realistically estimate one’s own deficiencies and mitigate them.


Introduction: Ignorance and the Community of Knowledge

This starts with description of one very important technical miscalculation: underestimate of power of thermonuclear explosion by factor 3 in 1954 that led to severe adverse consequences. From here authors define their purpose as such:” How is it that people can simultaneously bowl us over with their ingenuity and disappoint us with their ignorance? How have we mastered so much despite how limited our understanding often is? These are the questions we will try to answer in this book.”.

After that they provide a number of examples of how little people know about specific details of working even simple devices and present their view of “thinking as collective action” and knowledge as being distributed among community rather than being in individual domain. At the end of introduction, they express believe that understanding of knowledge and thinking as communal activity would help overcome American political divide, help people understand view of others, and make traditional believe in individual achievement much less influential.

ONE:  What We Know

Once again authors start with miscalculation of nuclear test, this time with chain reaction, which costed life to the person who worked on experiment and made mistake. Then they move to discussion of generally poor understanding of how everything around us work, starting with simple example of zipper about which many people mistakenly think they understand how it works. Then authors describe a number of psychological research experiments demonstrating typical illusion of knowledge. Authors discuss complexity of contemporary world and technology, concluding that individuals lack detailed knowledge of anything even moderately complex and only combined knowledge of multiple people allows humans to manage the complex world they live in, while maintaining illusion that they individually understand it.

TWO: Why We Think

This is about human memory and how important for it is human ability to forget in order to be able to act meaningfully without brain completely overloaded by unnecessary junk. Authors then discuss functionality of brain in animals such as jellyfish and conclude that even at the most primitive level it provides for serious evolutionary advantages. Then they move discussion to crabs and image recognition system in humans, which provide for very sophisticated capabilities, including ability to develop abstractions that contain enough information for effective action, while cutting off unnecessary details.

THREE: How We Think

This chapter starts with discussion of causality that seems to be required to establish link between events for animals, which is somewhat different from Pavlov’s idea of reflexes. Authors then move to well established causality of human reasoning and human use of logic. They also discuss reasoning forward and backward: from causes to effects and from effects to causes. They suggest that forward reasoning is much more natural and easier than backward. At the end they discuss storytelling as the way to pass causal information. However, it is also a way to mentally manipulate reality represented by the story trying counterfactual variation and looking at what would be changing.

FOUR: Why We Think What Isn’t So

Here authors discuss how humans common sensical expectation sometime contradict laws of physics, making it impossible to have correct expectations for something one has no experience with. Authors explain it by the fact that good enough understanding of many things in reality is better than detailed understanding of a few things. Then they discuss ideas of fast, intuitive and slow, in depth thinking. They present a bunch of psychological tricks and experiment results from Cognitive Reflection Tests (CRT) demonstrating this idea.

FIVE: Thinking with Our Bodies and the World

In this chapter authors retell the story of attempts to develop AI as symbol processing program on stand alone computer. Despite partial successes the overall attempts were not successful due to the both: insufficient technological level and poor understanding of human mind. Authors describe an interesting experiment when computer traced human eye, making meaningful test limited to the point of attention and mesh for surrounding text, which turned overall text into nonsense. Nevertheless, people thought that the text is meaningful. The inference is that people are modelling surrounding environment based on narrow glimpses on its parts and combining incoming information with preexisting expectations and assumptions. Authors also discuss wholeness of human perception when emotional condition of individual plays significant role in the way information received.

SIX: Thinking with Other People

Here authors ones again return to idea of community as one thinking and feeling entity bringing in beehive as example. They compare it to human communal hunting of big animals with complex division of activities. Then they move to evolution of human brain and hypothesis of social brain, which posits that big brain developed in order to maintain high levels of communication necessary to synchronize complex activity of many individuals. They discuss unique to human feature of shared intentionality based on the work of Michael Tomasello about human interactions versus apes. Then they move to contemporary teamwork and advantages and disadvantages of “Collective mind”.

SEVEN: Thinking with Technology

This chapter is about technological enhancement of human thinking and actions, current limitations of technology such as lack of shared intentionality and situational awareness in AI. Authors review in some detail status of most popular application and speculate a bit on future of human-computer integrated systems.

EIGHT: Thinking About Science

This chapter is about popular understanding of science and its deficiencies, which they demonstrate by presenting result of questionnaires. Somewhat unusual they do not blame people, but rather present hypothesis of why it is so: “Scientific attitudes are not based on rational evaluation of evidence, and therefore providing information does not change them. Attitudes are determined instead by a host of contextual and cultural factors that make them largely immune to change.” Authors then discuss integrated character of human believes and how human causal models impact their science understanding and provide a few typical examples such as vaccination and GMO.

NINE: Thinking About Politics

In this chapter authors apply their ideas to politics starting with example for Obamacare when people had strong opinions about Supreme Court decision and poor knowledge of details of this decision. From here they move to discuss the usual problem:” not that much what one does not know, as what one knows is not so”. They use example of political research when people estimated their position and knowledge of some ideas and then explain additional details causal implications. Authors claim that it resulted in move away from extreme positions to more moderate. Then they change it to discuss in details reasoning for position, rather than causality. This approach did not move people in any direction. Authors then move to ethics, using examples of morally repulsive suggestions with no negative consequences mainly borrowed from Haidt’s work. Theirs inference is pretty much that positions based on values are non-negotiable, while based on consequences are much more subject to compromise and resolution. At the end of chapter author discuss elite / democracy problem and, while not taking clear position, provide a number of examples of negative consequences of democratically defined decisions and reference to low levels of knowledge of average person.

TEN: The New Definition of Smart

This chapter is pretty much against “lionization of individuals”, even such iconic figures as Martin Luther King and Copernicus. Authors posit that any achievements of humanity are really collective achievements, rather than individual. They discuss human intelligence, its testing, and experiments that demonstrate superiority of group intelligence over individual.

ELEVEN: Making People Smart

This starts with experiment with a group of street kids in Brazil, comparing them with schooled kids and knowledge of math. Both groups were low on basic skills like reading big number, but street kids, who live by selling and buying staff, had much better operational math skills like adding and subtracting. The bottom line: humans develop knowledge by acting, not by listening to lectures, so formal schooling mainly creates illusion of knowledge. Authors suggest to allocate a lot more attention to teaching people identify limits of their knowledge, to know what they do not know. Authors end this chapter with discussion of improvement of group learning methods to make them more fit to individual role allocation in synch with individual abilities.

TWELVE: Making Smarter Decisions

This chapter starts with discussion of low levels of financial literacy and then moves to example of explanation of the value of modification of traditional Band-Aid. After discussing a few more ideas about information vs explanation, and nudging, authors provide check list for effective communications:

Lesson 1: Reduce Complexity

Lesson 2: Simple Decision Rules

Lesson 3: Just-in-Time Education

Lesson 4: Check Your Understanding

Conclusion: Appraising Ignorance and Illusion

Here authors summarize ideas of this book:

  • Ignorance is inevitable and should be mitigated by sober evaluation of one’s knowledge and skills
  • Intelligence resides not in individual, but in community
  • Illusion is as inevitable as ignorance and should be dealt with the same way: sober evaluation and understanding of one’s limitations.


For me it is a funny book because its ideas pretty much directly contradict my own believes that beehive or other usually used abstractions like state or society or whatever, do not have ability to think, feel, invent, and act. The funny part is that I generally agree that no human knows more than a very small part of existing information, could not survive without help from multitude of other people, and could not invent anything new without infinite number of previous inventions. I guess the difference is that where authors see one entity – collective, I see network of human individuals. Where authors see one will, intention, and actions, I see complex interplay of multiple wills, intentions, and actions some close to each other, pointing in the same direction, some diverse, pointing in different directions, and some completely opposite. Consequently, final result is combination when some actions amplify each other some counteract, and some even cancelling each other. In short, for me the object of analysis, understanding, and actions are individuals and their relations between themselves with action of the group being derivative of these complex processes. It seems that for authors the object is a group and both analysis and actions should be directed toward this abstraction.

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