People are more ignorant than they think they are.
That’s the premise of Steven Sloman’s new book, The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, co-authored by Phil Fernbach. In it, the authors posit that the idea of individual thinking is a myth and that everything we know is due to the collective knowledge of others.
Steven Sloman is a cognitive scientist and professor at Brown University. We spoke to him about dangerous ideas, why we don’t know as much as we think we do and what it all means for academics.
In your book, you seek to answer some profound questions, namely, how is it that people can simultaneously bowl us over with their ingenuity and disappoint us with their ignorance? Is there a short answer to this?
The short answer is that individually, we’re relatively ignorant. We have very narrow bands of knowledge. But as a community, we know a lot. It’s the fact that we work as a communal mind that makes us intelligent and effective.
You talk about people not being able to explain how a toilet works. It’s not the end of the world if not everyone can explain that. But I think it becomes really dangerous when we venture into, for example, political territory.
The fact that I don’t know how a toilet works is irrelevant because I can just call the plumber. So you’re absolutely right in making the distinction between domains in which we agree on what the correct answer is, versus domains in which we don’t and where there are different communities that have competing views. And that’s when you do get real problems and that’s why societies, especially the U.S. and the U.K., are going through much of the strife that they’re going through right now. It’s the explanation for polarization.
In Chapter 7, you talk about technology. I thought technology was supposed to make us more knowledgeable, but is it actually making the problem worse?
It’s a real shame. The internet was developed with this dream that we’d all have great expertise at our fingertips and it’s devolved into something quite different. It’s creating echo chambers because now we don’t interact with the people around us who share different views, we’re picking and choosing the people we want to interact with. It’s more pleasurable to talk to people that share your views than people that don’t.
What makes it worse with modern technology is the extent to which it’s being individualized. So Facebook and Google are delivering to us what they think we want to see, based on what’s consistent with our world view, not based on stuff that’s antagonistic.
How does the theory you’re putting forward apply to academia?
First, academics should be aware of their own ignorance and narrowness of their expertise.
I will say that most academics—not all but most—do live by certain norms, for instance, the norms of science, which force you to test yourself and other people. If I’m in a lab meeting, we spend most of our time challenging each other and making each other justify our claims. That’s exactly what you need—to force people to work through the details and to say things that abide by the truth.
It also applies to teaching methods. There’s a fair amount of evidence that getting people to learn in group situations is a more effective way to teach and to get people to learn individually. You want to get people involved, not in the sense of doing something, but involved in the sense of interacting with others.
The mind is made to want to know how things work because it will predict the effect of what our actions will be. And so getting people to act is the natural way to learn because that’s what learning and knowledge are for.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Steven Sloman spoke at Engage 2017: The Conference for Higher Education Innovators. Watch his keynote, Ignorance and the Community of Knowledge, here.