People Have Limited Knowledge. What’s the Remedy? There’s None, Because it is Not a Disease.

A commentary on “People Have Limited Knowledge. What’s the Remedy? Nobody Knows,” by Yuval Harari, The New York Times, a review of The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach.

Do you know how a zipper works? You probably think you do, but you probably don’t. And this is the sign of a big problem, according to Sloman and Fernbach, authors of The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone — we have this tenacious illusion that we know stuff while, actually, it is we as a group who know, while we as individuals know very little (and are prone to manipulation, for this reason).

In one humbling experiment, people were asked to evaluate how well they understood how a zipper works. Most people confidently replied that they understood it very well — after all, they use zippers all the time. They were then asked to explain how a zipper works, describing in as much detail as possible all the steps involved in the zipper’s operation. Most had no idea. This is the knowledge illusion.

This illusion is not always a bad thing, reports Yuval Harari:

Our reliance on groupthink has made us masters of the world, and the knowledge illusion enables us to go through life without being caught in an impossible effort to understand everything ourselves.

Now, through a rather astonishing chain of reasoning, we are led from something like “we overestimate what we know individually because we’re profoundly enmeshed in groupthink, which is essential from an evolutionary perspective” to

How could we then vest authority in voters and customers who are so ignorant and susceptible to manipulation? If Sloman and Fernbach are correct, providing future voters and customers with more and better facts would hardly solve the problem.

And if you disagree, one reasoning goes, it’s because you have, yourself, fallen victim of the rationalist groupthink!

Another reasoning is that since people don’t like to feel stupid, they are not going to accept being proven wrong — look at Donald Trump!

Yet another reasoning is: you can’t tell everybody to think by themselves, because if they all do they’ll all act like each other — remember the idiotic crowd chanting “Yes! We’re all individuals!” in the Life of Brian!

These arguments obscure a few things — that is, they prevent knowledge of a few phenomena.

  1. Conformism is epidemic, but it is not equally distributed. In all groups, families, communities, there are people who find it hard to conform, because they can’t or won’t. Empathy, this other evolutionarily conserved feature of humans and other animals, acts to counteract the destruction of the weakest, the minorities, the divergent. And of their ideas and facts.
  2. Ignorance is not equally distributed either, and there is no clear demarcation between “those who know” (who would “provide future voters and customers with more and better facts”, in Sloman and Fernbach’s words) and “the voters and customers”. In a scientific community, each scientist learns the art of asking the right persons the right questions or services. In a family, one type of question will spontaneously lead everybody to turn their eyes on Nancy, who knows this kind of stuff, and another one will turn the family’s inquisitive eyes on Mark.
  3. Loyalty to our own group’s groupthink can be good, even when it entails believing falsehoods. Believing that you know how a zipper works when you don’t is innocuous, unless you’re MacGyver (then it can be lethal), but if you believe, along with many others, something that is untrue, say, that fluoride in drinking water is used to pacify the population “like the Nazis did in concentration camps”, to “inactivate your third eye organ, the pineal gland”, you will eventually strike people’s imagination enough to block fluoridation in your area — and protect everyone from the probable negative effects of a lifetime exposure fluoride on cognitive functions (Philippe Grandjean, from the Harvard School of Public Health, et al., 2015).
  4. Some people do lie to mislead, and many people would rather believe these lies than confront a complex reality that would make them feel stupid or worse. Right, but haven’t we learnt there’s something more profound going on there? When Trump lies (I know what you’re thinking right now), he’s sending a message about truth and about will. He’s allowing his followers to commune with him in the celebration of the Triumph of the Will over intelligence, facts, those petty things that got us nowhere. This dimension of communication is what made Bernie Sanders so astonishingly successful in so little time — it was a call to emotion (not only, but the ingredient was essential), despite of all the facts of the very reasonable people in the New York Times and the Washington Post, and pretty much all the media. (Needless to say, Sanders is as truthful as Trump is deceitful, but what they have in common is this ability to strike the chord of belief, against the apparent rationality of the holders of the status quo). We are not only error-prone, we have an ability to believe things that go against established facts.
  5. Finally, and because we all have this experience of wasting our time on social networks arguing with people who are impermeable to our facts, and considering all that has been said above, how rational is it to argue, only armed with facts, with people who are loyal to their group and have emotions under the surface that they just won’t let go? It isn’t. What is rational, in these circumstances, is to take care of your group members so that your groupthink becomes better, more attractive, more contagious than the opponent’s. Forget about the filter bubble and the echo chamber — engage with your friends and kindred spirits, make them use better “illusions”… and soon you’ll remember that even within groups one would expect to be homogeneous, there are people who know some things better and make the group evolve, there are non conforming people who are given some room regardless, there are facts and ideas that are not supposed to be part of your groupthink. Your group is lively, and could be even livelier. The mistake is to be focused on “the evil liars” and “the stupid sheeps” when your group needs your help to strengthen and vanquish the “the evil liars” and “the stupid sheeps”.