Whenever I crack under questioning, when the only answers I can muster are tortured strings of wells, ums and you sees, my interrogators like to make me squirm for 30 seconds or so before finally putting me out of my misery.
“Daddy, just Google it.”
You try satisfying my 9-year-old boys’ boundless curiosity about “What causes hurricanes?” or “Why is there war in Syria?” or “How come farts smell?” without eventually being told to seek digital assistance.
Unlike the other million ways my kids insult my intelligence, I’m grateful when they send me to search engines in shame. By forcing me to own up to the limits of what I understand about the universe, they help me, for at least a few fleeting moments of humility, to overcome one of the human mind’s most persistent and destructive biases, what psychologists call “the illusion of explanatory depth.”
Sure, I waded through Katrina’s floodwaters, edited dozens of stories on ISIS and shared in the bounty of 43 years of man’s flatulence, but, as my children proved, my actual knowledge of these subjects is middling at best. At least I’m not alone.
We all tend to mistake our shallow puddles of understanding for vast oceans, cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach write in their essential new book “The Knowledge Illusion,” and this gap between what we think we know and what we truly know leads us to bungle decisions at work, at home, at the ballot box and, perhaps most relevant to readers of this site, in our brokerage accounts.
America in 2017 is a stronghold of strongly held beliefs. Yet “public opinion is more extreme than people’s understanding justifies,” Sloman and Fernbach write, citing depressing studies that found many Americans with the firmest views on, say, the Affordable Care Act barely scratch the surface of understanding the law. In fact, those of us with the most inflated sense of our own knowledge and skills may perform the worst, a phenomenon that psychologists call the Dunning-Kruger effect — and that I call my early 20s.
We all tend to mistake our shallow puddles of understanding for vast oceans, cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach write in their new book ‘The Knowledge Illusion.’
Though experts are less likely to suffer from the illusion of explanatory depth, financial pros may be an exception, Fernbach told me — recent research shows that even professional investors may have only a superficial understanding of their holdings, “basically ignoring company disclosures and just going with their guts.” Interestingly, some amount of overconfidence in one’s financial smarts and predictive powers about the movements of the Dow DJIA, -0.04% may also be crucial for success, Fernbach said.
Still not convinced? Consider this humbling statistic: After a lifetime of learning, reading and working, the typical human brain accumulates roughly one gigabyte of information, psychologists estimate. If you think one gigabyte doesn’t sound too shabby — it is enough to hold a few thousand books or a few episodes of “The Simpsons,” after all — well, the total amount of information in the world is measured in zettabytes, each containing a trillion gigabytes.
It’s just no longer possible to know it all. Stranded on a deserted island, Robinson Crusoe singlehandedly recreates much of early 18th-century civilization. Strand me on an island, and I couldn’t recreate the Dark Ages, let alone build a Tesla — or a halfway decent espresso machine.
The knowledge illusion is worse than a mere failure to know what we don’t know; it’s not realizing how we know what we do know, Fernbach and Sloman say. No man, not even Crusoe, is an island. As social beings, we rely on the “community of knowledge,” not just the data stuffed into our own heads. I could not give you an in-depth description of how a toilet works, to use one of their examples, but I can call a plumber, or watch a bunch of YouTube videos.
Those already afraid of flying may be further dismayed to hear that no one on a commercial flight fully understands the aircraft, much in the way that a lot of the modern world is far too complicated for any one person to truly know. “Flying is now a collaborative effort between the pilot and the automated systems in control most of the time,” Sloman and Fernbach write. “Knowledge about how to operate a plane is distributed across the pilots, the instruments, and the system designers.”
We turn to the community of knowledge so often and so unthinkingly that we don’t even realize we’re doing it. As a result, our culture is premised on the worship of individual performance, and fails to recognize the degree to which we are all standing not only on the shoulders of giants but on the backs of our friends, family and neighbors, as well as our forebears.
“Bill Gates couldn’t have achieved what he did without the ideas and hard work of countless other people,” Sloman told MarketWatch. “So the fact that he was able to reap such huge rewards is an injustice, a failure of the system to assign credit fairly. The implication is that wealth disparities follow in part from our failure to recognize the community of knowledge.”
The world’s greatest community of knowledge, the internet, is probably only making the problem worse. Our failure to appreciate the degree to which we rely on others to know things is magnified by the universe of information instantly available in the palm of our hands, research by Adrian Ward, a psychologist at the University of Texas, found. In the country of the mind, the one iPhone is king.
WebMD makes us think we’re Dr. House. IMDB makes us think we’re Ken Jennings. These searches artificially inflate our “cognitive self-esteem,” Ward says. Surely, you can’t be Siri.
But the internet was made in our own image. Knowledge has always been stored in a human network, with each individual mind merely a node. In this way, the internet may also help us better appreciate how the community of knowledge makes our society possible.
So are my kids helping or hurting me when they tell me to “Just Google it, Daddy”?
As Socrates, a guy fortunate to have born 2,500 years before the iPhone, put it, “I neither know nor think that I know.”