Knowing What We Don’t Know

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Photo by Karsten Würth (@inf1783)

Knowing that you don’t know what you don’t know. Socrates declared that knowledge supreme a long time ago. Even earlier, a Hindu scribe had penned,

One believes in existence;

Another says, “There is nothing!”

Rare is the one who believes in neither.

That one is free from confusion. (Ashtavakra Gita 18:42)

Apparently, the hardest lesson for we human beings to learn is that we don’t learn our lessons.

A new name for an old insight is the Illusion of Explanatory Depth (IOED). Named in 2002 by cognitive scientists Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil, IOED describes the persistent illusion human beings have that we know more about more than we actually do.

In their research, Rozenblit and Keil would mention something mundane — a zipper, s refrigerator, a toilet, things of that nature — and ask people to rate their knowledge of how these mundane contrivances work. Almost everyone rated their comprehension of the various items highly, but failed miserably to explain how things worked. When asked to rate themselves again, people generally acquiesced to a somewhat lower rating.

We think we know how toilets work; we think we know how economies work; we think we know how international politics works. We think we know lots of things. In addition, it appears that the more available information we have, the more our mistaken confidence grows. For example, studies indicate that patients who have researched their malady online are less likely to listen to their physician’s suggestions.

A very good introduction to this phenomenon is the book The Knowledge Illusion by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach. Culturally, human beings have accumulated a lot of knowledge; individually, most of us are babes in the woods.

Far from the cliche of a scientism that pretends toward knowing nearly everything, taking scientific research seriously teaches humility. Keeping up with even one field of study — cognitive science for example — reveals that we don’t know as much as we think.

Cognitive research has demonstrated, for example, that we don’t actually remember events — we only remember the last time we remembered a particular event. We are continually changing our pasts.

Research also indicates that we don’t have coherent selves. That, too, is an illusion. We experience approximations of cohesion. The illusion of a cohesive self.

If findings such as these aren’t enough to keep you humble, humility probably just isn’t your thing.

Knowing that you don’t know what you don’t know. That’s freedom from confusion.

That’s called wisdom.

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