The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (Paperback)
The authors detail how, until directly questioned, we believe we understand a great many things about the world. They stress that the world is simply too complex and full of too many details for one mind to master, so we often rely on intuition instead of deliberation. We operate under this "knowledge illusion" in part because we rely on the thoughts and expertise of others while rarely explicitly acknowledging this. As such, intelligence is best conceived as being spread over a community. We're always working in teams and always relying on an unspoken "division of cognitive labor" while attempting to achieve our goals. The knowledge illusion results in a host of problems when we attempt to deal with complex issues (e.g., climate change, the economy, politics). The book shines when the authors remain in the areas of their expertise. When they venture into philosophy and physics, their examples are scant and the issues they bring in become oversimplified. This criticism (or compliment), of course, is a good example of the main thesis of the book.— From Andy's Staff Favorites
“The Knowledge Illusion is filled with insights on how we should deal with our individual ignorance and collective wisdom.” —Steven Pinker
We all think we know more than we actually do.
Humans have built hugely complex societies and technologies, but most of us don’t even know how a pen or a toilet works. How have we achieved so much despite understanding so little? Cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach argue that we survive and thrive despite our mental shortcomings because we live in a rich community of knowledge. The key to our intelligence lies in the people and things around us. We’re constantly drawing on information and expertise stored outside our heads: in our bodies, our environment, our possessions, and the community with which we interact—and usually we don’t even realize we’re doing it.
The human mind is both brilliant and pathetic. We have mastered fire, created democratic institutions, stood on the moon, and sequenced our genome. And yet each of us is error prone, sometimes irrational, and often ignorant. The fundamentally communal nature of intelligence and knowledge explains why we often assume we know more than we really do, why political opinions and false beliefs are so hard to change, and why individual-oriented approaches to education and management frequently fail. But our collaborative minds also enable us to do amazing things. The Knowledge Illusion contends that true genius can be found in the ways we create intelligence using the community around us.
About the Author
Steven Sloman is a professor of cognitive, linguistic, and psychological sciences at Brown University. He is the editor in chief of the journal Cognition. He lives with his wife in Providence, Rhode Island. His two children have flown the coop.
Philip Fernbach is a cognitive scientist and professor of marketing at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business. He lives in Boulder, Colorado, with his wife and two children.
“In The Knowledge Illusion, the cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach hammer another nail into the coffin of the rational individual... positing that not just rationality but the very idea of individual thinking is a myth.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Sloman and Fernbach offer clever demonstrations of how much we take for granted, and how little we actually understand... The book is stimulating, and any explanation of our current malaise that attributes it to cognitive failures—rather than putting it down to the moral wickedness of one group or another—is most welcome. Sloman and Fernbach are working to uproot a very important problem... [The Knowledge Illusion is] written with vigour and humanity.” —Financial Times
“The Knowledge Illusion is at once both obvious and profound: the limitations of the mind are no surprise, but the problem is that people so rarely think about them... In the context of partisan bubbles and fake news, the authors bring a necessary shot of humility: be sceptical of your own knowledge, and the wisdom of your crowd.” —The Economist
“A breezy guide to the mechanisms of human intelligence.” —Psychology Today
“In an increasingly polarized culture where certainty reigns supreme, a book advocating intellectual humility and recognition of the limits of understanding feels both revolutionary and necessary. The fact that it’s a fun and engaging page-turner is a bonus benefit for the reader.” —Publishers Weekly
“An utterly fascinating and unsettling book, The Knowledge Illusion shows us how everything we know is bound together with knowledge of others. Sloman and Fernbach break down many of our assumptions about science, how we think and how we know anything at all about the world in which we live. Despite the wide-scale deconstruction, the authors are upbeat... Anyone engaged in the work of nurturing healthy and flourishing communities will ultimately have to wrestle with the questions posed in this book. Sloman and Fernbach help us to do so gracefully, acknowledging the truth of how little we know, and finding hope in this precarious situation.” —Relevant Magazine
“We all know less than we think we do, including how much we know about how much we know. There’s no cure for this condition, but there is a treatment: this fascinating book. The Knowledge Illusion is filled with insights on how we should deal with our individual ignorance and collective wisdom.” —Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of How the Mind Works and The Stuff of Thought
“I love this book. A brilliant, eye-opening treatment of how little each of us knows, and how much all of us know. It's magnificent, and it's also a lot of fun. Read it!” —Cass R. Sunstein, coauthor of Nudge and founder and director, Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy, Harvard Law School