Knowledge is a Community Effort

By Gareth Cook

Scientific American

“The Thinker,” Auguste Rodin’s bronze sculpture, has become a visual cliché, a common representation of deep thought — a figure, gazing down, chin on hand, completely alone. This is utterly misleading, according to the authors of “The Knowledge Illusion,” which carries the subtitle: “Why We Never Think Alone.” Steven Sloman, a professor at Brown University, and Philip Fernbach, a professor at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business, argue that our intelligence depends on the people and things that surround us, and to a degree we rarely recognize. Knowledge, they say, is a community effort.

People overestimate how well they understand how things work. Direct evidence for this comes from the psychological laboratory. The great Yale psychologist Frank Keil and his students first demonstrated the illusion of explanatory depth, what we call the knowledge illusion. He asked people how well they understand how everyday objects (zippers, toilets, ballpoint pens) work. On average, people felt they had a reasonable understanding (at the middle of a 7-point scale). Then Keil asked them to explain how they work. People failed miserably. For the most part, people just can’t articulate the mechanisms that drive even the simplest things. So when he again asked them to rate their understanding, their ratings were lower. By their own admission, the act of attempting to explain had pierced their illusion of understanding. We have replicated this basic finding many times, not only with everyday objects, but also with political policies. Matthew Fisher has shown that people overestimate their ability to construct logical justifications for their beliefs.

More indirect evidence comes from the simple fact that people are surprisingly ignorant. Fifty per cent of Americans don’t know that antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses; only a minority can name even a single Supreme Court justice. Rebecca Lawson has shown that people can’t draw a bicycle, even with substantial help. Yet people are surprised when they discover what they can’t do.

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Picture: Wittylama (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

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