The Knowledge Illusion

as a species we stand out because of our capacity to think in unique ways we know things in ways that no other species on earth is capable but individually we suffer from many misconceptions about what we know and how we know it some have called these misconceptions illusions because they're so widely shared and so hard to shake in this video we're gonna explore some of these illusions our title the knowledge illusion is inspired by a recent book of the same name by cognitive scientists Stephen Sloman and Philip fernback some of the examples we'll look at are discussed in early chapters of this book but the authors are summarizing work done by a number of different researchers as we'll see let's start with this simple question do you know how a bicycle works do you know what a functioning bicycle looks like let's quantify this a bit if I asked you this question how would you answer on a scale of 1 to 7 how well do you understand how bicycles work one represents the lowest level of understanding 7 the highest or if this helps you could say the lower end of the scale represents a very shallow understanding the middle range represents partial understanding and the upper range represents deep understanding ok now let's test your knowledge here's a sketch of a bicycle it's got some missing parts there are parts of the frame missing there are no petals and there's no chain so your task is to complete the sketch by drawing in the missing parts so that the resulting picture describes a functioning bicycle and to simplify things let's use these conventions use straight lines for the missing parts of the frame use this petal graphic to represent the petals and use a dotted line to draw the loop of the chain I invite you to pause the video right now and pull out a piece of paper and a pencil and try this exercise without looking at a reference just off the top of your head it sounds like an easy enough task but like I said I encourage you to actually try it now here's a different version of the test multiple choice we'll work through the bike in stages of these four pick the drawing that best describes the frame of a functioning bike one of these choices is correct remember at any time you can pause the video if you like now let's do the paddles where did the pedals go on a bike one of these is correct the others are wrong and finally the chain which configuration will give you a functioning bicycle now as you might have suspected this was a real experiment done with real people a group of over 200 undergraduate psychology students in fact but before we get to the results let's take a second look at that earlier question having gone through this exercise and thought about it a bit on the same scale of 1 to 7 how would you rate your understanding of how bicycles work ok now let's look at some examples from our undergraduate students where they had to draw in the missing parts of the bicycle here's one where the pedals are attached to the front wheel and the chain goes around both wheels and notice if you think about it that you can't turn the wheel with this arrangement it'll knock the chain off oh and by the way this study group was quite familiar with bicycles within this group over 96% had learned to ride a bike as children and over 50% of this group currently owned a bicycle and of course most of us see people riding in bicycles on a regular basis we have for years even if we don't ride one ourselves so it's a familiar machine to most people here's another one yes someone put the pedals up there and again the chain is going around both wheels this one is lovely but the chain again is around both wheels same problem again here and we've got pedals again on the front wheel these bicycle configurations just won't work now just to refresh your memory here's what a real bicycle looks like the pedals attached to the frame in between the wheels and the chain loops around the axle of the back wheel and the crank of the pedals the chain always stays aligned with the frame of the bike and the front wheel can turn freely now you might think that you would do fine in this test but let's look at the results of the study we can thank psychologist Rebecca Lawson at the University of Liverpool for this great illustration of the knowledge illusion it turns out that about half the students in her study were unable to complete the drugs correctly some errors were more common than others the chain seemed to be the hardest to get right not surprisingly they did better when given the multiple choice options where one of them was the correct answer but even here the rate of mistakes was much higher than you would expect she did the test with a group of regular cyclists from a local cycling club and thankfully the error rates were much lower among this group these are people who pay attention to how their bicycles operate if changed tires and fixed chains with their own hands and here's a remarkable result she did the test with a group of non cyclists people who don't regularly ride a bicycle or own a bicycle and she gave them a real bicycle to look at to reference while completing the drawing and there were still a decent number who made mistakes 12 percent from this group did not get the chain right now what about the confidence that people have in their understanding of how bicycles work after they've gone through the exercise of trying to explain how they work well Rebecca Lawson didn't actually measure this explicitly in her study but there are many studies that do measure shifts in confidence when asked to explain how something works the general effect is that a statistically large percentage of people start off with a higher estimation of their understanding and then they come to realize that their understanding is in fact more shallow and incomplete than they had thought and they revised downward so someone estimating a 6 to begin might revise downward to a 3 afterward and people are generally surprised at their inability to explain how this familiar thing works they didn't expect this you see the surprise in the comments of any of the students who took the bicycle test thinking about it in more detail I realized I had no idea about its structure I thought I knew more about the workings that I actually did I can't believe I found it so difficult to remember what a bike frame looks like I never knew how little I knew about things until I had to draw them this phenomenon has been called the illusion of explanatory depth we think our understanding is deeper than it is again it's a statistical effect so it doesn't affect everyone equally but it is a strong effect you'll see it if you ask people to explain how a zipper works how a flush toilet works how piano keys work how a speedometer works how a sewing machine works how almost any common device with visible parts works if we don't actually work with these things on a regular basis our tendency is to dramatically overestimate our understanding of them you also see this effect if you ask people about their understanding of more abstract but otherwise common topics like how compound interest works what a genetically modified organism is what are the parts of an atom and how are they organized how the greenhouse effect works what the symptoms of depression are this illusion of understanding this knowledge illusion appears for just about everything now I want to clarify that the point of these demonstrations is not to show that we're ignorant the point is to show that we're more ignorant than we think we are we're subject to an illusion of understanding an illusion of knowledge that makes us overconfident about what we know more confident than we should be now at this point it's reasonable to ask what am I supposed to do with this information how is knowing about the knowledge illusion going to help me become a better critical thinker a better argument ninja well there's actually a lot that we could say about this but for now I'll just point out two things the first is that becoming aware of our vulnerabilities and our limitations as thinkers as cognitive agents is an important part of the process of improving the quality of our thinking and decision-making we need to know what our limits are and the limits of other people so that we can develop strategies for avoiding the problems that come with overconfidence the second point is that now that we're aware of the knowledge illusion we're in a position to ask a question that would never have occurred to us before the question is why are we subject to this illusion why is it so central and so pervasive actually this is the central question of the book by Steven sloman and Phillip fern Bach and the subtitle of the book hints at the answer the knowledge illusion why we never think alone we never think alone we're going to talk about this more as we move through the argument injure program but here's the basic idea we as individuals acts least or very little detailed information about the world in our brains to solve problems and to guide action we sample information contained in our brains but we also sample information contained in our bodies our bodies are constantly relaying information about our internal state and our physical situation back to our brains our thoughts and feelings and conscious mental states all depend on information flow between the brain and the body and not just the body human cognition also exploits information in the environment outside the body if I want to know what's behind that tree I can move my body to sample new information I don't need to represent all that information in my head and when it comes to knowledge in thinking human being is store vast amounts of knowledge outside our brains and bodies in artifacts in information systems which we learn to access when we need it the fact is that cognition isn't something that happens solely within the confines of our skulls brain activity and cognition are not the same thing brain activity is necessary for cognition but cognition thinking perceiving remembering imagining feeling is not a property of brains in isolation from their environment it's a property of brains situated in and dynamically interacting with bodies which are themselves situated in and dynamically interacting with environments and there's one more important level that we need to include we also store information in other people I don't need to know everything about bicycles if all I want to do is ride them if I need to know more there are people I can ask if I need my bike fixed I know that there are experts who can do that for me what I need to know is how to access this knowledge this expertise that is stored in the community this division of cognitive labor is central to how human societies work and at an even higher level there's the information stored in the culture at large in our language in our institutions in our literature in the media in a diverse knowledge practice of humanity the ecosystem of information and ideas that is continually expanding and that we are now learning how to access in a usable form through technology like the internet now with this new perspective in mind we can see why the knowledge illusion is so pervasive the fundamental mistake is that we think about personal knowledge what I know would you know in terms of what's inside our heads and what we can articulate and explain at any given moment without any supporting aids or access to outside sources this is a mistake because it assumes that there's a sharp line between knowledge that is inside and outside our heads but there is no sharp line another way to put it is that we fail to realize that all the knowledge available to us in this picture is not available to us in this picture and we're surprised to discover this we're surprised to discover that on our own we can't explain how a bicycle works the truth is that we as individual human beings in isolation from the environment and a community of fellow human beings have only a fraction of the knowledge and intelligence that is available to us through our participation in the collective mind the hive mind of society in culture this is where the brilliance of humanity is located in the extended mind of community technology and culture now if you want to read more about this whole approach to studying knowledge and learn more about some of the interesting details about how we make judgments about what we know I do recommend the book by Steven Sloman and Phil fern Bach in the context of the argument ninja program one of my goals in these white belt lessons is to lay a foundation for future learning and an important part of that is developing awareness in this case awareness of our cognitive limitations and the limitations of other people and awareness of how our minds work so that we can be in a better position to develop strategies to avoid errors improve our thinking and become more effective persuaders and communicators you

12 thoughts on “The Knowledge Illusion”

  1. Maybe all that time spent on social media and worrying about meaningless things like sports and entertainment, has a little to do with it.

  2. This is such a major piece to the puzzle of becoming an adult after highschool and in life in general as well. Another great tool for the tool box of life.

  3. In a study by a sociological research institute in the Netherlands, the researchers asked white Dutch citizen what percentage of the Dutch population is muslim. The average of the answers was 19% muslim. In real amount of muslims in the Netherlands was 6% of the population. This massive overestimation was seen in countries all over Europe.

  4. Dear, Kevin deLaplante, nice videowork. I champion your cause, thank you. First sentence needed clarification; fuzzy and asserting facts not in evidence. Several species solve problems as a human might; Crows, Squirrels, Primates, and so on. Fuzzy from the start. Would delight in reading/hearing the relevant /germane Operational Definitions> Knowledge; Knowing to which you refer in this video. IF that had been in place then NOW your comparisons/differences and other processes can make at the least, visually clearer sense to me. Much of this investigation is not so much asking for qualities of visually knowing a 'bicycle' but more that you are making evaluation of their Knowing based upon their ability to produce Visual abstract representations of an external object in this case "a proper mechanical bicycle" …. So would a person with an Eidetic or Idyllic Memory who had seen yet never ridden a bicycle and could perform your testing without error, would They then to have what is meant in this video by knowledge of a bicycle? Or just what a bicycle looks like? Start off with Operational Definitions of topics, etc, please and thank you. Keep 'a goin. Sincerely, B.B.

  5. Greetings Mr. deLaplante,

    “Learn HOW to Think, not WHAT to Think,” right? Well, isn’t framing or priming, to some degree, telling someone WHAT to Think?
    So based upon lessons using critical thinking and avoiding logical fallacies, a student would first:

    1) UTT (Understand The Task)
    [Which was to see what they know about a bicycle—in general.]

    2) Ask: In context with this course, why this task from this person?

    3) With 2) in mind, recall that although it’s unethical to trick a student, it’s often acceptable for the experimenter to mislead them (really, a distinction without a difference). So, be extra careful.

    4) If there’s no time limit, don’t rush. I.e., just ‘cause someone might not immediately know the answer, this does not mean they are stupid or don’t possess knowledge.

    5) Using 1), 2) and 3), attempt to formulate an answer before looking at the suggestions/answers.
    [In this case, attempt to draw a bicycle instead of attempting to complete your drawing.]

    Now after imagining a bicycle from various angles—including riding one, I drew a bicycle. In fact, I drew several. I asked myself: Would it work? And although not engineering you’d see in the tour de France, I got it right.
    But, what did I notice after comparing my bicycle with yours:

    A) Your initial drawing is 2D. I was wise to ignore it.

    B) It’s too symmetrical as compared to a typical frame.

    C) You drew a short separate seat post line which angles down and to the left; i.e., it aligns with the seat stays (which there would be two); the seat post goes inside the seat tube (which there be only one). This, in my opinion, could be misleading!

    I’d respectfully suggest if the experiment were conducted differently, more people would include all the main parts—and in the correct places.

    Ask someone to attempt drawing a bicycle first. Then, give them a drawing which shows:
    – the seat stays (in 3D) down/back and to the left at a 45 degree angle;
    – the short seat post down/forward to the right at a 20 degree angle;
    – the forks (in 3D) down/forward to the right at a 20 degree angle.
    – And, please, do better with the handlebars. 🙂

    ☯ yYM ☯

  6. there are mistake cycology? maybe psycology

  7. Performing this test with an odd shaped bicycle for starters messes up the mind. For example if the seat was slightly tilted left in the original drawing I believe you would have more people complete the drawing. Because most bicycles have a direct connection from the seat to the pedals and the seat that can be adjusted up and down. With the current drawing adding a seat post would hit the wheel and you can't go down to the pedals without breaking the angle you stated us with.

  8. I thought my understanding of bikes was 3 out 7. Then draw scheme correctly. Then proceed to think that my understanding is 3 out of 7. Looks like I'm depressed.

  9. Very interesting, this sounds to me like the Dunning-Kruger effect.
    also there is the opposite effect,
    when we know more, we feel we know less and less. so people who knows more feel they know less,
    and the ones who knows less feel they know more 🙂
    how this relates to the knowledge ilusion?

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