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Discourse That Isn't: The Knowledge Illusion

While it’s clear our 21st century failures of conversation are largely due to shortcomings of the online world, there is something fundamentally human that we have yet to ‘evolve’ out of: we think we’re smarter than we are.

The most well known example of this is the Dunning Kruger Effect, named after psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger. For those that haven’t seen this chart, it conveys the level of confidence individuals have in their knowledge of any given topic. We can see that there are two groups of people who are the most confident: 1. Experts in a given domain 2. People who have heard of something, but understand it very little.

This effect is explained by the fact that one’s “...metacognitive ability to recognize deficiencies in one’s own knowledge or competence requires that one possess at least a minimum level of the same kind of knowledge or competence, which those who exhibit the effect have not attained.(Source) In other words, without a sufficient level of understanding of a topic, you don’t have the tools to understand how little you actually know about that topic. This inability to assess our own beliefs leads to great levels of confidence in ideas that oftentimes can’t be fully supported.

Another great example of our overestimation of our intelligence is The Illusion of Explanatory Depth, recently expanded on by cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Phillip Fernbach. Having spoken with Phil (listen here), he explained to me that people tend to believe we understand more about the world than we actually do. While interestingly, he would claim that this inability to fully grasp our surroundings has contributed to our social reliance on those around us, I am making the claim that this same mechanism is, in fact, damaging the structure of our modern conversations. While the research indicates that individuals who are asked to explain particular concepts are often faced with the recognition of their limited understanding of a topic, the (post)modern world ultimately limits the amount of time spent facing our misapprehensions.

In a world of self-reliance, doing one’s own research, and attempting to fully grasp concepts that are likely far more complex than we initially think, we increasingly fail to capitalize on our shared social knowledge.

  • Rather than referring to experts of anthropology about the development of human societies, we may instead listen to those we trust in our personal lives, regardless of their lack of expertise on the topic.

  • Rather than embracing scientific consensus on our climate, we may cling onto one niche “expert” in an attempt to justify our personal notions of truth based on our own limited knowledge of the field of study.

  • Rather than watching debates of individuals presenting opposing evidence with an open (albeit critical) mind, we may simply latch onto the view that makes us feel better about how we already view the world.

  • This list could go on forever…

It’s clear from these well-studied phenomena, and others like them, that we are not as smart as we think we are. In a world where technology, algorithms, and more are forcing us into like-minded and incredulous in-groups, it’s only through humility, self-reflection, and open-mindedness that we can have productive, civil dialogue in our modern world.


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