David Myers

The Illusion of Understanding

Blog Post created by David Myers Expert on Sep 19, 2019

The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance—it is the illusion of knowledge.”

 

This wisdom, often attributed to American historian Daniel Boorstin, suggests a sister aphorism: The great enemy of democracy is not ill will, but the illusion of understanding. It is social and political opinion that, even if well-intentioned and sincerely believed, sprouts from self-confident misinformation.

 

Such is not the province of any one political perspective. Consider:

  • A CivicScience poll asked 3624 Americans if schools should “teach Arabic numerals as part of their curriculum.” Fifty-six percent answered “No.” Among Republican respondents, 74 percent objected; among Democrats, the number was 40 percent. (Do the respondents advise, instead, teaching Roman numerals?)
  • CivicScience also asked people if schools should teach the “creation theory of Catholic priest Georges Lemaitre as part of their science curriculum.” Democrats overwhelmingly objected: 73 percent opposed such teaching (compared with 33 percent of Republicans) … of the Big Bang theory.

 

Such ill-informed opinions—illusions of understanding—are powered by what social psychologists know as the overconfidence phenomenon (a tendency to be more confident than correct) and the Dunning-Krueger effect (incompetence not recognizing itself). And, as I have previously noted, illusory understanding—and what it portends for our civic life--matters because our collective future matters. Consider further:

  • When—despite plummeting violent and property crime rates—7 in 10 adults annually believe there has been more crime in the current year than in the prior year, then fear-mongering politicians may triumph.
  • When immigrants crossing the southern U.S. border are seen as oftentimes “vicious predators and bloodthirsty killers,” then—notwithstanding the somewhat lower actual crime and incarceration rate of immigrants—we will call for the shifting of public resources to “build the wall.”
  • When statistically infrequent (but traumatizing) incidents of air crashes, domestic terrorism, and school shootings hijack our consciousness—thanks to our heuristic of judging risk by readily available images of horrific happenings—then we will disproportionately fear such things. Gallup reports that nearly half of Americans (38 percent of men and 58 percent of women) now are “worried” that they or a family member will be a mass shooting victim. Feeling such fear, we may allocate scarce public resources in less-than-optimal ways—as when transforming schools into fortresses with frightened children—while being unconcerned about the vastly greater dangers posed by car accidents, guns in the home, and future mass destruction from climate change. (It’s so difficult to feel empathy for the unseen future victims of grave dangers.)

 

Red or blue, we agree that our children’s and grandchildren’s future matters. The problem is that democracy requires an informed and thoughtful populace. Democracy’s skeptics argue that most people lack the motivation and ability to do the needed work—to absorb large amounts of information and then, with appropriate humility and openness, to sift the true from the false. Consider our collective ignorance on such diverse topics as the U.S. federal budget percentage going to foreign aid (1 percent, not Americans’ average guess of 31 percent) to the mere 38 percent knowing which party currently controls the U.S. House of Representatives.

 

Such ignorance needn’t reflect stupidity.  Perhaps you, too, have rationalized: If the odds of my vote affecting an election or referendum outcome are infinitesimal, then why invest time in becoming informed? Why not, instead, care for my family, pay the bills, manage my health, pursue relationships, and have fun? Or why not trust the simple answers offered by authoritarian leaders?

 

Ergo, the great enemy of an informed and prudent populace, and of a flourishing democracy, is misinformation that is sustained by an illusion of understanding. But there is good news: Education matters. Education helps us recognize how errors infuse our thinking. Education makes us less gullible to conspiracy theories. Education, rightly done, draws us out of our tribal social media bubbles. And education teaches us to think critically—to ask questions with curiosity, to assess claims with evidence, and to be humble about our own understanding. Said differently, education increases our willingness to ask the two big critical thinking questions: What do you mean? and How do you know?

 

So three cheers for education. Education informs us. It teaches us how to think smarter. And as Aristotle long ago taught us, it supports civic virtues and human flourishing.

 

(For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com.)

Outcomes