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The Knowledge Illusion

In “The Knowledge Illusion,” the cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach hammer another nail into the coffin of the rational individual. From the 17th century to the 20th century, Western thought depicted individual human beings as independent rational agents, and consequently made these mythical creatures the basis of modern society. Democracy is founded on the idea that the voter knows best, free market capitalism believes the customer is always right, and modern education tries to teach students to think for themselves.
Over the last few decades, the ideal of the rational individual has been attacked from all sides. Postcolonial and feminist thinkers challenged it as a chauvinistic Western fantasy, glorifying the autonomy and power of white men. Behavioral economists and evolutionary psychologists have demonstrated that most human decisions are based on emotional reactions and heuristic shortcuts rather than rational analysis, and that while our emotions and heuristics were perhaps suitable for dealing with the African savanna in the Stone Age, they are woefully inadequate for dealing with the urban jungle of the silicon age. ...
What gave Homo sapiens an edge over all other animals and turned us into the masters of the planet was not our individual rationality, but our unparalleled ability to think together in large groups. ...
A hunter-gatherer in the Stone Age knew how to produce her own clothes, how to start a fire from scratch, how to hunt rabbits and how to escape lions. We today think we know far more, but as individuals we actually know far less. We rely on the expertise of others for almost all our needs. ...
We think we know a lot, even though individually we know very little, because we treat knowledge in the minds of others as if it were our own. ...
From an evolutionary perspective, trusting in the knowledge of others has worked extremely well for humans.
Yet like many other human traits that made sense in past ages but cause trouble in the modern age, the knowledge illusion has its downside. The world is becoming ever more complex, and people fail to realize just how ignorant they are of what’s going on. ... People rarely appreciate their ignorance, because they lock themselves inside an echo chamber of like-minded friends and self-confirming newsfeeds, where their beliefs are constantly reinforced and seldom challenged.
According to Sloman (a professor at Brown and editor of the journal Cognition) and Fernbach (a professor at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business), providing people with more and better information is unlikely to improve matters. Scientists hope to dispel antiscience prejudices by better science education, and pundits hope to sway public opinion on issues like Obamacare or global warming by presenting the public with accurate facts and expert reports. Such hopes are grounded in a misunderstanding of how humans actually think. ...
In the coming decades, the world will probably become far more complex than it is today. Individual humans will consequently know even less about the technological gadgets, the economic currents and the political dynamics that shape the world. How could we then vest authority in voters and customers who are so ignorant and susceptible to manipulation? If Sloman and Fernbach are correct, providing future voters and customers with more and better facts would hardly solve the problem. So what’s the alternative? Sloman and Fernbach don’t have a solution.

- YUVAL HARARI, People Have Limited Knowledge. What’s the Remedy? Nobody Knows, NYT, APRIL 18, 2017


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