The Knowledge Illusion

Today’s Free Daily Blinkist is The Knowledge Illusion by Steven Slomon and Philip Fernbach. I decided to give Blinkist another try, considering I have both a lot of time and a limited ability to focus right now. Blinkist is like Audible for minimalists. Or people with debilitating headaches. Either way, I thought I’d share with you what I learned.

  1. We think we know more than we actually do– this is called the illusion of explanatory depth. For example, just because we know how to ride a bicycle or use our zippers, we think we can explain how bicycles and zippers work. This extends to nearly everything in our life.
  2. The human brain did not evolve to store information– the size of human knowledge in computational terms is about 1 GB. That means the average human’s knowledge could fit on a 1 GB flash drive. This shows that our brains are not designed to function as repositories of knowledge. This is because there is too much information. There is simply too much to know.
  3. The human brain evolved for action and diagnostic reasoning– humans possess billions of neurons to enable effective action. What differentiates us is our ability to engage in diagnostic reasoning.
  4. We use storytelling to make causal sense of the world– reasoning from effect to cause is harder than reasoning from cause to effect, so stories are humanity’s way of making causal sense of the world. Stories make it easier for us to envision events.
  5. We reason both intuitively and deliberately– these are the two types of reasoning we use when answering a question or solving a problem. We use one or the other. Intuition is what makes people fall victim to the illusion of explanatory depth (see #1 above). Intuition is sufficient for day-to-day reasoning, but deliberation is needed for more reflective answers.
  6. We think with our bodies and the world around us– we do not need to memorize our physical surroundings or the world around us because we just need to look. In that way, we use our eyes to store this information. Our bodies react to the world to do something like catch a ball, count with our fingers, or solve complex math problems with pen and paper. This is called embodiment. Our emotions also hold information for us, signaling us to avoid or reach for certain things. Physical or emotional responses, therefore, fill in for knowledge.
  7. Our success as a species is the result of collective intelligence and the ability to collaborate– living with one another exerted mental demands on our ancestors, whose brains adapted and evolved accordingly. This made us better at communal living and navigating complicated social settings. There is a correlation between brain size and group size among primates; the bigger the group, the bigger the brain. This is how we evolved to effectively divide labor, therefore creating specialists to collaboratively perform complicated tasks. This is called shared intentionality; the specialists all share the same intention (like building a house, designing a rocket, etc).
  8. Machines can’t share intentionality– this is why it’s very unlikely a superintelligence will emerge. Machines may seem smart, but they simply have access to vast amounts of information they can process quickly. They can only do what they’ve been programmed to do.
  9. Fear of new developments can lead to anti-scientific sentiment– this can be hard to reverse. People fear what they do not understand. This is called the deficit model. The solution is to “fill the deficit” to help us be better informed. This is because the human mind falls subject to a faulty causal model, where we draw incorrect conclusions based on preconceived notions or false intuition.
  10. We can avoid groupthink by thinking causally– politicians simplify matters by appealing to sacred values. This is how they can promote policies that deserve closer scrutiny. When everyone around you believes one thing, it’s difficult to believe something else. One way to combat this is to fully understand issues, or come to terms with the fact that you don’t know issues that in-depth.
  11. We need to redefine smart and reassess education– most successful or prominent people had a lot of help, but we only remember the individual person because the whole story is too complicated to remember. As a result, we remember the oversimplified story of individual genius. To abandon this, we must redefine “smart” and reassess education. We should consider one’s collaborative aptitude and ability to engage and work in groups.


That was fun. Kind of. My headache is still pounding, as it does, but I guess I feel a little smarter? Definitely more accomplished than I did 20 minutes ago. Honestly, that Blinkist didn’t blow my mind and I do not feel particularly compelled the read the book. Maybe tomorrow’s will be better? Does Blinkist really have a daily free book? Awesome.

Until then…


Wife, yogi, and cat mama living in the SF Bay Area.

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