What Do I Really Know?

KnowledgeillusionNot much, as it turns out, according to cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach. Their book, The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, begins with the gut-wrenching image of the detonation of Castle Bravo, nicknamed “Shrimp,” the largest thermonuclear device ever detonated by the United States. There was only one problem: the fallout was devastating, far worse than had been expected. Three times worse. The error was due to a misunderstanding of the properties of a major component of the bomb, an element called lithium-7, which was believed to be inert. Instead it reacted strongly when pounded by neutrons, decaying rapidly and giving off a destructive burst of energy. The winds were poorly assessed as well. Radioactive debris rained on nearby fishing boats for hours. Indigenous inhabitants of atolls in the area were irradiated. Pawns in the stupendously foolhardy game of war and hubris, they have never recovered.

With an inciting incident like that, the book promises much, and it delivers. Snippets:

The story illustrates a fundamental paradox of humankind. The human mind is both genius and pathetic, brilliant and idiotic.

Publisher’s Weekly says:

“In an increasingly polarized culture where certainty reigns supreme, a book advocating intellectual humility and recognition of the limits of understanding feels both revolutionary and necessary.

We all make assumptions about what we know versus what everyone else knows. But knowledge is not the competitive sport we have made of it. Fernbach, in an essay on LinkedIn, suggests we should all be asking more stupid questions.

In the context of where humankind seems to be headed, and what kind of world we are planning to leave to our children, that is something to think about. If we’re not to succumb to the moral injury that we are all privy to, if only as witnesses, we’d better do that thinking fast. The Knowledge Illusion seems to be saying that we’d best do it together.

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