The Illusion of Explanatory Depth

I read a lot of non-fiction books. Some I throw away and some stay on my bookshelf. Some stay on my bookshelf because they are good “in general.” Others stay there because of one or two “thought-nuggets.”

The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (Sloman and Fernbach, 2017) presented a nugget that keeps popping back into my head – the Illusion of Explanatory Depth.

Simply put, the Illusion of Explanatory Depth (IoED) is the phenomenon we experience when we think we know a lot about something because we are familiar with it. We form an opinion based on surface knowledge and don’t dig into our ignorance. We fool ourselves.  

Here’s an example from the experiment described in the book. Assume you didn’t see Q2 until you answered Q1.

  1. On a scale from 1 to 7, how well do you understand how zippers work?
  2. Describe in as much detail as you can all the steps involved in a zipper’s operation.

Silly example, right? Is your ignorance of the detailed working of a zipper really important? What difference does it make?

Now, step into the world of technology and politics and apply the same two-step process. I did, and I scared myself. Here are three examples of current-day issues to test yourself.

  • Cryptocurrency (e.g., Bitcoin) will become a de facto global currency in the next five years. Yes, or no? If yes, you should invest in it now.
    • Explain the assumptions behind cryptocurrency and how it works.  
  • Critical Race Theory (CRT) should be taught in high school. Yes, or no?
    • What, specifically, is CRT? What are the facts underpinning CRT?
  • We have the best healthcare system in the world. Yes, or no?
    • Can you explain the major components of the system, how they work together, and the “weak link” in the system?

We live in a country (world?) where opinion is more powerful than knowledge, politics rules over science, and the fear of “micro-aggressions” blocks learning.

According to Sloman, “The knowledge illusion occurs because we live in a community of knowledge and fail to distinguish the knowledge that is in our heads from the knowledge outside of it.” To put this in the vernacular, as Bill Welter says, “Don’t confuse me with the facts – I’ve already made up my mind.”

Digging deeply into your Illusion of Explanatory Depth is an opportunity to study your ignorance and then plan to learn about those things that are important to you and your organization. Either that, or General Artificial Intelligence will run your life in ten years.

Hmmm ………, what’s general AI?

Open the pod doors, HAL.  

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