The Myth of Knowledge

14 Apr

People frequently overestimate how much they know. They also confidently share things they don’t know.

But why?

One reason is social desirability—the motivation to appear knowledgeable in front of others and perhaps ourselves (our ability to fool ourselves deserves closer inspection). Another is that conversations are typically not carried out for any epistemological purpose but for emotional and social purposes. So we make up things because the truth is unimportant, at times even a hindrance. For example, envision a conversation where both parties profess their ignorance. The conversation will be pretty short. Fencing yourself within what you know means you can’t discuss many salient topics.

For two, lay conjecture often suffices when the audience is ignorant. More generally, the propensity to make up something depends on the speaker’s assessment of chances of getting caught, which is a function of the audience’s knowledge, sympathies—towards the speaker or the topic being spoken about, and volubility, which in itself may depend on the status difference, among other things. But as any professor will tell you—students happily make things up even when they are in the presence of experts. So the rate of decline in propensity to make up stuff as the chance of getting caught increases is low, and the absolute level of propensity to make up stuff is high. It is also likely that the confidence with which people typically say such ‘lies’ is an attempt to cover up their ignorance as confidence is taken by others at its face value: as a sign of surety about facts. Thus, never seriously threatened by their ignorance, people build a somewhat more positive assessment of how much they know.

But can it also be that people think that lying about their ignorance is only a minor transgression? Do people have this innate belief (which rarely gets challenged) that somehow when they speak, they will be able to be right; some sort of a ‘God bias’ — that they will be the exception to making sense without knowing?

The modern era of knowledge production has brought its own challenges. First, the rate of production of knowledge has exploded. And as the rate of production of knowledge accelerates and the rate of learning stagnates, relative ignorance increases, which I take is the case. But not only has the rate of knowledge production exploded but so has the complexity. Increasingly substantive discussions about important areas of human activity (public policy more broadly but say health, fiscal policy, etc.) need more sophisticated thought and deeper immersion in the wealth of knowledge that has been produced.

It is often said, often without a whoop of surprise, ‘the more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know.’ But why would that be? Are limits of knowledge so obscure that they cannot be known by the proverbial (and now the literal) average Joe? In fact, it is easy to deduce one’s ignorance. For example, we are surrounded by phenomena that we can’t describe well, much less explain. To infer our mean level of knowledge, we may want to do the following: recognize the fact that even in areas where we claim expertise we often fall short, hence we must really know very little about the things we don’t spend time learning.

The point about the limits of our knowledge is broader and not there to malign the average Joe. There are real limits to what humans can achieve. Think about the following: If one were to read a book a week for the next 50 years, one would end up reading 2500 books. If the smallness of the number surprises you, then let that be a lesson. The point allows me to segue into the next one—the myth of being well-read.

The Myth of Being Well-Read

Often, people confuse being well-read to mean reading a few bad books poorly. To be well-read, one must satisfy three criteria: 1) have read at the very least ~250 (arbitrary low number) books; 2) a substantial majority, if not all, of which ought to be good—literature or non-fiction; 3) and they ought to have been read well.

The 7-step program for correctly classifying yourself as well-read or not

  • Only a few people (<< 1%) are well-read. Do you think you are in such an elite company?
  • Force yourself to list as many books that you have read in the past year (or life). If that number is less than 10, you may not be well-read. Apply this to specific areas as needed. For example, you may ask yourself whether you are well-read in political science.
  • Alternately, think hard about how many books you bought or checked out from the library last year.
  • If you catch yourself citing one book repeatedly, whenever the topic of books comes up during conversations, you are unlikely to be well-read. In the U.S., it is typically The Catcher in the Rye, though that may be changing — Harry Potter, Dan Brown, Twilight series, etc. may be the new ‘go-to’ books. For a colleague of mine, it is White Noise. In some circles, it may be some Malcolm Gladwell or Thomas Friedman’s book.
  • Relatedly, if Harry Potter, Blink, Atlas Shrugged, Catcher in the Rye, etc., are among your favorite books, it is unlikely that you are well-read.
  • If you are younger than 21 (or typically 25), you couldn’t have read much. There are a few exceptions. They help make the rule.
  • Count the books you own. If you don’t own more than 50 books, you are unlikely to have read much.