The Illusion Of Knowledge

Did you know you have a blind spot?  When you look at the world there’s a small part of the image that your brain is inventing to fill in the gap in your retina created by the connection of your optic nerve.

Check out the example on this page to see part of the world disappear…

You Don’t See The Holes

Take any subject you know about.  There will be certain things that you know, certain things you don’t know, and a huge amount of stuff you don’t know you don’t know.  The problem is the ‘map’ of the territory we build is like a network of points and those points are either things we know, or things we know we don’t know.  The things we don’t know we don’t know don’t feature in the map since we haven’t labelled them.  We can only represent things to ourselves that we’re aware of.

knowledge map

Who Do You Think You Are?

Do you know how you ended up reading this blog?  A series of actions led to this event.  Let’s say they started with you waking up this morning.  Can you trace every single one of them back to the moment you opened your eyes?  Can you account for every minute of the day up until now?

When people get amnesia they don’t know they have it.  They assume they know what their name is, where they’ve been, what they had for lunch.  They only realise they don’t know those things when they’re asked a question and can’t retrieve the answer.

Perhaps assume is the wrong word to use since assuming implies an active state.  Let’s just say they’re surprised when they find out they don’t know the answer to a question to which they would expect to have one.

So, what were you doing immediately before you began to read this blog? How did you end up there? What were you doing before that?  Follow this train of thought back far enough and you will inevitably reach a point to which you can’t answer the question.  Even if you had a perfect memory, there comes a point at which it will develop holes (do you remember being born?)

ASSUME (makes an ASS of U and ME)

I have a clear memory of high school history lessons.  My teacher used to leave us reading a page of our history text book while he left the room (probably for a cigarette.)  When he returned he’d quiz us on what we’d read.

“Any questions about that page?”

The class would be silent.  That would indicate that they didn’t have any questions, and thus they’d understood everything they’d read.

“What does “glottal stop” mean then?”

The class would be silent.  This time because nobody knew the answer.

The first silence wasn’t because they were scared to ask a question, it was because they genuinely didn’t realise that they didn’t know what a glottal stop was.  When you’re reading you can often gloss over words without realising you’ve done it.  You might assume a general meaning of what you’ve read without feeling you need to know the exact definition of a word.  The problem is, if the meaning of the word is equivalent to “not” then you’ve assumed the exact opposite meaning to what was intended.

The example of Glottal Stop is one from my own experience (and probably doesn’t feature in many history books).  I was reading an interview with Ricky Gervais.  He said when he was growing up his father regularly hit him over the head with a glottal stop.  I didn’t know what a glottal stop was and I made the following assumptions…

1) It’s something you can physically be hit over the head with

2) It’s something that stops something.

From those assumptions I decided that it was probably something similar to a bath plug.  I pictured his dad swinging it round and clonking him on the head.  That seemed to fit well enough so I decided it would do.

Out of curiosity I then looked it up.  The dictionary definition is: “a type of consonantal sound used in many spoken languages produced by obstructing airflow in the vocal tract.”

Turns out Ricky was making reference to the fact that he was brought up in a household where people spoke with strong dialects – not that he was beaten as a child.

Finding The Holes

If a solid knowledge of a subject means uncovering the things you don’t know you don’t know, then how do you find those things?

I find the best way is to teach. If you have a thorough understanding of a subject then you’ll be able to explain it to someone else, and answer any questions they might have.  If you come across something that you’re not sure about then you add that question to your map as a “something I don’t know” and you can go and seek out the answer.

Many times I’d sit in a physics class feeling like I understood every logical step that was explained to me about how forces interacted to make a ball roll down a hill.  Then, when I had to figure out the answer to a homework question I’d suddenly realise there were many holes in my knowledge.

The feeling of real understanding while you’re in class is due to the teacher joining the dots of part of the map for you.  They show you step 1 and show you how that leads to step 2, and step 3.  The steps and the explanations make sense.  They’re logical.

What you don’t know is the rest of the territory.  What’s just to the left of step 1?  What happens if something is a little different in step 2?  True understanding is knowing what will happen when you make changes or do things differently.  You only find those out when you make those changes or if things come along that don’t perfectly fit the mould.

Experimenting and trying to put an explanation together from scratch to explain it to someone else are the best ways to learn the territory for yourself. Teaching a subject to somebody else makes you question “common knowledge.”

What’s the answer to “Why is it done this way?”  The answer is “Because, if you do it this way then this happens, and if you do it that way then that falls off and it doesn’t work”.

It’s done a certain way because that way works.  But you only know that if you’ve tried other ways.  You try those other ways because you’re curious and thorough, or because the questions arise in the process of explaining the subject to someone else.

The Illusion of Knowledge stops you from asking the questions required to really know the territory, and often to discover the truth.

“The greatest obstacle to discovering the shape of the earth, the continents, and the oceans was not ignorance but the illusion of knowledge.”

~ Daniel J. Boorstin


  • Taylor

    Great article and thoughts here Joe!