Plumbing Life’s Complexities (#328)

In the The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach investigate how our minds work by, of all things, a toilet experiment. We use toilets daily, but do we really know how they work?

Toilets, it turns out, are complicated. In a study, they asked graduate students to explain how toilets work. Most participants were confident they knew, but the study revealed just how much they didn’t know. Even after showing them how wrong they were about how toilets worked, participants continued to insist they knew a lot about toilets. Sloman and Fernbach refer to this as the “illusion of explanatory depth.” We assume we know a lot more than we really do. And this assumption comes from the evolutionary process. Throughout human evolution we’ve always relied on and benefited from other’s expertise. As new tools for living (like toilets) were invented, new ignorance was also introduced. That’s fine if we recognize our ignorance. But, for example, if everyone had to become an expert on glass blowing before anyone could use a drinking glass, then drinking glasses wouldn’t be used by many. This makes it hard for us to discern where our expertise ends and someone else’s begins. So, we simply learn to rely on others to make the toilets and drinking glasses and then we benefit from their expertise.

But it’s in other areas where our “knowledge illusion” can be more problematic. What if we’re not talking about toilets or drinking glasses, but the health care system? Then it does matter if I don’t know what I’m talking about. Sloman and Fernbach refer to a 2014 survey about Russia’s military takeover of Crimea and how the U.S. should respond. Participants were also asked to find Crimea on a map. The results? The farther off base respondents were geographically (the median was 1800 miles off base!), the more likely they were to favor military intervention. Similar results were found from other surveys. “Strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding,” they wrote.

What transpires from there often goes something like this: If my position on, say, fixing the health care system has no factual substantiation, but I insist it has merit, then my position must be groundless, even though I feel strongly about it. And when I share my opinion with another person and he concludes that I’m right, now his position also has no merit. And because there are more of us sharing the same meritless position, we believe we’re right because other people share our position. This is how passionate groups form around clearly false claims and then simply reinforce one another even though there’s no real basis for their position other than their strong feelings about it.

This is good for us to hear during Lent when we reflect, as the Ash Wednesday Litany in the Prayer Book says, on “the pride and hypocrisy of our lives.” At the very least, it should give us all pause when we start pontificating on an issue or event when we really don’t know the real complexities involved. Now back to toilets: I’ve been trying to repair our downstairs toilet for two years now. During that time, I’ve replaced every part, first on the inside of the tank and then the outside hose and water valve. It’s still not working right. “How complicated can it be?” I ask my wife, adding ” I can’t get it to work right!” Kelly shakes  her head and says to me for the 50th time: “Please, just call the plumber.”


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