Illusion of knowledge

Discernments of meaning and fact are needed in much of our ongoing social and political commentary. It does not help that language is often ambiguous and that much of what we read or hear (and, in this era of “deepfakes,” even of what we see) is simply not true. So how can we become more discriminating in our communication?

We should learn to ask ourselves and others two simple questions: What do you mean? And how do you know? In so doing, we will gain clarity and, hopefully, some civility as well.

A recent book by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, “The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone,” argues that our society suffers from a great deal of group-think, whereby Individuals repeat prevailing commentaries with the illusion of believing that they know what they are talking about.

Of course, a great deal of knowledge is derived from others, whether that comes from colleagues, friends, or from what we read and hear. But Sloman and Fernbach tell us that we often assume we know things when, in fact, we do not. For example, we may assume we know how a bicycle or a toilet works, but when asked to describe how in detail, we fall short or fail altogether. And that is as true in business as it is in politics or social conversation. Do you know how to distinguish what will work in your own business as compared to what many borrow from the latest management trends? How can we gauge the latest opinions voiced by our friends or the press, by our favorite or most despised political figure?

It also helps to read widely and thereby to examine differing perspectives and ways of expressing things more clearly and comprehensively. To name just a few of my favorite sources, I benefit from regularly reading the commentaries in The Economist and The Wall Street Journal and from perusing articles in Foreign Affairs now and then. These three are examples of very good writing and fine editing, and are good resources to sample when you are striving for clarity.

Indeed, reading good writing helps how one thinks about issues, expands the various meanings inherent in language about complex matters and points to what evidence, if any, actually exists to support various opinions. Most of today’s journalism can be better described as issue advocacy rather than factual reporting. Facts often are selected to support a point of view, and the complexity of issues is often hidden behind high-sounding statements devoid of substance.

So, to advance clarity of thought and action, begin by asking what someone means and, assuming they can answer that first question, follow up with what evidence they have to support what they are saying.

Save yourself the embarrassment of being no more than a reflection of group-think. Know what you mean and how you happen to know it.

Luis Proenza is president emeritus, the Trustees Professor of Higher Education and the Economy, and university professor at The University of Akron. He also serves as a Distinguished Fellow at the U.S. Council on Competitiveness.