In today’s NYT Book Review, Yuval Noah Harari reviews THE KNOWLEDGE ILLUSION: Why We Never Think Alone, by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach.
The review’s opening echoes Harari’s own work, e.g.
What gave Homo sapiens an edge over all other animals and turned us into the masters of the planet was not our individual rationality, but our unparalleled ability to think together in large groups.
The book is about how most of us know very little about how the world around us works. For every complex product or process, only the specialists truly understand it.
This is not necessarily bad, though. Our reliance on groupthink has made us masters of the world, and the knowledge illusion enables us to go through life without being caught in an impossible effort to understand everything ourselves. From an evolutionary perspective, trusting in the knowledge of others has worked extremely well for humans.
The problem is,
Consequently some who know next to nothing about meteorology or biology nevertheless conduct fierce debates about climate change and genetically modified crops, while others hold extremely strong views about what should be done in Iraq or Ukraine without being able to locate them on a map. People rarely appreciate their ignorance, because they lock themselves inside an echo chamber of like-minded friends and self-confirming newsfeeds, where their beliefs are constantly reinforced and seldom challenged.
And of course, the discovery in psychology of recent years, that laying out the facts rarely changes anyone’s mind.
Scientists hope to dispel antiscience prejudices by better science education, and pundits hope to sway public opinion on issues like Obamacare or global warming by presenting the public with accurate facts and expert reports. Such hopes are grounded in a misunderstanding of how humans actually think. Most of our views are shaped by communal groupthink rather than individual rationality, and we cling to these views because of group loyalty.
Is there a solution? The book’s authors, and Harari, doubt it. What will happen? My own speculation, as previously discussed: in many ways it won’t matter. We all get along through social contracts and interactions; no one person needs to know all that much; we depend on each other. Where it will start becoming a problem will be when people’s ‘beliefs’ in things that are not true affect the long term survival of their groups.