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The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone Paperback – March 13, 2018
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“Sloman and Fernbach offer clever demonstrations of how much we take for granted, and how little we actually understand... The book is stimulating, and any explanation of our current malaise that attributes it to cognitive failures—rather than putting it down to the moral wickedness of one group or another—is most welcome. Sloman and Fernbach are working to uproot a very important problem... [The Knowledge Illusion is] written with vigour and humanity.” —Financial Times
“The Knowledge Illusion is at once both obvious and profound: the limitations of the mind are no surprise, but the problem is that people so rarely think about them... In the context of partisan bubbles and fake news, the authors bring a necessary shot of humility: be sceptical of your own knowledge, and the wisdom of your crowd.” —The Economist
“A breezy guide to the mechanisms of human intelligence.” —Psychology Today
“In an increasingly polarized culture where certainty reigns supreme, a book advocating intellectual humility and recognition of the limits of understanding feels both revolutionary and necessary. The fact that it’s a fun and engaging page-turner is a bonus benefit for the reader.” —Publishers Weekly
“An utterly fascinating and unsettling book, The Knowledge Illusion shows us how everything we know is bound together with knowledge of others. Sloman and Fernbach break down many of our assumptions about science, how we think and how we know anything at all about the world in which we live. Despite the wide-scale deconstruction, the authors are upbeat... Anyone engaged in the work of nurturing healthy and flourishing communities will ultimately have to wrestle with the questions posed in this book. Sloman and Fernbach help us to do so gracefully, acknowledging the truth of how little we know, and finding hope in this precarious situation.” —Relevant Magazine
“We all know less than we think we do, including how much we know about how much we know. There’s no cure for this condition, but there is a treatment: this fascinating book. The Knowledge Illusion is filled with insights on how we should deal with our individual ignorance and collective wisdom.” —Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology, Harvard University, and author of How the Mind Works and The Stuff of Thought
“I love this book. A brilliant, eye-opening treatment of how little each of us knows, and how much all of us know. It's magnificent, and it's also a lot of fun. Read it!” —Cass R. Sunstein, coauthor of Nudge and founder and director, Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy, Harvard Law School
About the Author
Philip Fernbach is a cognitive scientist and professor of marketing at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business. He lives in Boulder, Colorado, with his wife and two children.
- Publisher : Riverhead Books; Reprint edition (March 13, 2018)
- Language: : English
- Paperback : 304 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0399184368
- ISBN-13 : 978-0399184369
- Item Weight : 8.8 ounces
- Dimensions : 5.44 x 0.73 x 8.22 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #171,381 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
- Customer Reviews:
Top reviews from the United States
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The only thing that tempted me to give it 4 stars was what I thought was a lack of advice on how to deal with these problems. Many pages were spent explaining how human thinking is fragile and how this results in bad effects. But there was very little discussion about how to proceed with this understanding. What are some practical ways to improve the knowledge system so individual ignorance has less of an impact? How does this apply to bosses/managers? Community leaders? Parents? Social Media?
I would welcome a second book about that topic specifically - now that you know all the problems with how we think and where knowledge is actually stored, here are some practical strategies for making the most of it!
1) Poor scientific foundations
These authors claim to offer "a better way to think about how we think" (back cover) but seem unclear about basic biological principles. This first struck me early on, when they referred to cancer cells as "microscopic organisms" (pg. 29), but I gave a pass and kept reading. Such errors grew less cute as they multiplied. True, the authors refer to themselves as cognitive scientists, not as biologists or neuroscientists, but an unfailing grasp of modern biology should be required for any modern scientist (of any kind) who claims unique insight into the thinking of biological entities as complex as human beings.
2) Regular self-contradictions
This can be summarized with an example. On page 40, the authors write: "No plant evolved cells that can organize into networks to process information." On page 41, they write: "You can think of the Venus flytrap as a kind of information-processing system." Self-contradictions like this are so frequent and stark that I was cringing with embarrassment after the first few.
3) Weak claims made with weasel language
Again, I'll let an example do the talking. From page 61: "Even though we're not great at diagnostic reasoning, our ability to do it may be what makes us human. There's hardly any evidence that any other animal can do it." No book on any modern scientific topic should be allowed to get away with these kinds of empty sentences. This book is packed with them.
4) Self-unaware writing
On page 71, the authors (both based in the U.S., according to the book jacket) write "whether or how our governments should engage in the Middle East" seemingly without considering that some readers of this book might, in fact, be citizens of governments in the Middle East. On page 49, they write that when one of the authors "sees dinnertime in his future, he hangs around his wife because she is responsible for preparing dinner in the family." And so on. This kind of writing is deeply tone-deaf and implies a sort of clueless privilege that should give pause to readers of a book that, again, purports to offer "a better way to think about how we think" (back cover).
5 and 6) Cliched content and significant repetition of simple ideas
The latter would have been served by slashing the former. Every good idea in this book could have fit into 100 pages.
I wish I could say that any of these issues were isolated or rare. They were not. The book is full of them, and as they piled up, the compounded effect was that I eventually stopped reading the book, somewhere around the halfway point.
The only reason this book gets two stars is that it did, in fact, provide me with a few moments of genuine thought. But not enough to make me finish the book.
1. We don't know much at all.
2. We think we do.
3. Problems result.
Oh, a few other things:
1. There's a community of knowledge.
2. By being a member of that community, we have access, in some ways to that knowledge, but access does not equal possession. However, we think it does.
3. Problems result.
1. People don't like lengthy explanations.
2. People like stories, false though they may be, and put great credence in them.
3. People seek causal explanations, but can use only those cause motivators with which they're familiar (hence gravity doesn't exist, but a rock thrown up loves the earth and seeks to return to it)
4. Experts opine on areas over which they have little expertise (like me, perhaps, here)
5. Ignorance = illusion = bliss until ... too late! And even then, who to blame?
There's more, here and there, but really, the authors have provided us with a book replete with lengthy examples that are repetitive, and hide the fact that there is little original research, and less original thought here. It is just a rehashing of (largely well publicized already) behavioral science work from the last two decades. And not much of it - we have death by story/example. Of far greater interest might be such works as:
Thaler's Nudge (which is referred to by the authors)
Wilson's Strangers to Ourselves (about the adaptive unconscious)
Ariely's Predictably Irrational (about mistakes we make, and make again)
Surowiecki The Wisdom of Crowds (how groups are smart ... if not always smart!)
These, but for the last, are about individual, not group decisions and behavior. And not about the fact that we don't know what we think we know. But they cover more material per page, and will result in a better "illusion of explanatory depth" for some of the ways we behave.