Murali N. Krishnaswamy reviews The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach

That human thinking, which is so powerful, can also be shallow is deeply discomforting. Delving into the fields of psychology, computer science, robotics, evolutionary theory, political science and education, cognitive scientists and academics, Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach take us on a journey that supports their thesis, while revealing multiple facets of human capacity.

The field of cognitive science took shape in the 1950s, largely to understand how the human mind works, and its history has shown that we have limitations. The mind, the authors add, is no desktop computer. It is a flexible problem solver and has evolved to extract only useful information. The result is individuals store very little information about the world. This is where the subtitle, ‘Why we never think alone’, kicks in.

Human thought, say Sloman and Fernbach, is a product of a community. In this, people are like bees and society a beehive. They argue that the communal nature of intelligence and knowledge explains why we often assume we know more than we really do, have steadfast opinions and hold onto false beliefs—which they have pegged to some illustrative and contemporary examples in science and politics—and usually end up nowhere when we adopt individually centred approaches to education and management.

In support of their argument, they say it is quite easy to disabuse people of their ‘knowledge illusion’. That modern cars, computers and air traffic control systems are complicated is something we accept, but what about a flush toilet? One may scoff at this. But to fully understand its mechanism, one has to harness one’s knowledge in ceramics, metals and plastic, then chemistry, the human body, and finally, economics and psychology.

The point of this is to show how we are more ignorant than we think we are. We suffer from ‘an illusion of understanding’.

The engaging style of writing teamed with supportive analogies do draw the reader to the book, but could set off…

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