Why we pretend to know things*

*Thanks to Sean Illing for writing about Steven Sloman‘s work as a cognitive scientist in “Why we pretend to know things, explained by a cognitive scientist” published on Vox.com on November 3, 2017 here. I encourage you to read it.

This is my response to Illing’s provocative article mentioned above.

Most of us know that we’re living in information bubbles, especially those of us who frequently rely on social media (Facebook and Twitter) for our news diet.

But Steven Sloman, a cognitive scientist, provides a thoughtful explanation about our bubbles.

The author of The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think AloneSloman’s research focuses on judgment, decision-making, and reasoning. He’s especially interested in what’s called “the illusion of explanatory depth.” This is how cognitive scientists refer to our tendency to overestimate our understanding of how the world works.

The decisions we make, the attitudes we form, the judgments we make, depend very much on what other people are thinking,” he said.

So let’s take Donna Brazile’s “bombshell” that she dropped on Americans about the “secret agreement” in 2015 between the Clinton campaign and the DNC as an example.  Clinton agreed to make serious infusions of cash into the bankrupt DNC in exchange for control on certain DNC hiring and other decisions during the primary.

I watched the furor unfold on Facebook.  Bernie Sanders’ supporters roared “We knew the primary was rigged, and Donna’s disclosure has proven it.” Many heaped praise on Brazile for her “courage.”

Clinton’s supporters yelled “Treason” and “Foul play!” and quickly condemned both the message (“a lie” “every candidate signs the same agreement”) and the messenger as a self-promotional, treasonous bitch.

Steven Sloman says:

I really do believe that our attitudes are shaped much more by our social groups than they are by facts on the ground. We are not great reasoners. Most people don’t like to think at all, or like to think as little as possible. And by most, I mean roughly 70 percent of the population. Even the rest seem to devote a lot of their resources to justifying beliefs that they want to hold, as opposed to forming credible beliefs based only on fact.

Damn right, Steven.  I was shocked by the vituperative attacks against Donna Brazile, most led by Clinton’s supporters or Dem Party loyalists. I understood the self-congratulatory tone that many Bernie supporters took, but even they were disconnected from any facts. They don’t know (still don’t know) what kind of influence the Clinton campaign actually wielded on the DNC during the contested primary season.

I’d just finished reading Clinton’s memoir “What Happened” the night before Brazile’s “bombshell” landed. I wanted to give Clinton the benefit of the doubt and hoped that she, or her spokesperson, would provide a quick and thorough explanation to put the whole controversy to rest. I waited. And waited. Her spokesperson finally issued an unresponsive press release. Guess I shouldn’t have been surprised.

I watched as everyone formed their opinions about this “bombshell” and it was clear no one knew what they were talking about. Steven Sloman explains:

One danger is that if I think I understand because the people around me think they understand, and the people around me all think they understand because the people around them all think they understand, then it turns out we can all have this strong sense of understanding even though no one really has any idea what they’re talking about.

No shit, Sherlock!

But some people do try to rise above the crowd: to verify claims independently, to give fair hearing to others’ claims, and to follow the data where it actually leads. In fact, many people are trained to do that: scientists, judges, forensic investigators, physicians, etc. That doesn’t mean they always do (and they don’t always), just that they’re supposed to try.

Well, I pride myself for being an “independent thinker” — at least trying.  But I catch myself and kick myself for falling into “group think” and so I know it’s impossible to disentangle oneself completely from the sway of public opinion.

I applaud Steven Sloman’s goal and share it.

I like to live in communities that put a premium on getting things right even when they fly in the face of social norms. This means living with constant tension, but it’s worth it.

Now, what does this have to do with Israel / Palestine and Gaza, the subject of my blog?

Many self-described activists for Palestine will easily condemn Zionists and everyone else who cheers for Israel as thoughtless dupes who don’t know the “truth” about the 50-year occupation.

Many self-described Zionists will condemn the activists for being Hamas stooges and bleeding heart leftists.

Neither side will give the other any credit for exercising independent judgment and analysis. And now it appears, based on Steven Sloman’s work, both sides may have a valid point.

The Zionists stay within their circles chanting their mantras about the Palestinians, and Arabs generally, having a murderous intent to destroy Israel.

The Palestine activists remain within their “small” networks to prop up their feeling of “rightness” and “righteousness” in the firm belief that they know the truth.

The internet is clearly making it worse in the sense that we can reach out and form these online communities of fellow believers. And the fact that our news is getting individualized makes it much worse. So, even if I want to understand what the other side sees, Google is constantly feeding me the things I want to see.

And that’s bad for all of us.

In 2011, I decided to get out of my bubble, to visit Palestine and see for myself where the “facts on the ground” might lead me. I didn’t actually make it into Gaza until September 2012, but for the next nine months I learned a lot. I tried to keep an open mind. I questioned everyone, and more importantly, I questioned myself.

Now I’m writing a book about that experience.

Steven Sloman concludes:

People who are more reflective are less susceptible to the illusion. There are some simple questions you can use to measure reflectivity. They tend to have this form: How many animals of each kind did Moses load onto the ark? Most people say two, but more reflective people say zero. (It was Noah, not Moses who built the ark.)

The trick is to not only come to a conclusion, but to verify that conclusion. There are many communities that encourage verification (e.g., scientific, forensic, medical, judicial communities). You just need one person to say, “are you sure?” and for everyone else to care about the justification. There’s no reason that every community could not adopt these kinds of norms. The problem of course is that there’s a strong compulsion to make people feel good by telling them what they want to hear, and for everyone to agree. That’s largely what gives us a sense of identity. There’s a strong tension here.

My colleagues and I are studying whether one way to open up discourse is to try to change the nature of conversation from a focus on what people value to one about actual consequences. When you talk about actual consequences, you’re forced into the weeds of what’s actually happening, which is a diversion from our normal focus on our feelings and what’s going on in our heads.

Maybe Steven Sloman has the answer. Lets try to change the nature of the conversation and focus on the consequences in the Middle East of no justice, no peace, no resolution to the conflict.

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