Ben Goertz

The Illusion of Knowledge

There’s a simple experiment in cognitive science, easily self-administered, to measure how well we think we know something:

1. On a scale of 1 to 7, how well do you understand how X works?
2. How does X work? Describe in as much detail as you can all the steps involved.
3. Now, on the same 1 to 7 scale, rate your knowledge of how X works again.

The examples in The Knowledge Illusion include asking people to explain how toilets work. Amateur and professional bikers to explain how the peddles and chain are connected to bicycles (pro’s score poorly too). Everyday objects that we take for granted.

We operate with a level of hubris that’s beyond our abilities in many cases. Children remind you how little you understand the world when they ask “why?” Or for you to explain how something we think of as simple works.

How does a computer work? The Internet? Where do their favorite shows from Netflix come from?

There’s a section in Richard Powers’ latest novel, Bewilderment, where he captures in precise detail how data travels to our phones - he covers more than many technical books can capture in dozens of pages:

[...] mass cascades of error-correcting bits surged in waves of electromagnetic radiation around the planet's surface. They blasted in vertical geysers 35,786 kilometers upward into space and rained back down at 300 million meters per second. They coursed in bundles of parallel light through fiber conduits only to fan out in bursts of radio across the open air at the whim of tens of millions of grazing fingers coaxing electrons from hundreds of millions of spots on capacitive touch screens a few inches high. [The] streams were the slightest blip in the race's desperate search for mass diversion. As a fraction of the feed produced and consumed that day, a few hundred billion bits of information were like a single pip on the surface of a strawberry at the end of an eight-course dinner.

Powers has the magical ability to take extremely complex ideas and to thoroughly explain the technical detail while also capturing the core belief that we ourselves, individually and collectively, understand so little.

The Word for World is Forest

Explain how a tree works? A forest?

Powers pulls off an almost endless array of magic in The Overstory, but at it’s core, I think he reminds us how little we know about the trees we see everyday. Even as we imagine experts explaining how trees grow, adapt, share nutrients, and more, we are peeking into an ongoing system that has billions of years of secrets. We’re fools to think we can explain it - let alone predict, change, or above all “improve” the “management” of the forest.

I would love to find ways to capture with his level of precision the complexity of the technical systems we interact with as engineers but also find his underlying sense of humility. Collectively, we have a problem with imagining we know more than we do.