Tuesday, February 28, 2017

We think we know way more than we actually do

The New Yorker for February 27, 2017, has an article, “That's what you think” by Elizabeth Kolbert. It is why humans think the way we do. Hint: it has to do with evolution, and fitting into society.  One of the parts of the article especially  intrigued me. Students were given a questionaire, asking them to describe how a toilet works.
The assignment, according to the author, “revealed to students their own ignorance . . . (Toilets, it turns out, are more complicated than they appear.)

“Steven Sloman, a professor at Brown, and Stanley Ferbach, a professor at the University of Colorado, are also cognitive scientists. They, too, believe sociability is the key to how the human functions or, perhaps more pertinently, malfunctions. They begin their book, The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, with a look at toilets. . . [they] see this effect, which they call the ‘the illusion of explanatory depth,’ just about everywhere. People believe they know way more than they actually do. What allows us to persist in this belief is other people. In the case of my toilet, someone else designed it so that I can operate it easily. This is something humans are very good at. We've been relying on one another’s expertise ever since we figured out how to hunt together, which was probably a key development in our evolutionary history. So well do we collaborate, Sloman and Fernbach argue, that we can hardly tell where our own understanding ends and others’ begins.”
That is fascinating, because I realized  many years ago what they are saying. The article did not mention cars, because I think I know a lot about cars, but I understand I know the functional, not the mechanical.  I can drive a car, maneuver in traffic, brake, read speed limit signs, traffic semaphores, and after 56 years of driving I have developed a sort of sixth sense of what other drivers are doing or are about to do. But if the car breaks down I need someone else’s expertise. All of the extra senses in the world won’t get a car running if the timing belt is broken, or the starter motor goes out. But then, unlike the toilet, which depends on gravity and some very easy to understand principles of plumbing, cars nowadays are full of computerized parts. Even the car experts need external help to figure out what’s wrong. I think most people understand they don’t know enough about modern cars to fix them...no more shade tree mechanics, for instance.

But the part about the toilet struck me, because I thought I knew what made a toilet work. When I looked it up online I was surprised at how simple it is, but someone had to think of it first. That person was most likely a genius in their time. “How Toilets Work”.

No comments: