Debunking the rational individual

You're only as smart as your community declare cognitive scientists Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach in The Knowledge Illusion

Published 3 years ago on Aug 26, 2017 Read

Appreciating the communal nature of knowledge can reveal biases in how we see the world. People love heroes. We glorify individual strength, talent, and good looks. Our movies and books idolise characters who, like Superman, can save the planet all by themselves. TV dramas present brilliant but understated detectives who both solve the crime and make the climactic final arrest after a flash of insight. Individuals are given credit for major breakthroughs. Marie Curie is treated as if she worked alone to discover radioactivity, Newton as if he discovered the laws of motion in a bubble. All the successes of the Mongols in the twelfth and thirteenth century are attributed to Genghis Khan, and all the evils of Rome during the time of Jesus are often identified with a single person, Pontius Pilate.

The truth is that in the real world, nobody operates in a vacuum. Detectives have teams who attend meetings and think and act as a group. Scientists not only have labs with students who contribute critical ideas, but also have colleagues, friends and nemeses who are doing similar work, thinking similar thoughts, and without whom the scientist would get nowhere. And then there are other scientists who are working on different problems, sometimes in different fields, but nevertheless set the stage through their own findings and ideas. Once we start appreciating that knowledge isn’t all in the head, that it’s shared within a community, our heroes change. Instead of focusing on the individual, we begin to focus on a larger group.

The knowledge illusion also has important implications for the evolution of society and the future of technology. As technological systems become more and more complex, no individual fully understands them. Modern airplanes are a good example. Flying is now a collaborative effort between the pilot and the automated systems in control most of the time. Knowledge about how to operate a plane is distributed across the pilots, the instruments, and the system designers. The knowledge is shared so seamlessly that pilots may not realize the gaps in their understanding. This can make it hard to see catastrophe coming, and we have seen the unfortunate consequences. Understanding ourselves better may help to create better safeguards. The knowledge illusion also affects how we should think about the most transformative technology of our age, the Internet. As the Internet becomes ever more integrated into our lives, the community of knowledge has never been richer, as vast, or as easily accessible.

There are other implications too. Because we think communally, we tend to operate in teams. This means that the contributions we make as individuals depend more on our ability to work with others than on our individual mental horsepower. Individual intelligence isoverrated. It also means that we learn best when we’re thinking with others. Some of the best teaching techniques at every level of education have students learning as a team. This isn’t news to education researchers, but the insight is not implemented in the classroom as widely as it could be.