It's also important to poke the heart of a dead pigeon
Thank you! I laughed so hard with this - you are brilliant! Thank you for the tears coming out of my left eye - why not both? No idea. But thank you.
I felt so smart when I started to read this and so dumb by the end! Thanks for raining on my parade! LOL
As I was reading this terrific article, my husband, who is eating breakfast in the next room, had to ask what was making me laugh so much at 6:30am. (Yes, I am going to share it with him.) My husband did his PhD and postdoc in neuroscience, while his father was a psychoanalyst. Someone once asked the two of them how much they thought we knew about the human brain. My father-in-law guessed that we knew almost everything there was to know, while my husband thought we knew at most a percent or two.
I enjoy the way your writing always makes me think more deeply and connect threads I've been thinking about. Recently I've been frustrated that it seems like a lot of people I talk to are content with "common sense" explanations of things and when I try to dig deeper they stick to canned phrases to end the conversation. I always assumed it was arrogance/lack of curiosity, I never thought about it as a broader misunderstanding of how much we actually know. Plus I'm sure a lot of people feel safer not thinking about things because you could question things endlessly if you go down the rabbit hole.
Masterful story-telling. I love this one!
Thanks for putting "ignorance signals" & "illusion of explanatory depth" on my radar. There are meditation practices that put you in direct contact with them. Total lack of explanation, total lack of ignorance signals until you spend time practicing with it & noticing.
"Bring to mind someone you know"
"Now someone else"
"How did they come to mind? Why them and not someone else?"
"I have no clue"
"Do it again"
"Ok, I'm naming my high school class in alphabetical order"
"Great, how did you decide to start doing that?"
The toilet example is so fantastic for helping me understand just how ignorant I really am.
I also think the comparison to holding your breath is excellent. Seeing beyond our low resolution frameworks is like diving into painfully cold water, and our entire being rebels if we don’t know what the hell’s going on.
What keeps most things covered in a veil of ignorance is the fact that our brains are narrative in structure. The invisible narrative says quietly to us all day, “look at this, not that.”
There is no sane existence without narrative, so the wild explorers who dare to question how a toilet works are likely to be burned at the stake. And not for no reason.
Thanks for this excellent article.
Wonderful essay as always, but something's nagging at me:
There's a close set of relationships between people underestimating the complexity of something; underestimating or overlooking their own inability to speak adequately to the complexity of something, as demonstrated in Keil's study; overestimating the complexity of something (or overcompensating with false sophistication as in much of psychological science); paying attention to the wrong things while missing "ideas that are simply too obvious to see, obscured by our theories that seem to make more sense than they actually do"; and not recognizing when and where it's especially important to dig deeper and look harder.
I'm not sure the illusion of explanatory depth implied by the second is quite the same thing as this last problem of failing to look hard enough while contenting ourselves with folk understandings, which I'm tempted to call an illusion of explanatory *shallowness*. It's more like we set the bar too low for what constitutes a satisfactory level of detail, not simply that we overestimate our own understanding. How much knowledge of psychological phenomena, at what level of sophistication, is good enough to count as scientific knowledge and not dressed-up lay knowledge? How much do we really need to accomplish X? These are partly value judgments, even if they are influenced by what we've learned doesn't work.
Love this piece, partly because intellectual humility is a strong theme in my thinking. Also, because it speaks to an issue I have about something I call 'factism'. This is the idea that if we can establish enough facts about something we tend to overreach in thinking we know what to do. To illustrate; I had a moment with a scientist friend when I mentioned the new EU regulation about making products repairable. The response was 'aha, but manufacturers carrying extra spare parts comes at a high environmental cost, so that law won't do what they want'. All I could think was that the issue is probably much more complex than the carbon footprint of extra warehouse space.
A good article, but I think the premise is exaggerated for (good) effect. Mendel wasn't the first person to understand heredity, many people had bred plants and animals for generations for their desired traits. Mendel was after all working with domesticated peas which had been bred into specific lines for specific traits. What he contributed was some rigor and documentation to the process and formalized basic rules that people had been using for ages.
First off, I like the article! But I have a quibble with one of the opening propositions - for the first few thousand years, most inventions were math?? From the article: “it's pretty obvious that humans figured out a lot of math before they figured out much else.”
This seems completely wrong to me. For one thing, the Wikipedia page you link to notes down each field of math individually (and goes as deep as making the Fibonacci sequence its own bullet point), but then skips entire structures of knowledge, like agriculture, metalworking, irrigation, woodcarving, social organization, and all of the many, many sub-fields that go into each one of these. The pulley, the lever, the inclined plane, etc are all examples of sub-discoveries that should go under “construction.”
I don’t think this oversight ruins the premise of the article, but I would strongly suspect that if you somehow attached a measure to the “volume” of discoveries for the first X thousand years of civilization, you would not find math anywhere near the top.
I have a quibble that I'd make with the introduction - there's been a lot of empirical science that's been going on for a long time! And the increasing sophistication of geocentric astronomy from Eudoxus all the way to Hipparchus and Ptolmey, whose Amalgest is a pretty important scientific text, and the various Arabian schools of astronomy that preceded Copernicus.
As for Kant, iirc his main issue was with "rational psychology", trying to come up with a theory of the soul. But interestingly enough he's an important influence on cognitive science, the SEP has a good article analysing this.
Did no one ask about blood before Harvey? What was the illusory explanation prior people believed? Harvey doesn't claim that no one asked. He puts himself forward as an improvement over Galen. Specifically, he mocked Galen for believing that blood was continuously generated in the liver. Is this an illusory explanation? There is a common story that medicine had ossified around Galen, but my impression is that it had ossified into something substantially worse than Galen and one could do better simply by reading his actual beliefs. One could do even better by reading his beliefs about process, his rejection of dogmatism. While his specific beliefs were a regression from those of Herophilos and Erasistratus, he had the modesty to record their claims, perhaps as insurance in case they were correct, or perhaps as a record of process and progress. And they scooped Harvey in almost every detail. Similarly, I suspect Copernicus had the courage to reject Ptolemy simply because he read him.
Thanks for this post! Reminded me of a quote by Santiago Ramón y Cajal:
"It is strange to see how the populace, which nourishes its imagination with tales of witches or saints, mysterious events and extraordinary occurrences, disdains the world around it as commonplace, monotonous and prosaic, without suspecting that at the bottom it is all secret, mystery, and marvel."
This may seem trivial, but the use of BCE in this article to date things is elitist and screams anti-religion political correctness. Catholics invented the Gregorian calendar, discovered the need for leap year, and a correction to the calendar every 100 years. This was not obvious at the time, was a significant and important advancement, and has served humanity well for hundreds of years. Before Current Era (BCE) tries to negate that discovery and who made it. It does not encourage others to seek new knowledge, when it can be so easily hijacked and its discoverers forgotten for political correctness.
This is great! Minor quibble with the dark matter/energy examples -- I think these are more placeholders for observed phenomena that we don't really understand, and aren't really claiming to be complete explanations themselves.