Book Review - The Knowledge Illusion

ICSA Today, 9(3), 2018, 23-24

The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone

By Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach

Reviewed by Doug Duncan

Riverhead Books, 2017. ISBN-10: 039918435X; ISBN-13: 978-0399184352. (hardcover). $17.98 (; $11.74, paperback; $12.99, Kindle). 304 pages.

At first glance, one might not think of The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach as a book about cults, but reading it caused me to reexamine some of what I thought it means to be in a cult. In particular, I have spent a lot of time studying critical thinking in general and groupthink specifically since exiting my cult. I thought if I could understand the pathology of groupthink, I would better be able to understand what happened to me and how it all fell apart. However, after reading The Knowledge Illusion, I now see that groupthink is really the norm for humans. All of us are participating in groupthink. Perhaps the point is not so much about whether groupthink is a pathology as it is about examining whether you are thinking as part of a pathological group.

The authors begin in the introduction by looking at how thinking as a group can go terribly wrong. Of course, human history is replete with examples of this, from wars to space-shuttle explosions; but the authors chose to examine the test explosion of a nuclear bomb on Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean on March 1, 1954. In spite of the fact that the people involved in planning this test were, presumably, among the smartest people around (they were, after all, nuclear scientists), the explosion that day was three times as large as what the planners anticipated, with catastrophic consequences for the crew of a nearby Japanese fishing vessel who endured being rained on with radioactive debris for several hours—in spite of the fact that they were at a distance from the test that the U.S. Navy declared was safe. The authors ask, “How is it possible that people can simultaneously bowl us over with their ingenuity and disappoint us with their ignorance? How have we mastered so much, despite how limited our understanding often is?” (p. 3).

To answer these questions, the authors begin by drawing on the latest understanding in psychology and neuroscience to look at what we know, why we think, and how we think—in fact, those are the titles of the first three chapters. Taking the first question, it turns out that each of us individually knows much less than we think we do.

The authors take some time to illustrate how shallow our understanding is of many things that surround us, even though we think we understand these things. For example, how many of us truly understand how a flush toilet really works? Certainly, some of us do, but not everybody. What about how a ballpoint pen actually works? We all think we understand these things, but what we really understand is how to use them, not why they work. Fortunately, that is not necessary for most of us to know, because the people who specialize in those branches of knowledge are able to produce these goods while they depend on the rest of us to specialize in and produce other things. Indeed, the system works pretty well most of the time; but very few of us have anything other than a shallow understanding of things in which we do not specialize.

Why should this be the case? Why do we not understand everything around us? Because, argue the authors, thinking is not about understanding, it is about action:

Thinking evolved as an extension of the ability to act effectively; it evolved to make us better at doing what is necessary to achieve our goals. Thought allows us to select from a set of possible actions by predicting the effects of each action and by imagining how the world would be if we had taken different actions in the past. (pp. 10–11)

In an evolutionary context, this all makes sense. Beings who are adapted to take the best course of action are the ones who are most likely to survive. The authors point out that “Storing details is often unnecessary to act effectively; a broad picture is generally all we need” (p. 48). In other words, we do not need to understand (in terms of our modern lives) how to manufacture a toilet, only how to use one. As long as we can do that, we can use our precious brain power for other priorities.

So what do we use our brain for? In the chapter entitled, “How We Think,” Sloman and Fernbach describe what we do as “causal reasoning.” We are constantly figuring out what will happen if we take some action or another. “What we do is excel at reasoning about how the world works” (p. 53). Unfortunately, we are still quite limited in how deeply we understand why things work as they do, but we are skilled at predicting outcomes in spite of our lack of what the authors term “explanatory depth.” How are we able to do this? The authors go into a lot of explanation about how our thinking extends outward into our bodies, our technology, and even our communities. They go back through some of the contrast between intuitive and deliberative thinking that has been explored in great depth by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow.

Most of the time, the type of thinking we do works pretty well for us. We are able to interact with people, take care of our homes, and do our jobs. We learn from the stories told by our communities about how we should behave and what the consequences would be if we choose to behave badly. However, there is a potential downside to all of this when our communal or cultural stories are maladaptive.

If we become a part of a cult, for example, we may think in ways that make perfect sense given the perspective and dynamics of the group, but that are actually hurtful to ourselves and to society at large. The authors do acknowledge this dynamic as a possibility, but they do not spend a great deal of time on it. They say that they are

…not championing faith in whatever a community believes or whatever a credentialed expert says. Along with faith must come a healthy dose of skepticism and a keen eye for charlatans and for those who are confidently wrong. When your community gives you bad advice, it’s your responsibility not to take it. (p. 260)

However, the authors’ take on all of this is mostly positive, but somewhat naïve. They say that “…most of us have the freedom to choose communities that do their best to avoid false statements and lies.” I suspect they do not know a lot of people who were born or raised in groups, or even first-generation former cult members. Nevertheless, the overall thesis of the book is well-taken and I think largely established. We think as part of a group most of the time. Even those of us who like to believe that we think for ourselves still are very dependent on others for almost all of our information. We understand less than we think we do, and we need to have the humility to recognize our limits. Still, there is a dark side to all of this that the authors recognize, but do not really explore.

I would recommend the book as a thought-provoking, engaging read. For me, one result of reading it is that I am a little more understanding and forgiving of myself for engaging in groupthink while I was in my former cult. It would have been difficult to have done anything else.

About the Reviewer

Doug Duncan, MS, LPC, was a member of an aberrant religious group for more than twenty years. After defying the cult leader and marrying Wendy, they eventually left the cult and Doug began the task of rebuilding his life. He enrolled in a master’s program in counseling and earned a degree and license to practice therapy. After working on their cult recovery issues by reading all the available cult literature, attending conferences, and becoming involved with ICSA, Doug and Wendy started a ministry to increase others’ awareness and understanding of cults. They are frequent presenters at churches, civic groups, and conferences, and also facilitators of a support group for former members of cults and high-demand groups. Additionally, Doug offers individual counseling to former members.