“Modernity has long been obsessed with, perhaps even defined by, its epistemic insecurity, it’s grasping toward big truths that ultimately disappoint as our world grows only less knowable. New knowledge and new ways of understanding simultaneously produce new forms of no knowledge, new uncertainties, and mysteries. The scientific method, based on deduction and falsifiability, is better at proliferating questions than it is at answering them.
For instance, Einstein’s theories about the curvature of space and motion at the quantum level provide new knowledge and generate new unknowns that previously could not be pondered. Over time it has been seen that the best of theories have been shown to be incomplete. The theories might explain a lot of phenomena using a few basic principles, predict new results but sooner or later new and more precise experiments show a discrepancy between the workings of nature and the predictions of these theories. It may appear that the theories were not ‘Accurate’ to begin with but we cannot deny the fact that theories at their time were a very good approximation of the truth or the reality these addressed to understand and know.
In physics, Newtonian models were crude approximations of the truth. Similarly, in Biology the Mendelian process has turned out to be an even greater simplification of reality than Newton’s laws. The discovery of gene-protein interactions and other aspects of epigenetics has challenged the view of DNA as destiny and even introduced evidence that environment can influence inheritable traits, something once considered a genetic impossibility. The more we learn in any area of Knowing, in Evolutionary Biology, for example, the further we find ourselves from a model that can explain it. The physicists have long encountered ignorance about disorder in the atmosphere, in the turbulent sea, in the fluctuations of wildlife populations, in the oscillations of the heart and the brain- the irregular, nonlinear, erratic and discontinuous side. And where classical science stops, Chaos begins. “Relativity eliminated the Newtonian illusion of absolute space and time; Quantum theory eliminated the Newtonian dream of a controllable measurement process; Chaos eliminated the Laplacian fantasy of deterministic predictability. In the field of psychology, the Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein people of low ability suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their cognitive ability as greater than it is. The cognitive bias of illusory superiority derives from the metacognitive inability of low-ability persons to recognize their own ineptitude; without the self-awareness of metacognition, low-ability people cannot objectively evaluate their actual competence or incompetence. As described by social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, the cognitive bias of illusory superiority results from an internal illusion in people of low ability and from an external misperception in people of high ability; that is, “the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.”
Conversely, highly competent individuals may erroneously presume that tasks easy for them to perform are also easy for other people to perform, or that other people will have a similar understanding of subjects that they themselves are well-versed in. How confident are you that you understand the molecules that make up the device and its structure? If we had a way to go into your head and pull out your knowledge, we could figure out objectively whether you actually understand how things in your world work. Unfortunately, there is no way to do that. Instead, you have to make judgments about how well you understand the world around you.
An interesting paper by Steven Sloman and Nathaniel Rabb in the November 2016 issue of Psychological Science(link is external) suggests that part of the way you judge whether you understand how something works is by knowing whether there are other experts who understand it. In one study, they had participants read about several new natural phenomena.
For example, they were told that scientists recently discovered a new rock that glows or conditions in which ice forms even when it is warm. Some participants were told that the scientists who discovered the phenomenon completely understand it and have published the explanation. Other participants were told that the scientists who discovered it do not yet understand how it works.
Later, participants rated how confident they were that they themselves understood the new finding on a scale ranging from 1 (not very confident) to 7 (very confident). Overall, of course, participants gave low ratings. That makes sense because the descriptions did not give any information about how the new findings worked. That said, on average, people were somewhat more confident that they understood the new phenomenon when they were told that scientists understand it than when they were told that scientists do not understand it. A second study in this series demonstrated that people were most confident that they understood the new finding when they were told that scientists had published the explanation than when they were told that scientists were keeping the explanation a secret (as a matter of national security). What does this mean? In human societies, knowledge is distributed. People develop particular areas of expertise that allow them to participate in their communities. I know a lot about psychology, a little about the saxophone, and nothing at all about the way my car works. That means that if someone wants to know about psychology, they can come to me. If they need a sax player for a band, they could come to me, but they might also go to other people who know more than I do. I have to go someone else if my car breaks down, though, because I don’t know what to do on my own. That means that you have to rely on the knowledge of other people all the time in order to get things done. It makes sense that you would be most confident that a task can be accomplished if someone in society has knowledge and skills that would allow the task to be done. If the task is one that nobody has ever accomplished before, you should be less confident that it can be done. On the one hand, it is important that you know the limits of your own expertise, so that you do not try to do things that you are not qualified to do. That is why the ratings in this experiment were generally quite low. People were pretty sure they did not understand much about these new phenomena. That said, people still felt somewhat more confident about knowing when they were aware that someone actually did understand the phenomenon.
Essentially, knowing where to go or who to contact if you need information makes you more confident that you yourself understand it. That does make sense. You should feel more confident that a problem can be solved if you know where to go to get relevant information. It can be a little disconcerting sometimes that you have to rely on so many other people for knowledge.
However, a big part of what allows our technological society to advance is that we are willing to distribute our expertise across many people rather than requiring each person to know exactly how to accomplish every task. The most important thing is that we know where to go when we need someone’s expertise.