Do you understand a thing or only its definition?

We take other men’s knowledge and opinions upon trust; which is an idle and superficial learning. We must make them our own. We are just like a man who, needing fire, went to a neighbor’s house to fetch it, and finding a very good one there, sat down to warm himself without remembering to carry any back home. What good does it do us to have our belly full of meat if it is not digested, if it is not transformed into us, if it does not nourish and support us?


Information overload is nothing new

The ever-expanding array of digital material can leave you feeling overwhelmed, constantly interrupted, unable to concentrate or worried that you are missing out or falling behind. No wonder some people are quitting social media, observing “digital sabbaths” when they unplug from the internet for a day, or buying old-fashioned mobile phones in an effort to avoid being swamped.

This phenomenon may seem quintessentially modern, but it dates back centuries, as Ann Blair of Harvard University observes in “Too Much to Know”, a history of information overload. Half a millennium ago, the printing press was to blame. “Is there anywhere on Earth exempt from these swarms of new books?” moaned Erasmus in 1525. New titles were appearing in such abundance, thousands every year. How could anyone figure out which ones were worth reading? Overwhelmed scholars across Europe worried that good ideas were being lost amid the deluge.

Figuring out book reviews, indexes and the rest took several centuries, so we shouldn’t expect an immediate solution. In the meantime we must endure information overload: the feeling that arises in the space of time between a sudden increase in the flow of information and the development of the tools to enable us to cope with it.

Tom Standage writing in 1843 magazine 

The multitude Books is a great evil!

Flash back to the year 1455. German Johannes Gutenberg prints his first book, the Latin Vulgate Bible. As Gutenberg’s press reaches across Europe, the Bible is translated into local languages. Poorly-produced copies of the Bible and mediocre literature soon thrive, leading to claims that the printing press must be controlled to avoid chaos and loss of intellectual life. Martin Luther complains, “The multitude of books is a great evil. There is no measure of limit to this fever for writing.” 

Comparisons are being made between the effects of the printing press to the advent of the internet.

Stephen Goforth


I Know because the People around me Think they Know

If I think I understand because the people around me think they understand, and the people around me all think they understand because the people around them all think they understand, then it turns out we can all have this strong sense of understanding even though no one really has any idea what they're talking about.

Everyone has a compulsion to be right, meaning that they want the people around them to think they're right, and this is easily achieved by mouthing the things that the people around you say. And people who are more capable tend to be better at finding ways to interpret new facts in line with their community's preconceptions.

I like to live in communities that put a premium on getting things right even when they fly in the face of social norms. This means living with constant tension, but it's worth it.

Steven Sloman quoted in Vox

People think they know something.. because others know it

People are individually rather limited thinkers and store little information in their own heads. Much knowledge is instead spread through the community—whose members do not often realise that this is the case.

(Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach) call this the illusion of understanding, and they demonstrate it with a simple experiment. Subjects are asked to rate their understanding of something, then to write a detailed account of it, and finally to rate their understanding again. The self-assessments almost invariably drop. The authors see this effect everywhere, from toilets and bicycles to complex policy issues. The illusion exists, they argue, because humans evolved as part of a hive mind, and are so intuitively adept at co-operation that the lines between minds become blurred. Economists and psychologists talk about the “curse of knowledge”: people who know something have a hard time imagining someone else who does not. The illusion of knowledge works the other way round: people think they know something because others know it.

From a review in the Economist of “The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone” by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach

Resources for success

The stories we create to understand ourselves become the narrative of our lives, explaining the accidents and choices that have brought us to where we are: when I'm good at, what I care about most, and where I'm headed. If you're among the last kid standing on the sidelines as the softball teams are chosen up, the way you understand your place in the world likely changes a little, shaping your sense of ability and the subsequent paths you take. What you tell yourself about your ability plays a part in shaping the ways you learn and perform-how hard you apply yourself, for example, or your tolerance for risk-taking and your willingness to preserve in the face of difficulty.

But differences in skills, and your ability to convert new knowledge into building blocks for further learning, also shape your routes to success. Many of the best managers and coaches in pro sports were mediocre or poor players but happen to be exceptional students of their games.

Each of us has a large basket of resources in the form of aptitudes, prior knowledge, intelligence, interest, and sense of personal empowerment that shape how we learn and how we overcome our shortcomings. Some of these differences matter a lot-for example, our ability to extract underlying principles for new experiences and to convert new knowledge into mental structures.

Peter C. Brown and Henry L. Roediger III, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

Should you focus on learning the basics or developing creativity?

Putting the learning basic knowledge against the development of creative thinking is a false choice. Both need to be cultivated. The stronger one's knowledge about the subject hand, the more nuanced one's creativity can be in addressing a new problem. Just as knowledge amounts to little without the exercise of ingenuity and imagination, creativity absent a sturdy foundation of knowledge builds a shaky house.

Peter C. Brown and Henry L. Roediger III, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning

What know-it-alls don’t know

Know-it-alls can be insufferable, and now there’s new evidence that they know less than they’d have you believe. Researchers from Cornell and Tulane universities found that self-proclaimed experts are more prone to “overclaiming”—essentially, pretending to have extensive knowledge of something they’re clueless about. In the study, 100 volunteers were asked to rate their level of knowledge in various subjects, such as biology, literature, and personal finance. When quizzed on 15 different economic terms, the people who fancied themselves financial gurus were far more likely to claim they were familiar with phenomena such as “pre-rated stocks” and “fixed-rate deduction” that were actually complete fictions. Tests on the other topics revealed similar results—even when participants were warned that some terms would be phony. “Our work suggests that the seemingly straightforward task of judging one’s knowledge may not be so simple,” researcher Stav Atir tells Science Daily, “particularly for individuals who believe they have a relatively high level of knowledge to begin with.”

The Week Magazine, August 7, 2015