The Illusion of Understanding by Christopher G. Moore

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People become uncompromising once their argument settles into a battle over who is right and who is wrong. Everyone wishes to be right. Arguing that your opponent is wrong only doubles their faith in their belief (Backfire Effect) and you are banished from their list of people who know the difference between right from wrong. Everyone is arguing over their positions, preference, values, and beliefs. Husband and wives, neighbours, friends, colleagues, and strangers. We live in an angry, emotional time. And I am trying to get a handle on why this is.

One approach to comprehending the forces that have caused this intellectual dead end to control public debate is to ask a few basic questions:

(1) What do we really understand about an issue or policy?

(2) What knowledge do we have and where did we turn to find that knowledge?

(3) How complete and updated is our information? and

(4) What are the limits to our understanding of the underlying complexities of the system from which the issue emerged or the policy must be implemented?

Researchers have suggested that one problem is that we suffer from the illusion of understanding about how something works, say, a flush toilet or air-conditioning unit. They are familiar objects in our daily life. Because they are familiar we believe we understand how they work. That is an illusion unless you are a plumber or air-conditioning engineer. The illusion of understanding also applies in the political realm to policies on immigration, transportation infrastructure, health care, energy policy, climate change and so on. Given where I live and write, I am interested in the politics of change.

We read the headlines (though 66% of people don’t read newspapers). Most of our opinions on policy issues have a headline depth—a mile wide and inch deep. We believe though we know all there is to know about a preference or position from an 800-word story. We would begrudgingly admit there are a few minor details we might look up if need be, but we are pretty confident that our knowledge is solid and relevant. Our 800-word world of knowledge has prepared us for a policy debate, and we enter the battle over right and wrong with a brittle, dull blade and no shield. But we are confident that our weapons of knowledge will allow us to prevail and we emerge in victory, showing that we are right, and they—fools and charlatans, their reasons turned to ashes have been defeated.

That’s pretty much our world of political debate. We dive head first into a pool that is an inch deep and if possible close down the counter arguments made by people who are basically ignorant, know-nothing troublemakers. We need to convert them to the right side.

In utopia people come to their senses and realize that they lack an in depth understanding of a policy position. In the real world, we are ‘cognitive misers’ says BBC’s Tom Stafford.

Our cognitive vulnerability flows from two sources: first, we are lazy thinkers and would rather know just enough to lay down an emotional platform of support that plugs us into our community of like-minded believers.

Second, our headline knowledge gives us a feeling of familiarity about policy issue debate: it might be gun law restrictions, sending special forces to find school girls kidnapped in Nigeria, or the wisdom of a coup in Thailand. An audience of true believers will emerge with similar talking points. Slogans and talking points create a sense of real knowledge and of the familiarity.

An extremist position for or against a policy is almost always drawn from a slogan, talking point, headline grab that passes as reason or justification for why a position is right. This leads to conflict between people on the opposite side of an issue. They hurl reasons at one another. The other side sneers at the reasons from their opponents. Deadlock ensues, positions hardened, and violence begins to rear its ugly head.

Third, our mental processing of patterns, knowledge, and values is filtered through cultural filters. These biases can’t ever be overcome; they are our setting, channels, frequencies over which information is sent and received.

Danger and red flashing lights should be turned on once it is realized that our problem is our tendency to unquestioningly accept that our understanding is sufficient, good enough, to support high confidence in our position. That’s why it’s an illusion. It is also why it’s a contradiction. We deceive ourselves in believing our simple understanding is an accurate summary of how a complex system functions when we don’t understand the complexity.

Researchers have shown that politically polarizing positions rests on superficial understanding of the complexity of how policies work. When pressed we can’t explain how the policy functions in such complexity. We don’t have the information or breadth of knowledge needed to connect policy, policy outcomes, and the system in which policy sinks or swims. The problem with requiring someone with a polarized position to give such an explanation is that it threatens the black and white thinking. The hallmark of an extremist is one who refuses to undertake such an inquiry.

We need diverse information about systems, and that comes from people who see and experience the system in diverse ways. But diversity of explanations can be viewed as challenges or criticism. If you had true power, you’d close down those explanations that didn’t support your policy or actions. Here’s an example from my week.

I received an email from the FCCT (Foreign Correspondents Club Thailand) this week about an event:

With absolute power, you can shutdown all public voices that probe for a deeper knowledge, and a broader explanation of the mechanism working inside the system. Asking a question can be viewed as an act of aggression. While a coup is unusual in most countries, the impulse to control policy making by keeping away from the deep waters of knowledge that may cause ‘confusion’ or ‘undermine authority’ is nearly universal.

In a research article titled Political Extremism is Supported by an Illusion of Understanding the authors started with the hypothesis “that extreme policy preferences often rely on people’s overestimation of their mechanistic understanding of complex systems those policies are intended to influence.”

Our understanding of policies remains stuck at the abstract, superficial headline level of reality. That understanding is disconnected to an inquiry as to how policies function inside the day-to-day system. The takeaway from The Political Extremism research is the conclusion that when people discover their illusion of explanatory depth, they moderated their opinions. They become less confident in supporting an extreme position.

How do we discover the illusion of explanatory depth has deceived us over whether a policy is good or bad? When asking someone about a policy, the trick is to refrain from asking them to give a list of their reasons to support their preference or position. But why not listen to their reasons? Because the probability is their reasons are degraded products built from inferior materials e.g., vaguely understood values, third-hand reports, talking points by leaders, opinion-makers, celebrities, and pundits they trust or admire, or form from the star dust of generalities that don’t require a great deal of knowledge.

The policies of airport/passenger security are a good example of polarized positions. The government claims its security/inspection policies are essential tools to fight terrorism. This is their reason for what we go through at airports when we travel, young, old, it doesn’t matter. The possibility of a terrorist boarding a plane with potential weapon is the headline reason that in a given year a billion airline passengers must remove their shoes, belts, watches, keys, coins, declare their iPads, laptops, Kindles, and leave behind any liquid more than 50ML.

Remember while you’re putting your shoes back on, and gathering up all the bits and pieces from the plastic tray, that in many countries, officials don’t check boarding passengers’ passport against a database of stolen passports. In a story about stolen and false passports in Thailand, The Guardian noted:

“Interpol’s database of Lost and Stolen Travel Documents (LSTD). Created after the September 11, 2001 terror attack on New York and Washington, the LSTD database now has some 40m entries. The inter-governmental police cooperation organisation says this weekend it is searched more than 800m times a year, mainly by the US, which accessed it 250m times, the UK (120m) and the UAE (50m).”

Two passengers on the ill-fated MH370 flight that vanished without a trace (remember that?) boarded with dodgy passports.

Instead of confronting authorities who support the current airport inspection regime not to give their reasons for supporting failed security, we might ask them for a mechanistic explanation of the effects of its procedures, how those procedures were designed, how they have been subject to quality control, how system operators have been trained, how their skills are updated, what disruptions occur inside airport processing systems and how does the policy account for those disruptions. These aren’t questions of preference; it is an explanatory discussion of how inspection works, who works in that system, who supervises and updates, manages and is accountable in the system, the cost of the system (direct and indirect), and what outcomes the policy has produced.

Certain problems can only be resolved by a military solution. That is the use of force to remove an obstacle to the state’s interest and neutralize the threat of the obstacle being reinstalled. Most problems are political in nature and a military solution is ill-suited to serve as a substitute for a political process which is inherently civilian, with the military is only a component in the overall grand plans for governing.

Taking off your shoes at an airport and executing a military coup to overthrow a government are both justified on the basis of providing public security.  Can one discover a rational link between these two very different situations in which security is invoked? We seek explanations as to why and to whom policies apply, how the policy targets were designed, detected, and detered, the process of implementation to assess security measures. All policies, including ones connected with security, ultimately must pass through the test of whether the operational filters reduce security threats. Are we, in other words, detaining the people who threaten security or people who ask questions about power arrangements?

People can argue all day and never persuade the other to change his view on the use of a military solution to resolve a certain conflict. Pro-intervention supporters would reason that the military as the last resort could be trusted where politicians are characterized as evil, corrupt and bad people. Anti-intervention supporters would reason that a democratic system can’t by its very nature emerge from a military dictatorship. And the two parties would go round and round in a debate, each feeling more confident the other person was insane and they’d been right all along.

Might there be another more promising approach, which might diffuse each opposing party’s fixed position based on the illusion of understanding?

There is. And it works like this. You ask the other person not for his reasons to support his position on a matter of government, resource allocation, energy or environmental programs, climate change, but you ask him to explain, step-by-step how the position he supports would define its policy and the goal or outcome it seeks to achieve. The Cognitive Miser Theory kicks in at this point. It exposes that the fixed knowledge of how something works, what it takes to make it work, how it breaks down or other limitations, is very shallow.

Finding a middle ground means that people learn to change their use of hearsay, values, and headline knowledge. The breakthrough comes with the realization that these elements promise the illusion of an ocean of truth but deliver a tiny, muddy pond. Rather than attack their policy (that won’t be productive), ask them to explain how the policy they support will bring about the outcome they claim will happen. Give us the specifics of how the policy is connected to and integrated with the larger system, and how that system will be modified, altered, updated and how someone can measure whether it achieved the intended outcome.

Remember that this approach to diffuse political extremism is a two-way street. No one thinks they hold extreme views; this is a label that we stigmatize others with. If you ask another person to take you along an explanatory tour of how the policy he or she supports integrates with the larger system and produces the outcome claimed, he or she may well ask you to do the same. Your explanation may also stall or fail, and you also realize the illusion of understanding doesn’t only rear its head from your opponent’s nest; it lives inside of you, too. That’s when both sides of a policy debate realize they both need to revise their understanding about the meaning, design and purpose of a policy; that it wasn’t as absolute and perfect as they thought and a compromise becomes possible.

Debating the illusion of understanding is an interesting idea. Unfortunately it can’t be raised until the possibility of an illusion is acknowledged. That acknowledgment is difficult to come by and that is core of the problem. Many people are frustrated because their minds are tuned (perhaps imprisoned is a better metaphor) to the easy ride they are accustomed to along the lazy mental landscape of illusions. Suggesting this is an illusion is to touch a nerve and the patient jumps a mile high out of his armchair. Anger and hate are the preferred anesthetic in dealing with the cognitive dissonance.

The discussion between those holding conflicting policy views and what steps are needed before we can go on that explanatory journey has been put on ice. But I write from the tropics where the ice, sooner or later, melts under the noonday sun.

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