A Bit of Wishful Thinking

We didn’t see the pandemic coming (How could we?). We were not prepared to face such an obvious threat (Who could be?). Yet, now everybody seems to know what to do. There is only one minor problem. What red people think we have to do is just the opposite of what blue people think we have to do, and it is depressing to watch day after day the extreme “political” polarization in social networks and the media. Why such polarization? What’s the reason?

Twelve years ago I wrote: “I read the news today, oh boy, and everybody seems to know the truth. I would go even further: everybody seemed to know the truth quite a long time ago.” I was talking about the great recession. Now history repeats itself. Everybody seem to know the truth, and I’m afraid that that perceived truth is the root cause of the problem

In “The Misunderstood Limits of Folk Science: An Illusion of Explanatory Depth,” a seminal paper published in 2002, Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil showed that people believe they understand familiar things (manufactured objects) and natural phenomena (such as tides) much better than they actually do:

People feel they understand complex phenomena with far greater precision, coherence, and depth than they really do; they are subject to an illusion—an illusion of explanatory depth. The illusion is far stronger for explanatory knowledge than many other kinds of knowledge, such as that for facts, procedures or narratives. The illusion for explanatory knowledge is most robust where the environment supports real-time explanations with visible mechanisms.

Rozenblit, Leonid, and Frank Keil. ‘The Misunderstood Limits of Folk Science: An Illusion of Explanatory Depth’. Cognitive Science 26, no. 5 (September 2002): 521–62.

They argue that people’s limited knowledge and their misleading intuitive epistemology combine to create an illusion of explanatory depth (IOED). Most people feel they understand the world with far greater detail, coherence, and depth than they really do. The illusion for explanatory knowledge is separate from, and additive with, people’s general overconfidence about their knowledge and skills. Knowledge of complex causal relations is particularly susceptible to illusions of understanding.

They explore the IOED and overconfidence with devices (e.g. a can opener), facts (e.g. capitals of countries), narratives (movie plots), natural phenomena and procedures (e.g. how to drive from New Haven to New York City). It actually seems easy, but go ahead have a try!

Now imagine. If I am unable to explain how such a simple thing like a bow or a can opener works, how could I think I am actually able to understand, just for the sake of the argument, such an abstract thing like freedom of expression in the net?

I think many people would agree that Trump is a toxic politician, and many of us can sympathize with Twitter flagging some of his toxic tweets. Therefore a lot of reasonable people has reacted against his attempt to prevent Twitter from doing it. Trump is evil, therefore his Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship must be evil. Isn’t it?

Well, if you haven’t read it, go have a look and then try to explain what the order actually says and how it relates to freedom of expression.

Freedom of expression and how the internet and social networks have contributed so far to our social and political models is an extraordinary complex phenomenon that we do not fully understand yet. All the expectations we had at the very beginning of the information revolution, very likely naïve, have been frustrated by both opportunistic and deliberate attacks building on the advertising business model. Trump and many other populist leaders are but one of the parasites that every complex system has. That doesn’t necessarily mean the executive order is against freedom of expression. Trump has argued just the opposite, and I would say, in this case, he is right. The real problem is hidden much deeper down. Trump Is a Problem That Twitter Cannot Fix.

Political polarization has been increasing in the U.S.A over the last 25 years. The more politically engaged the people, the more polarized.

Partisan polarization has increased dramatically at the mass and elite level since the mid-20th century in the United States, producing important and largely unanticipated challenges for American democracy.

The norms of political institutions are being deeply strained by intense elite partisanship. At the mass level, greater partisan divisions in social identity are generating intense hostility toward opposition partisans that encourages extreme tactics and undermines compromise and civility. These developments have seemingly increased the political system’s vulnerability to partisan misinformation, which is often promoted by polarized elites to sympathetic partisan audiences. Widespread usage of social media and distrust of the media threaten to accelerate these trends.

Tucker, Joshua A., Andrew Guess, Pablo Barberá, Cristian Vaccari, Alexandra Siegel, Sergey Sanovich, Denis Stukal, and Brendan Nyhan. ‘Social Media, Political Polarization, and Political Disinformation: A Review of the Scientific Literature’. Political Polarization, and Political Disinformation: A Review of the Scientific Literature (March 19, 2018), 2018.

I guess the situation is quite similar in many other regions and countries. For sure, that’s the case in Spain.

People often hold extreme political attitudes about complex policies, but they typically know less about such policies than they think they do. Political Extremism Is Supported by an Illusion of Understanding. Polarized attitudes are enabled by simplistic causal models. In fact, asking people to explain policies in detail both undermined the illusion of explanatory depth and led to attitudes that were more moderate

I think this cocktail of political extremism and misinformation is a symptom of the increasing complexity of the society we have created and the lack of new ideas and tools to successfully deal with it. The more complex the issues, the more difficult to understand them. But because we are programmed to fool ourselves and become convinced that we understand when we do not, we are every day more obfuscated.

We will never be able to progress and move forward with our social, organizational and political systems without a real understanding of the problems and issues we face. It is impossible for every one of us to understand every single detail of the many challenges we face. But I think there is one thing we can understand and hopefully we could agree: if the people dealing with critical issues is blinded by the illusion of explanatory depth, we are all doomed. Therefore, let me close this post with a wish:

Let’s make sure that the people appointed to critical tasks and responsibilities, the people we put in charge, are able to explain in great depth what they are dealing with.

Meanwhile, the rest of us will continue fighting with our illusions.


Featured Image: Francisco de Goya, Fight with Cudgels (Duelo a garrotazos)


  1. Another thought-provoking post, Paco! I have a few comments:

    The illusion for explanatory knowledge is separate from, and additive with, people’s general overconfidence about their knowledge and skills.

    You ought to mention Dunning-Kruger at this point. And with Trump in mind, he’s one who is (IMHO) definitely leaning on the side of the ‘overestimates his ability’ curve.

    Second point: again with Trump in mind; it’s surely a bit more than coincidence that this ‘Executive Order on Preventing Online Censorship’ came to the fore when Trump’s own tweets were fact-checked. I did read about half of the Executive Order, and it all sounds very reasonable; however, social media platforms have been heavily criticised in recent years for their failure to get their own houses in order vis-a-vis misinformation. I for one don’t object to having my own online communications ‘fact-checked’ — in fact, I would welcome it, as I recognise that I am as likely as the next person to believe I know something better than I actually do.

    Let’s make sure that the people appointed to critical tasks and responsibilities, the people we put in charge, are able to explain in great depth what they are dealing with.

    Ah, but: quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

    • Thank you very much for the reference…and of course, I fully agree, it is not casual Trump is acting now in response to Twitter fact checking his tweets. My point is that this is a very complex issue to solve, and that perhaps surprisingly in this case, what Trump is arguing is basically correct. We cannot ,as you point, to rely on Twitter or Facebook to decide what can be said and who can say it.

      My suggestion / expectation? A kind of public crowd fact checking, a mechanism similar to blockchain… Will we ever see anything like it?

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