Reality Straight Up!

Thoughts & Observations of a Free Range Astrophysicist

The Illusion of Knowledge

Why We Make Things Up

We rely on our understanding of the world to get through the day, and so in the absence of reliable knowledge we grab onto anything. But if you want to succeed it’s best not to stop there.


When I speak to business audiences I always start by pointing an accusing finger at the Illusion of Knowledge.  “Here is the root of four out of five failures in the business world,” I say. “If you want your business to thrive, here is enemy number one!”

That accusation begs the question, if the Illusion of Knowledge is so pernicious then why do we have it?  Simple. Without the Illusion of Knowledge we couldn’t get through the day.

Knowledge and Understanding Determine How We Experience the World

I remember my first trip to Asia. When I got off the plane in Taipei I was immediately surrounded by the sounds of a language I did not speak, signs written in symbols that I did not understand, and customs different from those that I knew. Even though I had traveled extensively in the West this was a new world to me, and it was uncomfortable and disorienting.

We’ve all found ourselves in circumstances that we weren’t certain of; circumstances where we didn’t know the rules. We all know the stress, anxiety and even fear and self-doubt those times can bring.

But brain scans show that a lack of understanding can be more than just unpleasant. It can be a crisis that quite literally leaves our brains in turmoil.

Your eyes sense a patchwork of brightness and color. Your ears sense a cacophony of sounds. Yet consciously you perceive a table, a chair, words written on a page, or your spouse asking you emphatically to please take out the trash. Without knowledge the jump from sensation to perception can’t happen. Our experience of the world is inseparable from our conception of the world.

I’ll give you an example.  Look at the following:  如何你今天好吗

I don’t read Chinese so I see nothing but meaningless chicken scratches. But someone who does read Chinese perceives meaning, a pleasant greeting: “How are you today?” (Or at least that’s what Google Translate tells me they see!

In the Absence of Knowledge We Sometimes Grasp at Straws

That brings us back to the Illusion of Knowledge. We need to know, because without knowledge and understanding we are worse than lost. We need to understand the world so badly that we will grasp at anything! In the process we can fool ourselves, usually without even realizing it. Even when it’s not perfect, our understanding of the world is what lets us lead our lives, make decisions and move through the day.

Enter the handmaiden of the Illusion of Knowledge: the dreaded Wild Ass Guess. W.A.G.s are so enticing because they offer a quick and dirty way to get a grip on the world.  And once we grasp that sense of order, whether it is an illusion or not, we hold on for all that we are worth.

But there is a fly in the ointment. The Illusion of Knowledge may seem better than nothing, but let’s not forget that there is a real world out there; a world that doesn’t care what we believe or don’t believe. When the Illusion of Knowledge goes head to head against the real world, reality wins every time!

We Don’t Have to Settle for the Easy Illusion.

Fortunately we have a chance to avoid those train wrecks. We can’t force reality to conform to our ideas, but we can shape our ideas to better conform to reality!  If you want to move beyond W.A.G.s and the Illusion of Knowledge, start by identifying the knowledge and ideas that are most critical to the way you do business. Then do your level best to show that they are wrong.

That is what I mean when I say, “Never bet the farm on an idea that you haven’t tried to kill first.”

If your ideas can withstand scrutiny then you can sleep well at night. But if an idea can’t stand the heat it’s better that you found out sooner rather than later.

At least it is if you want to stay in business.

The Illusion of Knowledge ^ Why We Make Things Up  © Dr. Jeff Hester
Content may not be copied to other sites. All Rights Reserved.

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Over his 30 year career as an internationally known astrophysicist, Dr. Jeff Hester was a key member of the team that repaired the Hubble Space Telescope. With one foot always on the frontiers of knowledge, he has been mentor, coach, team leader, award-winning teacher, administrator and speaker, to name a few of the hats he has worn. His Hubble image, the Pillars of Creation, was chosen by Time Magazine as among the 100 most influential photographs in history.
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