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.

Reality Straight Up!

  • Schools in the Time of COVID  The Decision Will Ultimately Make ItselfPosted in Thoughts
  • COVID-19 Arrives  The Humanitarian Disaster is HerePosted in Thoughts
  • Correctly Predicting Failure  It’s time for scientists to get loudPosted in Thoughts
  • Typhoid Mary on Two Wheels  Spreading COVID one lap at a timePosted in Thoughts
  • Pine Boxes  Invest now, the numbers are going upPosted in Success & FailureThoughts
  • Scientists Stuck Inside  Curiosity in the Time of COVIDPosted in For Your ConsiderationThoughts
  • After COVID’s First Wave  No getting back to normalPosted in Success & FailureThoughts
  • COVID-19  Cutting through the confusionPosted in Success & FailureThoughts
  • Great Deceiverism 101  Explanation or Theory? Therein lies the rub.Posted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • One Step at a Time  The  not-so-mysterious origin of lifePosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • The Mind’s Siren Call  Being certain is a primrose pathPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Constrained Hallucinations  How the brain uses science to perceive the worldPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Schools in the Time of COVID
    The Decision Will Ultimately Make Itself

    You don’t tug on Superman’s cape. You don’t spit into the wind. Yes, schools are desperately important to kids. No, COVID-19 doesn’t care, and COVID is making the rules right now. Attempts to open schools this fall will fail of their own accord. The relevant question is how to meet the needs of children, families and the community in the face of that reality.

    Read Article

  • COVID-19 Arrives
    The Humanitarian Disaster is Here

    Currently new cases of COVID-19 in Arizona are doubling every 7 days. ICU beds in the state are already full. The rest of the country isn’t that far behind us. You do the math.

    Read Article

  • Correctly Predicting Failure
    It’s time for scientists to get loud

    Now is not the time for scientists to be circumspect and silent. We are on the short end of a battle over whether truth even matters. If scientists do not stand up for what is real, who will?

    Read Article

  • Typhoid Mary on Two Wheels
    Spreading COVID one lap at a time

    The morning cyclist in my neighborhood may not be standing in the Michigan Statehouse carrying a gun and demanding her right to spread contagion far and wide, but she may as well be.

    Read Article

  • Pine Boxes
    Invest now, the numbers are going up

    You know those nice charts and graphs that make it look like we are over the hump of COVID-19 and that things are about to get better? Those predictions are dead wrong, with an unfortunate emphasis on “dead.”

    Read Article

  • Scientists Stuck Inside
    Curiosity in the Time of COVID

    Imagine three gregarious scientists, each with the gift of the gab, all coping with stay-at-home orders. Of course we started a livestream/podcast talk show! What else would we do? Welcome to the kickoff episode of Scientists Stuck Inside.

    Read Article

  • After COVID’s First Wave
    No getting back to normal

    Even after COVID-19 kills hundreds of thousands in the U.S. over the coming weeks, we will still be almost as vulnerable to the pandemic as we are today. We’d all love to “get back to normal” after that, but the price could be a second wave, worse than the first. Some see us facing either economic Depression or allowing vast numbers of preventable deaths, but that is a fool’s choice. There are better options if we have the will to find them.

    Read Article

  • COVID-19
    Cutting through the confusion

    There is a lot of information about COVID-19 out there, much of it misleading. When looking at the future, start with what the science really says.

    Read Article

  • Great Deceiverism 101
    Explanation or Theory? Therein lies the rub.

    If someone can’t tell you how they would know that they are wrong, they don’t have a clue whether they are right.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

  • One Step at a Time
    The not-so-mysterious origin of life

    Once seemingly incomprehensible, the origin of life no longer seems such a mystery. Most of what once appeared as roadblocks are turning out to be superhighways.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

  • The Mind’s Siren Call
    Being certain is a primrose path

    Being certain lights up our brains like a junkie’s next hit. Literally. Unfortunately, being certain and being right are two very, very different things.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

  • Constrained Hallucinations
    How the brain uses science to perceive the world

    The unique worlds we each consciously inhabit – the only worlds we will ever experience – are constrained hallucinations, products of hypothesis testing by our predictive brains.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

Click on thumbnail to select post:

  • Schools in the Time of COVID  The Decision Will Ultimately Make ItselfPosted in Thoughts
  • COVID-19 Arrives  The Humanitarian Disaster is HerePosted in Thoughts
  • Correctly Predicting Failure  It’s time for scientists to get loudPosted in Thoughts
  • Typhoid Mary on Two Wheels  Spreading COVID one lap at a timePosted in Thoughts
  • Pine Boxes  Invest now, the numbers are going upPosted in Success & FailureThoughts
  • Scientists Stuck Inside  Curiosity in the Time of COVIDPosted in For Your ConsiderationThoughts
  • After COVID’s First Wave  No getting back to normalPosted in Success & FailureThoughts
  • COVID-19  Cutting through the confusionPosted in Success & FailureThoughts
  • Great Deceiverism 101  Explanation or Theory? Therein lies the rub.Posted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • One Step at a Time  The  not-so-mysterious origin of lifePosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • The Mind’s Siren Call  Being certain is a primrose pathPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Constrained Hallucinations  How the brain uses science to perceive the worldPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • You don’t tug on Superman’s cape. You don’t spit into the wind. Yes, schools are desperately important to kids. No, COVID-19 doesn’t care, and COVID is making the rules right now. Attempts to open schools this fall will fail of their own accord. The relevant question is how to meet the needs of children, families and the community in the face of that reality.

  • Currently new cases of COVID-19 in Arizona are doubling every 7 days. ICU beds in the state are already full. The rest of the country isn’t that far behind us. You do the math.

  • Now is not the time for scientists to be circumspect and silent. We are on the short end of a battle over whether truth even matters. If scientists do not stand up for what is real, who will?

  • The morning cyclist in my neighborhood may not be standing in the Michigan Statehouse carrying a gun and demanding her right to spread contagion far and wide, but she may as well be.

  • You know those nice charts and graphs that make it look like we are over the hump of COVID-19 and that things are about to get better? Those predictions are dead wrong, with an unfortunate emphasis on “dead.”

  • Imagine three gregarious scientists, each with the gift of the gab, all coping with stay-at-home orders. Of course we started a livestream/podcast talk show! What else would we do? Welcome to the kickoff episode of Scientists Stuck Inside.

  • Even after COVID-19 kills hundreds of thousands in the U.S. over the coming weeks, we will still be almost as vulnerable to the pandemic as we are today. We’d all love to “get back to normal” after that, but the price could be a second wave, worse than the first. Some see us facing either economic Depression or allowing vast numbers of preventable deaths, but that is a fool’s choice. There are better options if we have the will to find them.

  • There is a lot of information about COVID-19 out there, much of it misleading. When looking at the future, start with what the science really says.

  • If someone can’t tell you how they would know that they are wrong, they don’t have a clue whether they are right.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Once seemingly incomprehensible, the origin of life no longer seems such a mystery. Most of what once appeared as roadblocks are turning out to be superhighways.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Being certain lights up our brains like a junkie’s next hit. Literally. Unfortunately, being certain and being right are two very, very different things.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • The unique worlds we each consciously inhabit – the only worlds we will ever experience – are constrained hallucinations, products of hypothesis testing by our predictive brains.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

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.
©Dr. Jeff Hester LLC, 5301 S. Superstition Mountain Dr., Suite 104 #171, Gold Canyon, AZ 85118