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!

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

    Read Article

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    Read Article

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

    Read Article

  • Entropy’s Rainbow
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    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

    Read Article

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    Read Article

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

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

    Read Article

  • Our Need to Know
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    Read Article

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Click on thumbnail to select post:

  • 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
  • Entropy Redux  Why our universe isn’t boringPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Entropy’s Rainbow  The statistically likely path to complexityPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Cassandra Smiling  Science, politics and a march in the rainPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • EPA Rehash  A suddenly partisan NASA faces its futurePosted in Thoughts
  • The Hermeneutics of  Bunk  Alan Sokal and postmodernism’s black eyePosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • A Dunning-Kruger Universe  Everyone, it seems, has a “theory”Posted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Our Need to Know  We crave certainty, even when it is only an illusionPosted in CoachingThoughtsUnreasonable Faith
  • A Saguaro’s universe  Building a cactus starts with the Big BangPosted in For Your Consideration
  • 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.

  • A month’s worth of sunlight could pay the entropy bill for a billion years of biological evolution. Entropy is evolution’s best friend.

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

  • Entropy is often maligned as the enemy of order. In truth, without the inexorable march of entropy, the universe would be a very boring place.

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

  • On a cold day in April, 2017 scientists gathered in Washington DC and cities around the world for the March for Science. Their message was a single powerful idea. Truth is not a political expediency. Reality cannot be ignored. In the year that has followed the vital importance of that message has only grown.

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

  • When I look at NASA’s new Administrator, Jim Bridenstine, it is his fellow Oklahoman Scott Pruitt’s EPA that jumps to mind. As politically uncomfortable science is pushed aside, NASA’s history of nonpartisanship appears headed for an abrupt end. Will a strongly partisan NASA have a target on its back?

  • Some years ago, NYU physicist Alan Sokal wondered whether anti-science postmodernists could recognize politically-correct-sounding nonsense even if he rubbed their noses in it. The unwitting subjects of the Sokal Hoax jumped at the bait.

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

  • Some people are sure they know more than the experts, but it can take a lot of knowledge to realize just how wrong an idea is.

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

  • The human brain craves the sensation of knowing like a drug addict craves the next fix. If real knowledge is uncomfortable or not at hand, we are quite content to just make something up, then convince ourselves it’s real. In a world where knowledge matters, that’s dangerous.

  • The iconic saguaro cactus gives the desert an otherwordly beauty. That beauty does not exist in isolation. It embodies the fascinating and awe-inspiring processes that have shaped the universe, going all the way back to the Big Bang itself.

    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