Philip Fernbach: Why Do We Believe Things That Aren’t True? at TEDxMileHigh (Transcript)

Philip Fernbach

Philip Fernbach – TRANSCRIPT

A few months ago, the Internet exploded when a rapper named Bobby Ray Simmons, aka B.o.B, started twitting out reasons why he thought the world was flat. Now, the story really took off when Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist, started twitting back at him, explaining the apparent discrepancies. But guess what? B.o.B held his ground. He didn’t give in.

Now, it turns out that B.o.B is not the only one. Believe it or not, there’s actually a flat Earth society, with roots going all the way back to 1800s. Their model is amazing. “We man the guns against oppression of thought and the Globularist lies of a new age.” When I first read this, I thought it said “Globalist lies,” but it’s actually “Globularist,” i.e. those nutty folks who think the Earth is a sphere. “Standing with reason, we offer a home to those wayward thinkers who march bravely on with reason and truth in recognizing the true shape of the Earth.” Flat!

This is not some elaborate hose. B.o.B and the flat-earthers really believe that the Earth is flat, despite all evidence to the contrary. So, why am I showing you this? Because your natural reaction to this story is wrong! Your first instinct is to laugh at the flat-earthers and assume they must be incredibly dense or crazy, but actually, they’re not all that different than you and I.

As human beings, false belief is our birth right. It stands from fundamental principles that govern the way our minds work and the way we store knowledge. Consider how common it is for groups of people to believe things that just aren’t true. Right now, in this moment, it feels like we’re in the midst of an epidemic. The explosion of fake news shows how easy it is to do people on the left and the right, and science denial has gone mainstream.

Significant proportions of the population maintain beliefs counter to the scientific consensus on critical issues like vaccination, global warming and the safety of genetically modified foods. Public attitudes about these issues literally determine whether we can feed ourselves, whether we can raise healthy children and whether we can forestall a climate disaster. The stakes could not be higher, which is why it’s just not good enough to chalk all this up to lunacy or stupidity.

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Simplistic explanations like that aren’t getting us anywhere. If we really want to improve the way we grapple with these challenges, we have to go deeper, we have to understand what it is about the way we think that makes us so susceptible to believing things that aren’t true. And that explanation actually begins with a kind of shocking observation. As individuals, we do not know enough to justify almost anything we believe.

Now, I know that might sound crazy to you, but let’s think about a couple of really obvious facts. We all believe that the Earth revolves around the Sun. Of course we do, it’s the most basic fact in the world. But on what basis? Can you explain the astronomical observations that support that belief? I know I can’t.

What about smoking? We all know it’s terrible for us, right? But what’s actually in cigarette smoke that’s bad? And what does it do to our bodies and ourselves? What’s cancer really? How does it even form? These are not isolated examples. Most of what we believe is not based on what’s in our heads, and there’s a good reason for that. There’s not much in our heads!

As human beings, we are just not made to store a lot of detailed information. In the 1980s, a psychologist named Thomas Landauer set out to estimate the size of an individual’s knowledge base in bytes, the same scale that’s used to measure computer memories. One approach he took was to analyze the result of memory experiments where people were asked to study some pictures, or words, or bits of music, and then later test it to see if they recognized them.

Using the data, he was able to estimate the rate at which we can acquire knowledge and also the rate at which we forget what we learn. And then, he extrapolated to a 70-year lifespan. So, how much do you know? Landauer’s estimate: 1 gigabyte. I think this is an amazing result, mind-blowing really. One gigabyte is a tiny amount!

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By comparison, you can buy a thumb drive on for less than 18 bucks, that holds 64 gigabytes. Now, at this point, some of you guys might be freaking out a little bit, feeling a little bit concerned. After all, we all think it’s the most important thing in the world to know a lot and have great memories. But really, this is a misconception. We do not have to know a lot because we’re not made to think on our own. It’s natural to think about thinking as what happens between your ears, but that’s not where the magic really happens.

This video comes from a psychologist by the name of Michael Tomasello and his colleagues. They study human children’s cognitive abilities in comparison to other animals like chimpanzees. The goal is to understand what really makes us special. What abilities do we excel at that other animals just cannot master? You see how easily this young child reads the mind of the experimenter and then figures out how to coordinate his behavior to achieve the goal. (Laughter) He even makes eye contact at the end as if to say, “I’ve got your back, man!”

This is so natural to us that it seems like nothing, but it’s actually incredibly difficult to design a cognitive system that’s capable of collaboration. This is really the secret to our success, it’s what separates us from all other thinking creatures. Chimpanzees routinely fail at tasks that require sharing knowledge and working together to pursue goals, tasks that young children master with ease.

Now, for me, this realization was a major wake-up call. It really changed my perspective on the nature of the mind. I’m a cognitive scientist. I’m used to studying how individuals make decisions or solve problems in isolation. But thinking is a social process. Rather than happening inside your head, it emerges from your interactions with those around you. People are a little more like bees than we often realize.

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In a beehive, you have an incredibly complex cluster of behaviors that is achieved despite no individual being responsible for it all. Food is collected and stored, the hive is protected from intruders, genetic diversity is introduced. The key is specialization: each individual does its own little part, and the complexity emerges.

The same is true of people. On our own, none of us knows all that much, we don’t have to. We each have our own little slice of expertise, and our minds are built to collaborate and to share knowledge, which allows us to pursue incredibly complex goals when none of us has anything approaching the knowledge to understand it all.

This is the Milan Cathedral. It’s one of humanity’s great works. Construction began in 1386, and the facade was completed, get this, under Napoleon, in the 1800s. It turns out that cathedrals have a punch list, like a home renovation. The punch list was completed when they consecrated the final gate in the 1960s. Six hundred years. In that time, there were 75 chief engineers responsible for the project and thousands upon thousands of people involved. None of those people had anything remotely approaching the knowledge to understand it all, not even close.

Everything great we do as human beings depends on this ability to share knowledge and to collaborate. So, that’s the positive side of the knowledge-sharing story. When we put our minds together, we can do incredible things. But there’s also a dark side. Because we are built to so seamlessly draw on knowledge outside of our heads, we often fail to realize the limits of our own understanding.

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