Home » The Illusion of Understanding: Phil Fernbach at TEDxGoldenGatePark (Transcript)

The Illusion of Understanding: Phil Fernbach at TEDxGoldenGatePark (Transcript)

Phil Fernbach – TRANSCRIPT

So, today is all about passion. Passion is super important, passion is great, but there’s a dark side to passion, and that’s what I’m going to talk about today. We live in an extremely passionate society.

So, we’re on the cusp of an amazing technological revolution in genetics. Scientists have discovered ways to directly manipulate the genome of various organisms to change their properties. Here’s an example, which I think is an interesting one. This new kind of rice they’ve created, which is called golden rice, is a genetically modified version of rice that is modified to create something called beta-carotene – that’s why it’s yellow, the same thing that makes carrots orange.

Beta-carotene is a precursor to vitamin A. Vitamin A deficiency, it’s estimated, kills somewhere around 670,000 children throughout the world. And the idea is that by introducing this new form of rice to those places, we might be able to decrease some of the negative consequences of this vitamin A deficiency. Some people are really passionate about this, okay?

This image is of anti-GMO protesters tearing up one of the test fields that was used to test the safety and efficacy of this golden rice. They think that it’s a very bad idea to introduce this to the world, and they destroyed this field, they set back the testing. These guys are really passionate about their beliefs that GMO is a bad thing.

What about politics? You guys probably need no reminders about politics, with the nonsense that’s going on in Washington, the scary, scary stuff that’s happening. Our leaders are incredibly passionate about their positions, and so are we. What this graphic shows is – this graphic shows the voting records of senators over time, starting in the ’70s and going through present time. And what you see here is that whereas in the ’70s and ’80s there’s a lot of overlap in the way senators from different parties voted on various issues, today that’s almost completely disappeared. We have this incredible polarization going on.

Our leaders are passionate, and I would argue it’s not just our leaders that are passionate, but our leaders are reflecting what’s going on in our citizenry, okay? Us as citizens, on issue after issue after issue, we don’t countenance the other side. We’re extremely passionate about our positions. What makes us so passionate about our positions? Well, I think one critical element is that we think we’re right.

Now, that sounds trivial, that might sound trivial, but I think it’s deeply important. Okay? We think we’re right. Those GMO protesters, they think they’re right, that if we introduce this, there’s going to be really bad consequences. The people in favor of GMO think they’re right, that if we introduce this, it’s going to be great. They feel really strongly about that, same thing with our politicians.

Here’s the question that I want you guys to contemplate today, and hopefully I’ll inspire you guys to think about this question. Are you informed about the issues that you are passionate about? Are you informed enough to feel as right as you do about those issues that you feel really strongly about? I’m going to shift the conversation in a surprising direction, okay? Toilets. And so – I realized this is the second talk in a row that we’re going to talk about toilets, so lucky you.

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I want you guys to engage in a little exercise with me, okay? I want you guys to think about something for a second. Don’t think too hard about it, just think about what your sense is, okay? Do you know how a toilet works? Just think about it real quickly and give you sense.

Remarkably, psychologists have been studying this, okay? And what they find is that, in general, people think that they understand things in pretty detailed way, just that first sense of how much you understand things. Now, you might not know this much, you might think you know a little bit more than this, but the general idea is that our first blush intuition is that we know quite a bit. It’s not just toilets, it’s all kinds of things.

Then – here’s the kicker – what do you do? You ask people to try to explain. “Explain how a toilet works.” What do you think happens? This is what happens. [What You Actually Know] [Push] [Water goes down] People don’t know anything at all! They don’t have any idea how a toilet works. I like to think about this that it’s sort of like a cloud, an analogy to a cloud. When you see a cloud from a distance, what do you see? Depth, structure, right? Substance. It feels like you could grab a piece of that cloud and hold it in your hand, like you could just bite it like a marshmallow or something. Who’s ever been on an airplane and flown through a cloud? Right? What happens? As soon as you get close, there’s nothing there, right? That feeling of substance, it just disappears. That feeling of structure disappears. And that’s what the sense of understanding is like. I’m going to give you guys another example.

How many people in here are bicycle riders? Bike aficionados? OK, now how many of guys think you know how a bike works? Okay, I’ve made you guys nervous! That’s good, that’s good. Well – a psychologist studied this question and he wanted to know, “Do people know how a bike works?” And just for your – for you benefit, this is a pretty good schematic of the basic mechanism of a bike. The pieces are in the right place, okay? What he did was he brought people into the lab, a lot of them avid bike riders, and he gave them parts of the bike, like the wheels and the handlebars and such, and he gave them a simple test. He said, “Just draw in where the pedals go, draw in where the chain goes and draw in where the frame goes, okay?”

I’m going to show a couple of examples of what people came up with. Here’s one. Bikes haven’t looked like this since the 1920s. This sort of looks like my daughter’s Big Wheel. I think that’s the way it is. Here’s another one. OK, so, if you have teeny tiny legs, I think this might be the bike for you. It probably wouldn’t work very well, it doesn’t have a chain. Here’s another one. This guy’s really showing off he’s bonafide, right? He’s putting spokes in. Wow, there are spokes! Unfortunately, the rest of it is completely wrong. This thing would never work.

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Here’s a final one. This is just – everything’s wrong. The pedals are in one place, the frame’s completely wrong, etc. And I didn’t cherry-pick these examples. These are good representations of the average level of knowledge about bicycles, despite the fact that we all ride them every single day, okay? So, psychologists call this idea the illusion of explanatory depth, the idea that we have this sense that we get things, but we really don’t know that much at all. One question you might be asking yourself at this point is: “Well, okay, who cares if we know how a bike works, or a toilet? What does that have to do with the big societal issues that you brought up at the beginning of the talk?” That’s the question I’ve been studying in my lab.

What we have done in a variety of studies is I’ve been exploring the implications of this idea. So, I’m going to tell you about a couple of experiments, just to give you a sense of some of our findings. In this study, what we do is we bring people in, and we ask them about some of these really pressing societal issues, things like nuclear sanctions in Iran, or cap and trade, or raising the retirement age for social security, or single-payer healthcare system – issues that are leading to this intense and vociferous debate in our country. And that’s what we do. We bring them in and we ask them how well they understand these things, and then we make them try to explain. And what we find over and over again is remarkable. People experience this illusion of explanatory depth. They think they know how these policies work when in fact they don’t, and the attempt to try to explain leads to these drastic reductions in feeling that they get these things. Okay?

I’m going to bring it back to the topic I started talk with: GMO. In a recent study, we asked people a variety of questions about their scientific knowledge, or what they know about various scientific issues. This is one of the questions we asked them. “True or false: a gene inserted into a food can migrate into the genetic code of humans who consume the food?” This is not true – in case you guys are wondering. And a lot of people know that it’s not true, but a lot of people don’t, a lot of people think that this is true. Later on in this study we asked them about their attitudes towards GMO, and this is what we find.

This chart shows how unacceptable people find genetic modification of foods as a function of how they answer that question. And what you see is that the people who are most passionate, who are most vociferously opposed to this, are the one who most strongly hold this false belief about this kind of scary idea that the DNA from that GMO can get into our own genes.

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Now, I’m not trying to imply that everybody who is opposed to GMO holds this false belief. I purposely picked this example because I know there’s probably people in the audience who have very strong opinions about GMO; it’s a hot topic. Maybe you’re for, maybe you’re against it. What I would implore you to do, though, is to think about it, think about how much you actually understand about genetic modification. Do you know enough to hold the position that you do as strongly as you do? Okay?

I’m going to show you guys one more study and hopefully leave you on a more promising note. In this study, what we did was we brought people into the lab and we asked them about their attitudes towards some really important issues, like cap and trade, and instituting a national flat tax. Then, in this condition, we asked people to give us reasons for why they hold the position that they do. “Why are you,” for instance, “in favor of that? Explain it.” No, I’m sorry, not explain it, but provide reasons for it. Then, we gave them a small amount of money and we said, “Do you want to donate this to an advocacy group that advocates in favor of your position?”

Okay? What we find is that people who are initially more extreme about their position, they’re more likely to donate. It makes perfect sense. If we feel strongly about our position, if we feel strongly about an issue, we’re going to be more likely to donate. But what happens if instead of asking them to list reasons for their position, we ask them to explain how it works? This happens.

Now, those people who were so extreme in their positions before, they’re no longer willing to donate, they no longer decide to donate. Why? Because they realize they don’t understand the issue! So, people are reasonable! Once they realize that their level of confidence is not justified by their knowledge, they moderate their positions, but it doesn’t happen if you ask them to generate reasons. Okay?

This is the final thought I’m going to leave you with. What kind of discourse in this country are we more used to engaging in: reasons or explanation? I would argue that reasons are much, much more prevalent. We tend to take these critically important policy issues, and we see them as zero-sum games: one side has to win, the other side has to lose. We engage in this kind of argumentation. How often do we sit down and work through the complexities of these super complicated issues? So, my final point is that we can all win, these are not zero-sum games, we can all win, but passion is not enough. Passion has to be based on a firm grounding of understanding. Thanks.

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