A Little Learning Is A Dangerous Thing

Nobody asked but …

Alexander Pope said it, when he penned the couplets:

A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, and drinking largely sobers us again.

On the drive to work this morning, I was listening to an audiobook, This Idea Is Brilliant.  The second essay in this compilation really caught my imagination; The “Illusion of Explanatory Depth” by psychologist Adam Waytz.  It refers to the general existence of wide information, but with shallow understanding.  Waytz gives the example — if you ask, nearly anyone would say she understands how a refrigerator works, but if you ask further for a detailed process explanation, likely silence will follow.  This is related to the thesis of Leonard Read’s I, Pencil.  Probably, no one can explain exactly how a refrigerator works — in full.

The more compelling point, however, was that the principle also applies to our understanding of softer but tougher things, like politics and economics.  Waytz cites the phenomenon that 6 out of 10 newspaper readers only read headlines.  Since, apparently, headline writers don’t read the stories either, we are up the proverbial creek without a paddle.  For the thinking reader, it only takes a short while to learn to stop reading headlines.  The rest of us are pitiable victims of confirmation bias.

— Kilgore Forelle