The illusion of knowing

The degree to which people can spout utter bollocks with complete sincerity never ceases to amaze me. How do people so thoroughly convince themselves that they know something that they definitely do not know? Even things they clearly cannot possibly know? This illusion of knowing is the stupidest of all stupid human tricks.

And now I’ll make this rant more interesting by acknowledging that I’ve definitely caught myself being extremely overconfident while winging it way outside my expertise (although it’s been a while, I hope). The kookiest example: I once wrote an esssay about cosmology in which I speculated about what the centre of the universe must look like. I was basically arguing that it must have a hollow centre — a really, really big empty area. I was aware that I was speculating, but I was doing it with a lot of chutzpah, and working with badly broken basic assumptions about physics and cosmology. It was a classic example of being “not even wrong”: a science-y assertion that fails in basic ways, like bad premises or incorrect understanding of key terminology. I realized the depth of my silliness soon, but not soon enough to stop myself from writing it!

Why would I do such a thing?! How can I explain myself? What I recall is that I was just so damn pleased with the journey from bad premises to big ideas that I didn’t notice that my premises were half-arsed guesses based on a few things I kinda half knew from being an astronomy hobbyist. I was impressed with the way I had juggled ideas. I was so happy with how good it all would have sounded to someone who didn’t know better — like, um, myself — that I didn’t question how it would sound to anyone who did know better. It was all a big hypothetical exercise, and I enjoyed the exercise and mistook the pleasure I took in it for being worth a damn.

Anyway, reading it years later was hilarious and humbling, so I guess it wasn’t a total waste!