“How do you know the world is round?” My daughter asked me the other day. “What a great question,” I say, thrilled at the prospect of teaching my kids something I know much about. But 30 seconds later, my confidence wavered as I realized how little I actually know.
“Uh…It started with the Greeks. And looking at the stars and the shadows and calculations from eclipses and then, you know…” I stumbled. “…It was obvious! And they just figured it out…” I mumbled something about Newton, Columbus, Magellan and how ships never fell off the edge of the earth. I pull out the globe. “You see? It’s round.” And try to change the subject.
My answer was pitiful. How did I know so little about something I thought I had an in-depth understanding of? Leave it to a curious child to reveal how little you know about how things work. In the movie Philadelphia, Denzel Washington’s unstoppable trial lawyer Joe Miller has a favorite line of inquiry: “Explain it to me like I’m a two-year-old.” He is well aware of the limitation of presumed knowledge, and he knows how to expose it.
I clearly failed the two-year-old test. I seek solace in the fact that I am not alone in my ignorance. It turns out that most of us assume we know far more about things than we actually do.
Researchers Leonid Kozenblit and Frank Keil conducted a study to explore the gulf between assumed knowledge and genuine understanding:
In other words, we are not as informed as we think we are. In this study, participants were asked to rate how well they understood how some everyday items work — how a toilet flushes, a zipper zips, a can opener works. They were then asked to provide a detailed step-by-step description of how the items work and to rate their understanding of the items a second time. Faced with the inability to explain precisely how the items worked, their confidence dropped. It was an exercise in humility and an excellent reminder of the fragile nature of knowledge.
Related research suggests that when people realized that they know less than they thought they did, they become more open-minded and less dogmatic. Knowing what we don’t know may be the greatest knowledge of all.
The next time you find yourself in a heated debate about an issue you are passionate about — be it climate change, women’s rights, health care or immigration — consider invoking the illusion of explanatory depth. Instead of trying to convince the other person why you are right and they are wrong, ask them a question: “Can you explain your position to me as if I were a six year old?” Sit back and listen. Without saying a word, your point will come across loud and clear.