Conventional Thinking

August 2004


Given that we have so much more access to information that was unavailable to our ancestors, one might conclude that we ought to be vastly better informed and thus enabled to make much better decisions. Why isn't this so?

We have access to so much information today. Information overload is a cliche of the 21st century. Given that we have so much more access to information that was unavailable to our ancestors, one might conclude that we ought to be vastly better informed and thus enabled to make much better decisions. But the facts don't seem to bear this out. We're not making demonstrably better decisions. Why not?

Central to the issue is the difference between "information" and "knowledge." People confuse these terms. When I tell you something, regardless of how I tell you, what I have done is to transfer some of my knowledge into information and give it to you. Until you process this information, relating it to what you already know, this information is not knowledge. Knowledge is an event -- the transformation of data into something that is known. Everything that we know, is understood inside of the context of everything else that we have ever known.

This conceptual framework of related knowledge is like stacking up cannon balls, but upside-down. We start with one basic idea (like mother or the color blue), put two more ideas on top of it (like female or sky), then three more on top of those (like woman or atmosphere), and then four (like wife or troposphere) , and so on. We're not simple, so there's not just one stack, but many, a whole landscape of inverted pyramids. The trouble with this method of doing things is that sometimes things don't just slot into place. When we come across a new thing or a different perspective, we either decide to tear apart one or more of these carefully crafted cognitive structures to make a place for it, or we decide to ignore it.

Mostly we ignore things. We're very good at it. Take a common, simple circumstance: someone is lying to you. If you think back to the first time you realized that someone could lie to you, because it happened to you, then you may recall what a shattering experience that was -- lots of cognitive remodeling. That first painful experience did two things: it enabled you to handle other people lying to you and it made it possible for you to lie to others.

But consider a related case: the person lying to you is saying things that you really want to believe are true. Despite all kinds of clear evidence available to the contrary, you make the decision to believe the lies. The lies fit better into your cognitive framework than the truth does. It is easier to ignore the fact that they are lies than to tear down and rebuild.

Tearing apart cognitive models to make room for new ideas is hard work, and it can be very painful, too. It changes who we are -- and we don't like to reinvent ourselves every other day. As a result, some people become accomplished non-thinkers: they don't think about things that they don't like to think about. Other people, who like to think of themselves as intellectuals, make special heaps of new ideas that would upset their established thought patterns. They examine these little heaps piecemeal and don't try to reconcile them with the rest of their lives. This is how liberal intellectuals, like Thomas Jefferson, owned human slaves. This is also how people who demand absolute sovereignty over their own affairs see no reason why we can't dictate how other people in the world conduct their affairs.

This is the basis for mass manipulation of people: the public relations and advertising industries. If you can persuade people to accept certain basic assumptions, then everything else falls into place and you don't have to try and control them, they control themselves. Those who assume that people are essentially selfish and operate solely on the basis of enlightened self-interest find it easy to be "conservatives." Whereas people who assume that people are essentially altruistic and operate on the basis of the greater good are naturally "liberal." Assume that capitalism is the only feasible economic system for humans and you don't need someone to explain to you why poor children need to die of leukemia, while rich children get cured.

The more we refrain from critical self-examination in full possession of the facts, the more facts we naturally ignore. More information is just more information to ignore and has no impact on the quality of our decisions, or the quality of the decisions we allow our leaders to make for us.

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