Philosophy and the Illusion of Explanatory Depth


Virtually everyone in the United States, and indeed throughout the developed world, is familiar with toilets. A typical flush toilet has a ceramic bowl filled with water. When the handle is depressed, or the button pushed, the water—and everything that’s been deposited in it—gets sucked into a pipe and from there into the sewage system. But how does this actually happen?

In a study conducted at Yale, graduate students were asked to rate their understanding of everyday devices, including toilets, zippers, and cylinder locks. They were then asked to write detailed, step-by-step explanations of how the devices work, and to rate their understanding again. Apparently, the effort revealed to the students their own ignorance, because their self-assessments dropped. (Toilets, it turns out, are more complicated than they appear.)

Sloman and Fernbach see this effect, which they call the “illusion of explanatory depth,” just about everywhere. People believe that they know way more than they actually do.

That’s an excerpt from “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds” by Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker. Kolbert looks at this and other research on cognitive biases as a way of understanding our political predicament. What allows the illusion of explanatory depth to persist, she says, is our reliance on other people:

In the case of my toilet, someone else designed it so that I can operate it easily. This is something humans are very good at. We’ve been relying on one another’s expertise ever since we figured out how to hunt together, which was probably a key development in our evolutionary history. So well do we collaborate, Sloman and Fernbach argue, that we can hardly tell where our own understanding ends and others’ begins…

This borderlessness, or, if you prefer, confusion, is also crucial to what we consider progress. As people invented new tools for new ways of living, they simultaneously created new realms of ignorance; if everyone had insisted on, say, mastering the principles of metalworking before picking up a knife, the Bronze Age wouldn’t have amounted to much. When it comes to new technologies, incomplete understanding is empowering.

Where it gets us into trouble, according to Sloman and Fernbach, is in the political domain. It’s one thing for me to flush a toilet without knowing how it operates, and another for me to favor (or oppose) an immigration ban without knowing what I’m talking about.

Sloman and Fernbach note that the fewer details about a problem a person’s familiar with, the more strongly held that person’s opinion about what to do in regards to that problem will be. “As a rule, strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding.”

But once people become aware of how complicated something is, they moderate their views about it and seem to be more open to reason.

In a study conducted in 2012, they asked people for their stance on questions like: Should there be a single-payer health-care system? Or merit-based pay for teachers? Participants were asked to rate their positions depending on how strongly they agreed or disagreed with the proposals. Next, they were instructed to explain, in as much detail as they could, the impacts of implementing each one. Most people at this point ran into trouble. Asked once again to rate their views, they ratcheted down the intensity, so that they either agreed or disagreed less vehemently.

Confronting and working through the complicated details of an issue, Sloman and Fernbach say, “may be the only form of thinking that will shatter the illusion of explanatory depth and change people’s attitudes.”

Isn’t this exactly what philosophy instruction is? We break down views and ideas into their various parts, looking at what supports them and what they support and what the alternatives are, all with the effect of showing that things that seemed simple and obvious are rather complicated and puzzling.

Have studies been done on whether confronting complications in a distinctly philosophical context leads people to “ratchet down the intensity” of their views, removing an obstacle to deliberation and cooperation on social and political matters? If not, sounds like a good project.

I know we like to think that philosophy has these salutary effects, but more than just anecdotal evidence would be nice.

Philosophy: shattering the illusion of explanatory depth since at least 470 BC.

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dmf
dmf
4 years ago

well this is also what physicians, engineers, car-mechanics, etc also do in their very narrow technical realms, but as we have seen with philosophers this doesn’t translate to avoiding these kinds of biases when it comes to areas outside of such matters of expertise/training and as we have seen in all of these professions (via Kuhn and co) there comes to be additional professional (to some degree standardized) blinkers as we don’t question all of our working assumptions in any sort of routine way, was supposed to be part of the promise of later forms of cybernetics and the like but to no real avail.
https://syntheticzero.net/2016/12/16/the-black-box-the-world-of-cybernetics/Report

Rob Wilson
4 years ago

I coined the phrase “illusion of explanatory depth” in a joint paper with Frank Keil in 1998 (Wilson, Robert A., and Frank Keil, “The shadows and shallows of explanation.” Minds and machines 8.1 (1998): 137-159, reprinted in our *Explanation and Cognition* (MIT Press, 2000), and the experimental follow-ups were done in his lab from roughly 2000-2005. I haven’t seen the Sloman and Fernbach book yet, but I’m assuming that the NYT’s piece took a short cut in attributing the coinage to them. (The flush toilet example is also one that we used in illustrating the idea.)Report

John Turri
4 years ago

Justin,

What do you mean by “confronting complications in a distinctly philosophical context”?

Also, you asked, “Isn’t this exactly what philosophy instruction is?” In my experience, that is what some good philosophy instruction is. But it is also what a lot of good instruction is across the curriculum.Report

John Turri
Reply to  Justin Weinberg
4 years ago

Thanks, Justin. I think that these questions could be settled empirically, but it would be very time- and resource-intensive and difficult to interest someone with the skills and resources needed to do it well.

Speaking again from only my own experience, the most effective discussion of abortion ethics I witnessed involved a medical doctor who specialized in women’s health. She drew distinctions, introduced complications, explained the reasons for her position, and acknowledged opposing views. She did not mention a violinist. I credit Peter Singer for the most effective discussion of the treatment of non-human animals I ever witnessed. For informed commentary apt to change/open minds on legal and political matters, on average I would expect philosophers to perform worse than lawyers and probably no better than political scientists, historians, or psychologists.
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PeterJ
PeterJ
4 years ago

I feel this is a very important issue and could hardly be more so. Most philosophers, like most people, seem to believe they know more than they do and rely on the not-fully-checked or understood work of others. It’s often only when we have to explain our views that we discover our ignorance. This would be the benefit of arguing, that it forces one to get ones act together.

“Philosophy: shattering the illusion of explanatory depth since at least 470 BC.”

Great strapline!

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Tom M.
Tom M.
4 years ago

Maybe this is really minor, but could the final sentence benefit from ending in a question mark rather than a period? Report

Michael Hannon
4 years ago

Deena Weisberg at Penn has data which indicates that philosophers are less likely than non-philosophers (including experts in other disciplines) to be seduced by irrelevant scientific information when evaluating the quality of an explanation. I’ve spoken with Deena about taking this project further. Having received her blessing, I’m starting work on a project tentatively labelled: “Are Philosophers Bullshit Detectors?”, which investigates whether people trained in philosophy are better at distinguishing good explanations from bad ones.

This isn’t precisely about the illusion of explanatory depth, but it’s related to the point about training in philosophy having salutary effects that can be measured empirically. It would also illustrate that philosophers are less susceptible to the illusion of explanatory depth, since they are less likely to get the false sense of improved understanding that results from irrelevant info. Report

Theodore A Hoppe
Theodore A Hoppe
4 years ago

Re: ”
Re: “confronting complications”
There needs to be a distinction made between “confronting complications” and understanding complexity. Report

PeterJ
PeterJ
4 years ago

The more I think about this issue the more it seems important.

Michael writes – ” It would also illustrate that philosophers are less susceptible to the illusion of explanatory depth,…”

This may be true, but if I had to make just one criticism of philosophy in the academic world it would be lack of explanatory depth. Or, rather, a reluctance to face or concede a lack of explanatory depth. Rarely does the modern theorists seem to venture even as far as Kant and the explanations all trail–off about where metaphysics begins. In the end nothing is explained.

This is not an issue, the work is in progress, but it becomes one when this lack of depth is unrecognised and philosophers go around arguing for theories that don’t explain anything. . Report