“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge” – Widely attributed to Stephen Hawking, likely from historian Daniel J. Boorstin

We were sitting in a restaurant in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Doris and I had planned this lunch for weeks. Chris, sitting to my left, had not met Doris or her husband, Satyan, but I had spoken of them frequently in the months leading up to our visit. Doris Devadoss and I had participated on a panel together at a conference, and Satyan is a professor of mathematics at Williams College. I had seen him present a fascinating talk on math and the multiverse—subjects about which I knew nothing. I knew I liked him and his wife, however, so there we were, meeting for lunch in their small college town.

“I’m sorry,” Chris immediately apologized, “please remind me of your names.”

I was embarrassed and exasperated. I had told him their names several times before we arrived.

“This is Doris,” I said, “and this is Satyan” (I pronounced it "Saht Yan” which was how I remembered him being introduced to me.)

“Actually,” Satyan began slowly, “In India it is pronounced, Sethyen.”

“Does anyone actually call you that?” I smiled.

“Pretty much everyone but you.” He laughed.

Over the years I have used that story to illustrate a potent obstacle to both learning and leadershipthe illusion of knowledge.

When we can point to things we don’t know (like abstract math and the multiverse, for example), those are things we know we don’t know. But there is a world of things we don’t know that we can’t point to because we don’t know that we don’t know those things.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld famously remarked, “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know.”

In fact, in some cases the things we think we know, we really don’t know. We have the illusion of knowledge.

Eugenio Marongiu/Shutterstock
Source: Eugenio Marongiu/Shutterstock

Three Yale psychologists recently published a study which concluded that with the internet increasingly becoming a primary source of information, people experience an inflated sense of having acquired knowledge—we have the feeling of knowing, albeit with the benefit of very little actual knowledge. And often, what we find on the Internet only serves to confirm what we already "knew" or believed.

The feeling of knowing is an essential brain sensation without which we would not likely strive to learn. And yet, the feeling of being right is not necessarily connected to actually being correct. Think of how often you know you are right and yet someone disagrees with you. One of you is incorrect, but you both have the feeling of being right. 

We can think of a tendency to view things a certain way as a result of neural pathways that have been reinforced—like water following a creek. The actuation of the neural pathways that create the feeling of knowing (or a feeling of correctness) can become linked to habitual ways of seeing things. Neuroscientist Robert Burton claims that once that link has been established, it is not easy to undo.

According to Burton, the feeling of knowing is a brain sensation that arises in the mesolimbic dopamine system—the reward center of the brain. This is the part of the brain that is activated during any activity that provides pleasure, including addictive drugs. In other words, there are physiological similarities between an insistence on being right and a drug addiction. Is it possible that the "know-it-all" personality trait is an addiction to the pleasure of the feeling of being right?

We all know people who are know-it-alls. But can we recognize this trait in ourselves? And where can we find a program for this addiction?

It might be closer than you think. Socrates (according to Plato’s account), after speaking with a man who had a reputation for being wise, determined, “I am better off than he is. For he knows nothing and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know.” For Socrates, beginning at a position of ignorance was the only method of seeking truth— with no guarantee of finding it.

German philosopher Edmund Husserl advocated a way of learning during which one refrains from both agreement and disagreement; bracketing (setting aside) what one knows, taking no position and making no judgment, taking a step back and letting the world speak. In doing so, one disconnects oneself—if only for a moment—from what philosopher (and Husserl’s assistant) Eugen Fink described as a web of accepted, taken-for-granted assumptions and firmly held beliefs. This allows for learning in an attitude of “wonder,” and requires an intellectual muscle that we rarely exercise. If you set aside your preconceptions and wonder, you will be exercising that critical intellectual muscle.

iStockPhoto.com © VLADGRIN
Source: iStockPhoto.com © VLADGRIN


There are no “laws” of leadership or human development. Human development is not physics. In this blog, we inquire together into various aspects of leadership and human development with an attitude of wonder. If you can find where you are subject to the illusion of knowledge, you have taken one step on our journey.

If you can laugh about it, you have taken another.

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